The ongoing “Duck Dynasty” mess provides a convenient reminder that there are whole swaths of widely watched TV that don’t tend to get written about in critical circles. AMC’s dark, gory zombie drama “The Walking Dead” has become a massive ratings hit, but that A&E reality show about the people behind a duck call empire that you had only a vague idea existed? It was right up there with it, speaking to a different sector of the country who’ve flocked to its folksy family comedy and overt Christianity. NBC may be the home of media darlings like “Hannibal” and “Parks and Recreation,” but it, ABC and Fox got trounced by CBS, home of more traditional sitcoms and procedurals like “The Big Bang Theory,” “NCIS” and “NCIS: Los Angeles.” “The Bible,” Mark Burnett’s 10-hour History Channel miniseries telling stories from Genesis through the resurrection, was the number one show on cable. We hear a lot about the “golden age of television,” but the bigger picture is more complicated than that, and as cable continues to chip away at the broadcast networks’ once firm hold on the largest audiences, the more nichified hits that arise because of it aren’t all going to be the quality dramas that get held up as proof the small screen needs to be taken seriously.
But really, the quality drama itself has been in a state of flux, too. Our current era of smart, weighty television has been defined by a group of shows centered on unforgettable, challenging antiheroes, many created by guys named David. There was “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Deadwood,” “The Shield,” “Dexter,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” 2013 saw two of the three remaining come to a close — one, “Breaking Bad,” with a bang, and the other, “Dexter,” with a whimper. In its penultimate season, even “Mad Men” seem to get sick of Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) ennui and self-sabotage, bringing the character as low as he’s ever been in preparation, one hopes, for some sort of epiphany and improvement (or, failing that, death).
Many of the shows that have risen up to replace these — “Boardwalk Empire,” “The Bridge,” “House of Cards,” “Low Winter Sun” — have been appropriately dark and fancy-looking, but none of them have managed quite the same kind of heft or sense of wholeness, and the now canceled “Low Winter Sun” became shorthand for empty ambition, the “why so serious?” of self-consciously gritty histrionics. This was the year the antihero got his (perhaps needed) sendoff, as we said goodbye to Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) and prepared for what’s next.
And part of what’s next has been a wave of wonderfully difficult women — Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) on “Orange is the New Black,” Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) on “Scandal,” Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) on “Orphan Black,” Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) on “Bates Motel,” Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) on “Top of the Lake,” Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) on “The Americans” — characters who are female answers to the antihero without being gender-switched copies. They aren’t exactly antiheroines, not all of them, not in the way of a Walter White, but they push at our expectations and sympathies in similar ways.
It’s been wonderful to see the proliferation of complicated, flawed, compelling ladies on the small screen this year, and great roles for women are one place where television is clearly kicking mainstream cinema’s ass. Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” alone served up an embarrassment of wonderful characters played by terrific actresses who’ve rarely been given a chance in the spotlight, a series that wasn’t just startlingly unlike anything else on television but made you consider why the hell it felt so rare to get to see such an uncompromisingly female-driven show.
Piper, Olivia, Amy and company, not to mention their comedic sisters Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling) on “The Mindy Project,” Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) on the sadly cut short, genre-defying “Enlightened” and Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) on “Girls,” are enjoyable to watch without being overtly likable or artificially sweetened out of a lingering fear that female protagonists need to be nice to be relatable. We understood long ago that we didn’t need to agree with Tony Soprano’s whacking someone to invest in his personal struggles, but TV seems only now to be catching up with how that applies to women on screen as well, that Sarah Manning’s having ditched her daughter for two years or Elizabeth Jennings’s severity toward her husband and toward the U.S. needn’t be approved of for their stories to work.
The fine-tuning of Olivia Pope and Amy Jellicoe in the past year are particularly interesting case studies. “Scandal” went from a middling first season of its heroine being D.C.’s top fixer to ever wilder second and third rounds in which her job has become secondary to her entanglements with the President, a conspiracy involving her parents and a secret agency called B613, and all of the moral choices she’s had to make have been increasingly murky, such that rules by which she operates under the guise of wearing a white hat have been thrown out the window.
“Enlightened” sharpened its shrill main character into someone it was impossible not to be invested in even as we understood her to be someone we’d steer clear of or dismiss in real life — Amy didn’t get softer, she just drew us in. And in a more recent finale, the way that “Homeland” sloughed off its original skin and, with it, original antihero Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) in its season end still has me dazed, but also felt like another sign of the time, the show tossing its lot in with crazy, brilliant Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) for the new year.
Coming with this shift have been series that are less easy to categorize — “Enlightened,” “Girls” and “Orange is the New Black” all fall somewhere between comedy and drama, while “The Americans,” “Bates Motel,” “Orphan Black” and “Scandal” all keep one foot in a genre and the other in something more substantial, not bearing obligations toward seriousness like a necessary burden. While new series have been arriving that push their somberness first — I’d group “Vikings” and “Rogue” in there too — it’s been a relief to find, elsewhere, that TV has learned to lighten up as much as it has to lay down the doom and gloom. If the age of the smoldering antihero (and it’s been a good one) is coming to an end, what’s next on the small screen is also looking very promising.