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Some female TV critics are fed up with shows such as Ray Donovan about troubled middle-aged men.
Some female TV critics are fed up with shows such as Ray Donovan about troubled middle-aged men.

Where are the complex women on premium cable? Add to ...

Some people who keep a keen eye on the TV racket are tickled by the report that Kaley Cuoco, who plays Penny in The Big Bang Theory, is dating Henry Cavill, the guy playing Superman in the movie Man of Steel.

Who wouldn’t be tickled. Like, Penny puts up with those comic-book geeks in the show and now, heavens, she’s, like, hooked up with a real hunk from a real superhero movie. Oh, it’s delish. And it’s totally revealed by US Weekly, which never lies.

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Others who keep a keen eye on the TV racket are intrigued by the minor fuss about the new Showtime drama Ray Donovan. Here’s the gist – lady reviewers are saying they’re kinda fed up with middle-aged, troubled men and their woes. These types dominate premium cable dramas and, well, it’s all bit too male, narcissistic and irritating.

Writing for Slate about Ray Donovan, June Thomas expresses weariness with “damaged tough guys, demanding wives, selfish parents, messed-up siblings, snake-in-the-grass Hollywood lawyers, dumb actors, and deluded agents.” She also notes the pattern of “introducing a female character and then involving her in a sex scene in a matter of seconds.” Also she cites, another woman, The Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan, who nailed Ray Donovan’s faults, and that of other praised series as “the veneration of machismo.”

True. For all seeming complexities of multiple characters on fine cable series – from Tony Soprano to Dexter to Don Draper – there is a unifying theme of glorifying the very-male neuroses of men of a certain age and their difficulties with mom, sisters, wives and a lot of other women. Just last week in this space, I lamented the fact that Don Draper and his demons have come to overwhelm Mad Men.

You have to reach far to find the equivalent female character in the cable drama genre. Perhaps only Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) on Damages comes close. She’s ruthless, tough and tangled in issues to do with dad, ex-husband and other men. It’s also notable that shows which feature central female characters of some strangeness, such as Showtime’s Weeds – a suburban mom turned weed dealer – merits a 30-minute series while men take up the usual 60 minutes of time.

Here’s the thing – while the cable genre has allowed for a richness in storytelling that has made television vital, male creators unleash shows about men of a specific type. (This observation is at the core of the new book about cable drama’s rise, Difficult Men, by Brett Martin, of which an extract appears in this section today.) It is true that there’s a veneration of men of a certain age on a certain kind of journey of discovery. Ray Donovan belongs in this arena – the central character is complex, brooding, tough, but with a soft centre and he has major issues with his dad and his working-class past.

But here’s the truly interesting issue – Ray Donovan is the creation of a woman, Ann Biderman, responsible for Emmy-award winning work on the cop show NYPD Blue and creator of excellent, smart cop show Southland. Here’s a woman responsible for a series about an anti-hero, a guy with deep male issues and yet female critics respond with exasperation to yet another central figure from the same mould as the main characters in The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Mad Men.

Last week, Biderman was interviewed by Salon and asked, “Why are you so interested in this particular very macho male archetype? Do you know?” Her reply was blunt – “I don’t. I really don’t. I don’t know if it’s about protection or creating some idealized version of a man, some Pygmalion thing. Building the archetypal man that I desire, in some sense. But, you know, I think thin, anorexic men – it’s just not a turn-on to me. Without giving too much away, in terms of my personal life and sexuality, I just don’t find the whole metrosexual thing very compelling, on a personal level.”

Further, when asked about the lack of women in the writers room where TV dramas are created, Biderman said, even more bluntly, “You know, I can’t stand that kind of affirmative action crap. Find the best person for the job.”

Possibly, what going on here is a kind of internal culture war. Women writers in such online publications as Salon and Slate are reacting against male-dominated TV storytelling. They ask for more shows about complex women. They want more female involvement in the creative process. And, at the same time, some women creators are dismissive.

Whatever. It’s an intriguing battle. But the fact is that a lot of women – critics and viewers – would like to see that women characters on TV, especially cable, weren’t endless variations of Penny on The Big Bang Theory.

Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

 

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