The Good Wives

“God save us when an Aaron Sorkin antihero is the closest we get to a good guy.”

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A few months ago, the New York Observer ran a piece entitled Bad Men: TV’s Most Reprehensible Antiheroes and the Women Who Love Them. The piece was a follow-up to the Golden Globes, which was argued to be indicative of “a new trend in millennial TV protagonists—men who are, if not quite villains, then at least Bad Men.” 

Tony Soprano, Dexter, Nucky Thompson, Sgt. Brody, Tom Kane, Walter White, and Don Draper all fit the description of this type. “At best, our guy is an immoral misanthrope and a latent misogynist. At worst, he’s a sociopath, one who may or may not be running an international drug cartel. Or a terrorist ring. If you’re lucky, he’s merely a serial killer who kills other killers.” The presence of a misanthropic character on a television show isn’t necessarily a new trend – Archie Bunker is a prime example. What is unique about these millenial protagonists is that audiences identify with them. They root for them. They even respect them. 

Who we don’t respect, for the most part, are their wives.

These shows “all portray nosy, ineffectual matriarchs who are simultaneously ice-cold bitches, helpless victims and puritanical enforcers.” Betty Draper and Skyler White especially are despised by audiences, seen as the “spoilsports” to their husbands’ activities – even when in fact they are the victims of them. 

What these women really do is act as a foil to their male counterparts, foils that question the glorified masculinity that the shows depict through violence and rebellion. These women show the side of these men that can be sexist, weak, self-deluding, unreasonable, and downright threatening. When the protagonist is questioned, the audience is uncomfortable. They look for a scapegoat, the root of the problem. “Why is my hero struggling?”

That isn’t to say these women are perfect moral counterparts – they have their flaws and questionable decisions, their infidelity and maternal struggles. But the widespread negativity towards them has to be investigated, especially in an era where there are examples of complex, interesting, powerful female characters leading many different television programs.

There have been many different articles recently on the topic, which is promising, and Breaking Bad and Mad Men each still have a season (roughly) left to engage with these characters on a more complex level. As well, shows like Enlightened and Girls keep encouraging discussion around female protagonists whose relatability and respect differ widely among audiences, an interesting development for complex television. At the very least, the nagging matriarch is a trope that is being dissected in critical reviews.

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“Way Down in the Hole”: Title Sequences

A shared feature of many recent shows is their focus on downward spirals, character demises, and mourning, grief, and loss – and their title sequences show it. The credits of these shows are exemplary of their respective shows’ themes and indicate the turn towards darker, more complex content that has been occurring.

Mad Men

Mad Men’s opening titles depict an ad man falling from office buildings, floating downwards past oversized advertisements on the walls of the buildings. The image has been used in print campaigns for the show as well, depending on the viewers’ alignment with the figure and the show (this has caused some controversy, as the image is reminiscent of a 9/11 photograph). The instrumental music accompanying the titles mimicks the trajectory of the falling man, dipping lower somewhat ominously until the man is finally shown sitting in an office chair.

The Wire

The Wire used a different version of the same song for its five seasons. The song, originally by Tom Waits, is called “Down in the Hole” and evokes religious imagery – temptation, salvation, and the fall from grace – that can be applied to the program as a whole. For each title sequence, a sequence of clips from the show is strung together. The clips may be focused on certain themes depending on which season it is, but it is the same effect for each: this show is a glimpse into a fragmented, broken world, composed of various crimes and characters that are in some way associated with “The Hole.” (Notably, much of the first season is set in a location called “The Pit”).

Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad uses a short, simple title piece to neatly string together science and drugs, or, more appropriate to the show, formula and effect. In just a few short seconds, the sequence illustrates how rationality can be overtaken by something darkly appealing – in the show this is Walter White, his old life based on formula and routine fading into smoke.

The Sopranos

The opening lyrics to The Sopranos’ title sequence: “woke up this morning, got yourself a gun,” immediately sets up the violence that saturates the program. Tony’s uneasy expression as he drives through the bleak landscape of New Jersey indicates his discomfort in both his work and family life without explicitly showing either.

Six Feet Under

Six Feet Under, a show completely based on narratives of death, loss, and grief, immediately introduces its content with a bleak, desaturated series of images related to the world of funerals. The starkness of the sequence reflects the frankness of the way the show deals with its primary theme, while at the same time bringing artistic detail to what could otherwise be a cursory look at a funeral home.

The Many Faces of The Sopranos

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A striking feature of the first season of The Sopranos is the ease with which the show introduces and connects its large ensemble of supporting characters. In addition to Tony’s wife, kids, relatives, and close circle of business associates, the show also features neighbours, members of other Mafia groups, victims of Tony’s friends, various mobster girlfriends/wives, and distance family members. For a show that centres around the psychological investigation of one protagonist, the cast list is impressively vast.

