James Gandolfini’s memorial service took place in New York today, more than a week after the star of The Sopranos, whose performance as Tony Soprano changed both the perception of television as an art form and the kind of characters that could thrive in the medium, died of a heart attack in Italy. The anti-hero genre Gandolfini made popular has soldiered on in the years since Tony Soprano flipped to “Don’t Stop Believing” on the jukebox and Gandolfini went on to play generals, CIA directors, and kind-hearted monsters, leaving space for the legend of The Wire’s Omar Little, the pathos of Mad Men’s Don draper, and the rise of Breaking Bad’s Walter White. But as Gandolfini is laid to rest, anti-hero television is showing some decided strain. If the purpose of The Sopranos was to ask how far we could sympathize with a man like Tony Soprano who was a criminal and the head of a family, a serial cheater who also loved his children, and a man whose closest friendships could end in blood and be bound up by murder, maybe in the intervening years, we’ve found our answers, and it’s time to move on to other questions.
Take Don Draper, who for five years previous to this one, has been able to get away with being an ungrateful boss, a poor husband to two wives, and an inconsistent father to three children because he was an excellent performer in key professional moments, a good provider who could supply his wives with homes, cars, and decorating budgets, and the parent who could pass the burden of discipline onto his children’s mother and mother figures, because they were more consistently present. As viewers, we’re subject to the same test that Don’s colleagues and family within the show are: how much greater is our desire to enjoy Don’s suits, his swagger, and his sex appeal than any need we might have to know who he really is, in all his brokenness and deception? We got an interesting answer this season. Sodden with drink, stiff in a Hawaii resort, sleeping the day away in the fetal position on his child’s bed or dozing through the afternoon on the couch in his office, Don transformed into an anti-hero, someone we rooted for even against all the signs that we might have been better off judging him, into something else, an object of pity rather than transgressive admiration.
Just as Don Draper’s evolved within his own show, the larger anti-hero environment’s shifted with him. FX, which given its investment in dudely dramas, might have been expected to follow the anti-hero formula closely, but has invested in tragic heroes, instead, be they Justified’s U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, who is drawn back to his ancestral seat in Kentucky, and unable to transcend his personal limitations even as he wins standoff after standoff, Sons of Anarchy’s Jax Teller, a kind of working-class Michael Corleone, who’s pulled into the criminal business of the motorcycle gang his father founded to the erosion of his decency, and most recently, the married Russian spies and their FBI agent neighbor in The Americans. That particular show employs a cleverly shifty kind of moral logic, where Phillip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Kerri Russell) are anti-heroes if you watch them hoping for the Americans to win the Cold War, but tragic heroes if you shift perspective to adopt sympathy for the Soviets, while their neighbor Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) may be a tragic hero from both directions, a man who’s compromised his marriage and his values as a government agent if you’re backing the Americans, and a decent man flailing in the dark with deadly consequences, unaware of how badly he’s duped if you’re a Soviet observer. Showtime, which sharply took the anti-hero drama to its logical extreme with Dexter, which asked us to relate not just to a criminal but to a serial killer, also innovated by giving us a roster of female anti-heroes, some in more comedic circumstances than the traditional drama structure. But, as I wrote when HBO’s Girls debuted in 2012, female anti-heroes, both on HBO and Showtime, tend to present a slightly different test for us. Rather than examining how far our admiration for masculinity stretches when its applications turn toxic, female anti-hero dramas tend to examine at what point we can overcome our distaste for a character’s weaknesses — be they addiction in Nurse Jackie, a solopsistic turn to drug dealing in Weeds, mental illness in Homeland, or simple early twenty-something indecision and selfishness in Girls — to recognize their overall worth.
This weekend, Showtime debuts a more traditional anti-hero drama in the form of Ray Donovan, which follows the title character (Liev Schreiber), a Los Angeles fixer who handles the dead women found in athletes’ beds, actors’ sex tape scandals, and contracts for young rappers, but struggles to manage his own family, which was shattered by clergy sexual abuse during his childhood in Boston. Smartly, the show situates Ray within two contrasting institutions, the Catholic church and the entertainment industry, and draws out their strikingly similar flaws: the sexual abuse of minors or very young consenting adults, a willingness to pay off people who, having survived terrible things, have the potential to cause those institutions trouble, impenetrable hierarchies, and extraordinary difficulty admitting error or weakness. Given the other ways rival networks have spiced up their anti-hero or tragic hero shows, including the addition of zombies through The Walking Dead at AMC and dragons and White Walkers in HBO’s Game of Thrones, Ray Donovan, like Netflix’s rather wooden House of Cards will be an interesting test of whether or not the simple act of rooting for a man who does bad things still feels transgressive and thrilling.
If not, what happens next will be an exciting test for television as a whole. What made Gandolfini’s performance as Tony Soprano galvanizing for the medium of a whole was that it felt new, suggesting that television could tackle different emotional and moral tones that previously had been reserved for movies or novels, and that it didn’t have to be constrained by the requirement that characters be likable. I think there’s a debate to be had about what actually constitutes television’s Golden Age, and what kickstarted it. But Gandolfini’s death and the slow evolution of the anti-hero genre he pioneered pose a challenge to television as a medium. The Sopranos proved that television could radically reinvent itself once. The true mark of the medium’s greatness is whether it can pull off that trick twice, and whether it can find another question worth pondering in the same way that we’ve spent fifteen years debating our relationship to the fellow in the bathrobe at the end of his driveway, picking up his morning paper.