TV Club

The year in TV: Was 2013 the year the antihero died?

Entry 1: Slate’s round-table discussion of the year in TV kicks off.

Borgen, Top of the Lake, Orange is the New Black
Borgen, Top of the Lake, Orange Is the New Black.

Photos courtesy Link TV, Sundance, Netflix

Dear June, Jim, Mo,

In the next few days, TV gods and your fingertips willing, we will hash out the nitty-gritty of this very bountiful year in television. I want to talk about subtitles as a lifehack for iPhone addiction, Michael Sheen’s nightmare-inducing O face, the possibility of Birgitte Nyborg and Laura Roslin running our government, the fresh hell facing network comedies, and the possibility that every time we talk about Netflix’s ability to “change” TV we are just acting as their advance PR team. But I’m going to start with what I think is the many tentacled major theme of this year’s TV season: the antihero who maybe died and possibly took the golden age of television with him. Rumors of his death may be greatly exaggerated, but I can’t tell because I am cackling at his funeral.

Since the 1999 premiere of The Sopranos, a cri du coeur that TV really could be as ambitious and serious as its writers wanted to make it, the antihero has been inextricably associated with great television. But in the last few years, the archetype has started to sour, and this year, I think—and I know you do too June—completely curdled. (And not just because the word became culturally omnipresent to the point that Count Chocula, a mysterious man who tries to give children diabetes, could by current standards be considered an example of the type.) Walter White died and revealed the field behind him to be occupied by a bunch of wan copycats. Shows like Ray Donovan, Low Winter Sun, The Following, Hannibal, and House of Cards (yes, that’s a fighting list) followed The Playboy Club, Boss, Magic City, and Boardwalk Empire in following the great Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, making for a weak-ass cohort of paint-by-numbers Prestige TV. A little ethical dilemma here, a little male hierarchy there; a little of Don Draper’s sex appeal here, a little of Tony Soprano’s menace there; add as much grisly violence as whatever network you’re on will allow and, voila, something dull and pretentious: a garbage monster looking for an award.

The decline of the antihero has led to some hand-wringing: Andy Greenwald at Grantland looked at all these bloodless copies of Al Swearengen and Vic Mackey and understandably concluded that TV had entered its zombie stage and begun eating itself. (The Walking Dead is another example of this plague.) Greenwald argued that all these lurching, mindless corpses signaled an end to the “golden age” of television, a winding down of the grand, gorgeous, ambitious era inaugurated by The Sopranos. But I look out at the TV this year and I see something else: Not just those brain-dead shows dragging themselves across the ground moaning, but the vital series leapfrogging over them. TV that’s healthy, not inbred.

This year burst with series percolating on the themes of antihero TV—violence, amorality, likeability, gender dynamics—in new ways, from new angles, with new characters and different genres: shows like Scandal, American Horror Story, Orange Is the New Black, Top of the Lake, Rectify, Key & Peele. Other series tweaked those themes in less aggressive but still effective and pleasurable ways: shows like The Americans, Game of Thrones, Broadchurch, The Fall, Sleepy Hollow. (Mo, you have a great name for this particular subgenre: B-movie TV.) This year also had plenty of shows that were true to The Sopranos’ real spirit: exploring something different, something we hadn’t quite seen before—shows like Enlightened, Bunheads, Girls, and even The Fosters. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that almost every show I have just name-checked is about a woman. Sometimes new just means giving a voice to 50 percent of the population.

This was a great year for TV, if not a great year for really popular TV. Something else to talk about! The way that social media and the Internet have created a class of hyper-engaged TV obsessives, while America continues to watch The Millers and The Walking Dead. There may not be “indie TV,” as Jim has discussed, but is there already an art-house TV audience? Anyway, there was a lot of good TV this year, as reflected by the fact that Mad Men is all the way down at the bottom of my top 10 list:

  1. Borgen
  2. Top of the Lake
  3. Orange Is the New Black
  4. Breaking Bad
  5. The Good Wife
  6. The Americans
  7. The Returned
  8. Bunheads
  9. American Horror Story: Asylum
  10. Mad Men

And yet there is still general consternation about taxonomy, about whether this Golden Age is over, was already over, will soon be over. And this to me is what is really interesting about the Golden Age: not whether we are in it, or out of it, in a silver age, a rainbow age or something better or worse, but why we—TV critics, writers, and ultra-informed consumers—are so interested in labeling what is happening (or just happened).

TV has come a long way very fast. People still sometimes snobbishly declaim to me that they don’t have a television, but it happens a lot less than people apologizing in hushed tones for not having watched Mad Men yet. Obviously, people making polite conversation with a TV critic at a party is a skewed sample population, but the speed with which the “idiot box” has become a part of high culture is staggering, if not yet complete. We live in a moment when Lorrie Moore gushes about Tim Riggins in the pages of the New York Review of Books and the New York Times publishes a year-end movie essay defensively arguing that movies still stack up to TV; it’s also a moment when Richard Brody of The New Yorker regularly argues that all of television is a visual affront, without watching any of it. (Except Girls, which he likes, which means it is really cinema, not television.)

One thing that happened in this last decade-plus is that TV got very good. And the other thing that happened is that TV became a certain kind of cultural product, for a certain class of cultural consumer; the exact person who once would have smugly declared TV was something she would never deign to watch. The Golden Age terminology helped change that. In addition to being a description, “the Golden Age” is a tool: a tool for canon-building. It’s a phrase that highlights and circles, says here, something really special is going on. And the really special thing going on was not just the shows but a wholesale cultural climate change, a collective decision that TV itself was worthy—worthy of our leisure time, our attention, our imagination, our conversation, our bingeable hours.

As a TV lover I am beyond grateful for what the Golden Age has wrought, not just the wonderful TV but the widespread belief in and practice of taking television seriously. But I think TV is ready to go without its Golden Age training wheels. The worst shows of this year were the ones trying to be like the Golden Age dramas, while the best were just trying to be themselves.

So, June, Jim, Mo, tell me what you loved this year, tell me what you hated. Tell me what made you laugh. (I have ignored comedies! Rescue me from this oversight!) Why do you think there was so much good TV about women? Am I being too hard on zombies? Do you sometimes imagine you are writing for Slugline?

Fast-forwarding to your response,