What maintains connections between characters and plotlines is the repetition of phrases, uses of certain language, and impersonations of common culture. Viewers can see how deeply Livia Soprano affects Tony by seeing him imitate her gestures of indifference and lack of sympathy (“poor you!”). Episode seven, “Down Neck,” involves detailed flashbacks to Tony’s childhood, and when his father scolds his mother “always with the drama,” it’s as if Tony is yellilng the words because he has – at both Carmela and his mother, earlier in the season. Johnny Boy Soprano, though deceased in the actual show, is used to explain Tony’s behaviour and relationships and therefore works as a link to understanding characters rather than getting confused between them.

In the same episode, the word “polio” gets used by many characters, each in their own conversations. As the show switches between multiple plotlines, there is a constant connection between each. As well, throughout the first season Tony can be seen incorporating the language of Dr. Melfi’s therapy into his everyday interactions, emphasizing the influence that his psychological state has on his work and family. The infiltration of plotlines into one another, usually stemming from Tony himself, prevents The Sopranos from becoming disconnected scenes of mobster/domestic conflict and instead allows it to become a reflection on transferred emotional states.

It’s good to be…

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It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that and I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.

This quote, spoken by Tony Soprano to Dr. Melfi in the pilot episode of The Sopranos, speaks volumes about the series that would emerge. Premiering in 1999 as one of HBO’s first original drama series, The Sopranos addressed threats and anxieties posed both to Tony’s family and his Family. His life is defined by loss – murder, illness, addiction, divorce, disrespect, etc. – and the show consistently refers to images of past eras exalting the gangster lifestyle to contrast with Tony’s struggles in the 21st century.

Of course, the irony of the quote is that The Sopranos had an enormous role defining the new era of television, as well as setting HBO apart as a provider of quality series. As Alan Sepinwall points out in The Revolution Was Televised, The Sopranos without the psychiatry wouldn’t be The Sopranos … this was a show dedicated to going deep inside the psyche of a millenial man” (42). Compared to The Godfather or Goodfellas, the complexity of The Sopranos depends not on the titillating structures of the mafia but the terrifying prospects of a psychologically damaged protagonist living his life. What could appear in theory as another sitcom – mafia boss manages work and family! stress ensues! – becomes a case study in millenial anxiety and fear. Needless to say, the best wasn’t over during the pilot episode.

The Sopranos, S01E01

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This overhead shot aligns Tony with danger, especially towards his family. Tony’s panic attack leads to him lying on the ground, directly below the flaming barbecue, set apart from the otherwise idyllic backyard scene.

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The next head-on shot highlights the divide that Tony’s danger causes between him and his family.

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In his AV Club coverage of The Sopranos,  Todd VanDerWerff discusses the use of cancerous imagery, depicting Tony as the rotting centre of the show. With a scene in the pilot episode featuring an MRI machine and the possibility of a protagonist with brain cancer, this imagery is set up immediately.

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One of HBO’s first original television programme, The Sopranos took advantage of the fact that less dependence on advertising meant greater freedom to air risky, controversial material. Cocaine on a cleaver: prime example.

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The pilot is full of beautiful shots of Tony eclipsed by shadows. Although the entire episode is driven by Tony revealing himself to his new therapist, the visual inaccessibility of his figure implies darker secrets and motives unspoken in the doctor’s office.

ImageA protagonist framed completely by trash, describing his business both literally and metaphorically. What could be a simple exchange between friends becomes a symbol of Tony’s entire world, about to unfold as one of television’s most fascinating shows.

Introducing 20TV

Hi there!

For the next few months at least, this blog will be home to my scattered thoughts on issues pertaining to television series in the 21st century. I’m currently researching this topic for an undergraduate independent project at McGill University (Montreal, QC).

My research is focused on three distinct aspects of contemporary television networks and series: (1) networks such as HBO and AMC and how they work to establish themselves as a brand; (2) the changing visuality and content of shows on these channels, and (3) new viewing experiences created and perpetuated by these shows. Ultimately, the course will lend insight into the future of television studies, taking into account its changing landscape.

In addition to recent theory regarding the topic, the course will involve close looks at The Sopranos (HBO, 1999-2007);The Wire (HBO, 2002-2008); Mad Men (AMC, 2007- ); and Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008- ).

I hope for this blog to be a space where I can collect my thoughts on my readings, examine particularly interesting episodes, and engage with current discussions about contemporary television studies.