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After the Antihero

The real TV trend of 2013? The rise of the strong female character.

On December 1, The Good Wife finished its fall season — a run of 10 consecutive episodes that, on cable, would have constituted a full year’s work, and that, in terms of creativity, narrative energy, acting, political savvy, surprise, and suspense, gave me more pleasure than any other series over the last few months. Because it airs on CBS rather than, say, Showtime or AMC, the show will swiftly return on January 5 with a run of 12 more episodes. But thanks to the thrillingly resurgent first half of its fifth season, it has recently landed on many best-of-the-year lists. Most of those lists, though, have read like transcripts of Walter White’s memorial service, and deservedly so. The end of Breaking Bad came on September 29, three months after the untimely death of James Gandolfini, and those two moments, one of fictional narrative inevitability and one of real-life heartbreak, gave the year in TV an elegiac feel. 2013 marked the end of what the writer Brett Martin has defined as the “Difficult Men” era of TV’s new golden age — a 15-year period bracketed by the birth of Tony Soprano and the death of Walter White, and that also included the rise and fall of everyone from Vic Mackey to Don Draper (who will be exiting the 1960s and our lives after just 14 more episodes). Tormented and savage antiheroes have been, for more than a generation now, the way we’ve identified the loftiest aspirations of television drama.

Those badass (and sometimes just bad) dudes have cast such long shadows, it’s been easy to miss that something new has been growing in their place: This year did not mark the last gasp of the golden age, but instead a redefinition and re-gendering of what great television drama can be. It can be on a network. It can manipulate forms as dowdy and unrevered as the weekly procedural or the prime-time soap melodrama. And it can star women.

The final hour of Breaking Bad aired, perhaps appropriately, opposite the season premiere of The Good Wife, which was, with elegant symbolic heft, titled, “Everything Is Ending.” It was, in a way, true: The CBS series, which launched in 2009 as a witty and sharp Eliot Spitzer–disgrace riff with Julianna Margulies as the wronged spouse of a philandering Chicago politician (Chris Noth), had played out four rock-solid seasons of Alicia Florrick’s navigation through the fungible ethics of a rough-and-tumble law firm, and four years of being labeled “really good for a network show,” before blasting off this season.

Here’s what happened: Alicia and one of her colleagues decided to go out on their own, taking many attorneys and billable hours with them. The law firm that was the center of the show fractured. