A little while ago, I discussed the best television by or about women in recent decades. Think about what those shows were about: women’s friendships, dating, relationships, mother-daughter complications, careers, motherhood, shoes. All worthy topics, in my opinion.
Now let’s take a look at the TV dramas of the past few decades that feature a dominating male character. First of all, there’s that concept right there—one dominating male character. Television by and about women tends to portray women in duos (Gilmore Girls) or groups (Sex and the City). The shows we’re going to talk about today tend to have a single, not-so-nice male character whose actions determine every other character’s lives and actions. Think about Tony Soprano. Sure, the show is called The Sopranos, but it’s really about Tony and what he’s cracking down on or who he’s fighting with.
Now I am not saying it’s misguided or wrong to follow these shows focused on one man making other people’s lives difficult. It just all sort of fits culturally. The idea of a bunch of male characters sitting around talking about dating or parties or their new Timberland shoes…I’m not gonna watch that because it seems so monumentally dull and uncomfortable. I will watch when women do that because it’s natural and interesting. Men doing that? Uh…maybe not.
Instead, we’re looking at the cultural stereotype: the Bad Boy. The past couple of decades’ television has produced some remarkably fascinating Bad Boy characters. Here’s my survey of these shows and their lead characters.
Breaking Bad (2008-2013)
Middle school chemistry teacher Walter White lives in a dreary suburb of Albuquerque, NM, and is one of the greatest characters ever created for television. The show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, took a concept for a show—a total nobody is diagnosed with cancer and takes up cooking meth as a way to provide for his family—and piloted it from a mildly amusing and off-beat premise and transformed it into a journey into the heart of darkness. While the writing is unquestionably brilliant, much of the credit for this has to go to Bryan Cranston. Cranston, who had earlier played the beleaguered sitcom dad on Malcolm in the Middle (2000-2006), grabbed this role and turned nobody Walter White into a ferocious and depraved criminal mastermind. It was breathtaking. No less esteemed a figure than Sir Anthony Hopkins binge-watched this series in two weeks and was moved to write a fan letter to Cranston. “Your performance as Walter White is the best acting I have ever seen. Ever.” I highly recommend that all of you do a Sir Anthony Hopkins and rent every season and binge watch it over two weeks. C’mon. You can do it. I did it too. It’s two weeks well-spent.
Mad Men (2007-2015)
This series ran at roughly the same time as Breaking Bad, both on AMC. What a powerhouse line up. Set on Madison Avenue in the 1960s, this series told the story of advertising executives in that era. Created by Matt Weiner, the series centers on the .corrupted, charming, brooding Don Draper, brilliantly portrayed by Jon Hamm. Draper is a partner at Sterling Cooper, a big ad agency with big clients like Lucky Strike cigarettes in the glittering world of New York ad agencies. This series, like Breaking Bad, focuses on a character who essentially is a jerk. A really, really big jerk. And yet he is so cool, so mysterious and haunted, you can’t help but keep watching. If someone could adequately explain to me why women liked this show and Don Draper especially, I will be interested to hear. I supposed the sex appeal of Hamm was part of it, but it can’t be all of it. Ideas, anyone?
What’s fascinating about this series is the ostensible main character—mega movie star Vincent Chase—isn’t really all that interesting at all. He’s handsome, rich, successful, smiles a lot. Yawn. The guy you can’t take your eyes off is his abrasive, foul-mouthed, deeply troubled, but incredibly funny agent, Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven). Piven’s performance as Gold is often the only thing worth watching in this series about a rich actor and his playmates. But it REALLY is worth watching.
Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014)
Okay, here’s an unlikely premise for a successful TV series: a show about gangsters in New Jersey… except it’s not James Gandolfini, it’s Steve Buscemi (really?) and it’s set in Atlantic City (what?) in the 1920s (snore.) And yet… this show is a must-watch. Buscemi plays the corrupt Prohibition-era City Treasurer, Nucky Thompson, and is a joy to watch. This guy is so tremendously corrupt you have to admire him. Sort of. The show was created by Sopranos veteran writer Terence Winter and the pilot—the most expensive pilot episode ever made—was directed by none other than Martin Scorsese. If you’ve missed this series, here is your chance to rectify that error. Rent it.
Here you go—a series in which the main character, in fact the hero of the series, is a serial killer! Good grief how did they pull this off? Michael C. Hall plays a forensic scientist working for the Miami police as a blood spatter pattern expert by day. And by night he is an avenging angel, going around killing murderers who have slipped through the cracks. Now this is not great television, but is pretty darn good television, and a lot of fun to watch. You should at least give it a try. I think you may end up watching the entire run.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.