TV’s Antihero Era Enters Its Second Decade
In the opening scene of last night’s premiere episode of the Showtime series Nurse Jackie, the titular hero (played by Edie Falco) snorts a few grains of pain medication to alleviate her aching back, then proceeds through a workday in which she flushes a rapist’s severed ear down the toilet (so that it can’t be reattached), has quickie sex with a doctor in the morgue (in exchange for more meds), and forges dead patients’ organ donor cards. And at the end of the episode, the promiscuous, pill-popping, ethics-bending Nurse Jackie returns home… to her husband and kids.
As Amelie notes in her review of the Nurse Jackie pilot, the end of the episode directly recalls the twist at the end of the first episode of Mad Men, just as Jackie’s pill-snorting recalls the crippling addictions of Dr. Gregory House. And of course it’s hard to see Falco and not think of Carmela Soprano, the morally compromised New Jersey mob housewife she played for over eight years on the landmark HBO series The Sopranos. I quite liked the first episode of Nurse Jackie, in part because I have a soft spot for medical shows, and in part because Falco gives a charismatic performance as a saint who can’t stop sinning. That said, I couldn’t help rolling my eyes once or twice during the pilot, thinking, “Not this again….”
When The Sopranos debuted in 1999, the idea of a television series built around a legitimately wicked protagonist was so novel that creator David Chase had to keep escalating his hero’s dastardliness from season to season, lest the home viewers forget that the guy they couldn’t resist rooting for was an irrepressible villain. Television writers and producers had tried to build shows around rascals before, on critical darlings like Buffalo Bill and Profit, but those shows didn’t draw enough eyeballs to satisfy the networks. HBO’s audience requirements were more modest, and thanks to Chase and company’s involving storytelling—which made suburban manses and seedy strip clubs feel like equally comfortable weekly hangouts—viewers came to enjoy grappling with their own surprisingly lax moral standards from episode to episode.
In the wake of The Sopranos, HBO has continued to make heroes out of bastards, in shows as diverse in style and intent as Deadwood, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Big Love. (The latter is an arguable case, given that its protagonist is a kindly religious man, but the show is undeniably an inquiry into values, and Bill Henrickson’s many small compromises are in their way as soul-staining as Tony Soprano’s murders.) Basic cable jumped on-board the perfidy bandwagon with a flourish in 2002, with FX’s bad-cop drama The Shield, followed recently by the likes of Sons Of Anarchy, Rescue Me, Nip/Tuck and even It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. And network television has regularly been trotting out deeply flawed—even venal—protagonists for the past few years, in hits like House and flops like Smith.
For the most part, network television still traffics in easily understood good guys and bad guys. The forces of law and order on Law & Order may have their dark moments—just as the characters on Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law and Homicide: Life On The Streets frequently made some questionable choices—but the main characters are primarily meant to be admired. And aside from a few key shows—which I’ll get to in a moment—basic cable has become a safe haven for the kind of charming, quirky characters that USA Network famously welcomes. One of the reasons why USA’s breezy spy/detective adventure Burn Notice is such a fun show (and TNT’s The Closer, to a lesser degree) is that it focuses on people who are good at their jobs and rarely treat their heroic responsibilities as anything worse than a mild inconvenience. They love what they do, which makes them easy to watch.
Contrast Nurse Jackie with USA’s new medical series Royal Pains. The latter is a about a doctor who’s uncomplicated in his benevolence—whose only complication is that he’d like to help more than his current situation as a private physician will allow. I expect more potential rewards from Nurse Jackie from a dramatic and thematic perspective, but I plan to keep watching Royal Pains because it promises to be a consistent stress-reliever. (I take nourishment from quality TV, but I like to eat my dessert too.)
If I have qualms about Nurse Jackie, it’s mainly that its “damaged hero” beats have become so old hat now. I was disappointed when the second season of AMC’s Mad Men briefly turned the dark, unknowable Don Draper into an outright cad, by having him embark on a sexually sadistic relationship with a deeply unlikable woman. (Mad Men’s second season was still largely excellent, but some of its stabs at edginess felt a little rote, and not specifically rooted in its milieu the way the first season was.) Also AMC may have made all future antihero-focused shows irrelevant with the brilliant Breaking Bad, which has charted one character’s descent into amorality in harrowing detail.
I don’t expect Nurse Jackie to compete with Breaking Bad for shock value—primarily because Nurse Jackie is meant to be a comedy of sorts—but I hope the creators don’t feel obliged to make the heroine’s addiction and infidelity the driving dramatic force of the show. I gave up on TNT’s Saving Grace when I realized that no matter how incredible Holly Hunter’s performance may be as a cop on the verge of a breakdown, the show’s combination of rote procedural plots and gratuitous grimness was going to continue to be a turnoff. Complex heroes are fine—appreciated even. But tortured, amoral TV heroes? That’s just about been done to death.