"‘Ray Donovan,’ ‘Orange Is The New Black,’ And The Rise Of Trojan Horse Television"
“I always believe in a kind of Trojan Horse theory of television,” Showtime president David Nevins told me last week during a conversation about Ray Donovan, a drama about a Los Angeles fixer and his troubled extended family from creator Ann Biderman that the network launched in late June. “What brings people in the door is [a] powerful character in an interesting setting with an interesting job. That was basically how it was marketed. And then what makes a show great, what makes a show last, and what makes a show meaningful tends to be very different than how you bring people in the door.”
Nevins was discussing the fact that Ray Donovan, which began as a story about a man who does dirty work for Hollywood’s rich and powerful, is evolving into something much more unusual as the season has progressed, expanding the amount of screen time dedicated to explorations of the lasting effects of clerical sexual abuse and of male sexuality. And he’s not alone in his theories about challenging ideas on television. Orange Is The New Black creator Jenji Kohan told NPR earlier this summer that the reason she preserved Piper, a white, middle-class woman going to jail for an old drug offense, as her main character (the show is based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name) was that “You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories.”
We’re in a moment when the anti-hero tropes that drove a decade and a half of prestige television are wearing thin, even as networks like AMC try to extend their sell-by date with programming like corrupt cop drama Low Winter Sun. The cable companies that drove this revolution have responded in other ways, too, expanding their comedy programming, as HBO and FX have done, or focusing on genre storytelling in shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, which transport anti-hero dilemmas to radically new settings. But Orange Is The New Black and Ray Donovan suggest another route, using characters and ideas with whom audiences think they’re familiar to lure viewers in, and then taking them to entirely unpredictable places. The anti-hero age is over. Welcome to the time of Trojan Horse Television.
For a Trojan Horse to function as such, of course, it has to offer up something to lull audiences into accepting its outward appearance. “I did feel a little bit like we needed to lead with what he does, there was an advantage in showcasing his interesting job and how he does it,” Nevins says of the advertising for and first episode of Ray Donovan, which focused on the titular character’s (Liev Schreiber) work as a Hollywood fixer, getting rich and famous idiots out of self-created trouble–including dead girls in their beds and videotaped trysts with transgender prostitutes–and going after a man who is stalking a starlet whose career has stalled out at the behest of her movie mogul (and married) boyfriend.
But even from the first episodes of Ray Donovan, which Nevins says he hoped would be “a course correction from Dexter, Tony Soprano, Walter White,” because Ray is trying to live on the right side of the law and often failing, rather than enjoying his flirtation or outright affair with lawlessness, something much more unusual was happening in the margins of the show. In addition to his work for a pair of powerful Hollywood lawyers, Ray kept up a second full-time job trying to manage his family, who followed him from Boston to Los Angeles.
There’s Bunchy Donovan (Dash Mihok), who has never fully recovered from his experience as a clerical sexual abuse survivor, and who struggles with what his therapist terms “sexual anorexia” and how to build a semblance of an adult life for himself when he receives a settlement check from the Catholic Church. Torn between contradictory impulses, Bunchy buys a dilapidated house that he furnishes with donations from fellow members of his sexual abuse survivors’ support group, but he doesn’t quite feel at home in it. Instead, the purchase he’s able to actually enjoy is one that harkenss back to his childhood: an expensive bike that he rides in circles around his neighborhood, reacting defensively when Olympic snowboarder Shaun White compliments him on it, as if the millionaire might steal his toy from him.
It’s a mark of the show’s sensitive handling of the character that it’s genuinely difficult to know what the best course forward is for Bunchy. Ray’s attempt to act as Bunchy’s father figure has frozen his brother at a sustainable, stunted level, sober but stagnant when it comes to progress towards sexual health or employability outside a Donovan family business. When Mickey Donovan (Jon Voigt), the boys’ father, is released from prison in Walpole, Massachusetts and heads to Los Angeles, his attempt to take his place at the head of the family is profoundly destabilizing. Mickey’s right to encourage Bunchy to take some sort of control of his life and to select a direction, but he has no conception of the magnitude of what his son experienced, or how it calcified in Bunchy over the years after, and no sense of how to behave appropriately or set his son on a path towards real growth. Bunchy isn’t ready to live alone in the house Mickey encourages him to buy, or to deal with the people Mickey brings into the house. And a father who makes grotesque jokes about pedophilia and hires a prostitute to try to jolly Bunchy back into sexual functionality is clearly doing more harm than good.
Bunchy isn’t the only Donovan who’s reckoning with his sexuality. Terry (Eddie Marsan) has Parkinson’s disease, a consequence of his boxing career. And while he’s well enough to run a boxing gym that appears to generate enough income to continue operating, he too is sexually and socially insecure. Encouraged to ask out Frances (Brooke Smith), the nurse who’s been giving him injections, Terry has to be coached through the mechanisms of asking for a date, then helped by a friend to cook her a simple spaghetti dinner. When he discovers that Frances is married, and to a man who abuses her, Terry struggles to figure out how to behave appropriately, settling on a macho course of action that makes him feel accomplished, but that has little to do with the development of a stable relationship.
And Ray himself, though he’s the most personally and professionally successful of his brothers, a man wealthy enough to drive a fancy car, own a home in Calabasas (though not in Los Angeles as his wife would prefer), and send his children to private school, is hardly confident and comfortable either. His wealth comes from the fact, as Nevins puts it, that “He’s for hire by establishment lawyers. He’s for hire by establishment stars. And people who have done things that they feel bad about.” What they value about Ray are the most dangerous parts of himself–much in the same way certain fans of anti-hero television shows venerate Walter White or Tony Soprano–and Ray lacks the emotional resources or the will to find a different path for himself. When it comes to sex and violence, he’s a weak man in a powerful body.
The question for Ray Donovan, of course, is how to balance the show’s interrogation of masculinity with its more conventional uses of sex and violence as plot drivers. Nevins suggested the show would continue to follow both the Donovans’ private lives, and Ray’s work cleaning up for Hollywood’s most privileged residents.
“I want to keep going back and forth. I like shows that are about more things than one. There are some people who like the show for the family stuff and get annoyed every time a story walks into his door. And there are people who like the Hollywood stuff and don’t give a shit about his backstory,” Nevins explains. “Every show I’ve done has always been a little bit overstuffed and has multiple angles to it, like on Homeland.”
But he suggested that the final arc of the season would bring issues of masculinity, sexuality, and sexual abuse to the fore in a way that would change the audience’s relationship to the show, and to Ray himself.
“That’s at the heart of everything in the show. I think that’s the thing that people have most fundamentally missed about the show thus far. And the show hasn’t showed them everything yet,” he said. “When they see, I think people are going to be really uncomfortable when they see where it’s all going.”
Ray Donovan represents one kind of Trojan Horse Television, presenting itself as a familiar type of show with an established audience, and meeting a number of that audience’s expectations so Biderman could give the well-established trope of a middle-aged white man with secrets a very different thing to conceal from the world. Orange Is The New Black represents a different kind of gamble, betting on the idea there’s a clear hunger for a number of characters who are almost entirely unrepresented in pop culture altogether.
The use of a white main character as an entry point to prison life has been a significant point of criticism of Orange Is The New Black. It’s entirely reasonable to feel frustrated–and it’s a frustration I share–that it’s still necessary to use a Trojan Horse like Piper (Taylor Schilling) to get a show with substantive female characters of color greenlit on a major outlet that isn’t BET or VH1.
But part of what’s interesting about the Trojan Horse Kohan chose is that Piper is an expansion of the depictions of young white, female characters that have begun to appear in prestige dramas as the anti-hero age winds down. Unlike Carmela Soprano or Skyler White, she’s no one’s wife, though she does have a fiancee. Her story is primary, rather than another aspect of her partner’s. Unlike Carrie Mathison and Sonya Cross, Piper isn’t mentally ill or on the autism spectrum. Instead, she’s fully responsible for her bad actions, which ten years prior to the events of Orange Is The New Black included muling drug money for her then-girlfriend, Alex (Laura Prepon). Even if none of these other things were true of Piper, Orange Is The New Black‘s refreshingly modern depiction of bisexual women and situational sexuality in prison would still be a welcome addition to the television landscape.
And just as the balance of Ray Donovan‘s storytelling shifts in the final arc of the season, the frame in Orange Is The New Black quickly moved out from Piper to characters like Miss Claudette (Michelle Hirst), the former operator of a cleaning service, Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), a transgender woman who becomes friends with an incarcerated nun after she’s denied the hormones that sustain her transition, and Daya Diaz (Dascha Polanco), a young woman who followed her mother to prison after they both became involved with the same drug dealer.
But it’s not as if there haven’t been excellent shows about women and people of color that have failed to gain traction and cultural cachet among audiences. The triumph of Orange Is The New Black isn’t just that it’s good, but that it’s got people .GIFing their love of the tender and hilarious Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), debating the possible backstories for Suzanne (Uzo Aduba), also known as Crazy Eyes, extolling Sophia’s fashion sense, and rooting for Miss Claudette to reconnect with the man she loved who married another woman. Perhaps the best sign of Orange Is The New Black‘s success is that a whole lot of its fans would love to see the show continue after Piper’s release from prison. It’s one thing to sneak a large wooden horse full of Greek soldiers successfully into Troy. But quite another to have the Trojans throw open the gates without needing to be convinced by a decoy.
If Ray Donovan demonstrated that a thoughtful take on masculinity, sexuality, and sexual abuse wouldn’t drive viewers away from a cable drama about a tough white man–the show is averaging 5.7 million viewers across multiple platforms, even as a recently-resolved dispute between CBS and Time Warner Cable took Showtime out of some of its subscriber households–Orange Is The New Black proved that if you give characters of color and non-straight characters the kind of sharp dialogue, emotional storylines, and time on center stage, audiences will turn out in passionate droves for them. Netflix doesn’t release numerical ratings, a source of constant frustration to its cable competitors, but the company has said that Orange Is The New Black was its most-watched original show this year, outpacing even anti-hero drama House of Cards, which had Kevin Spacey in a lead role, and Arrested Development, which had pent-up years of fan yearning to provide it momentum.
And the truth is that television needs to learn both of these lessons. White, middle-aged men with troubles aren’t going to disappear from our screens anytime soon, nor should they. But it’s time we learned to tell different kinds of stories about them, and about their experiences with sexuality and power. And the boom in television shows, with more networks programming more hours of original content than ever before, leaves plenty of space for women, people of color, and non-straight people to have their time to shine alongside the white dudes who have dominated the conversation and the market for so many years. If the Trojan Horse Age of Television proves a short one because networks learn this lesson quickly, and begin providing more expansive, creative programming to their viewers, that’s fine. The Golden Age has been too much with us. It’s time for something new, and in their own ways, Ray Donovan and Orange Is The New Black are charting routes to help us get there.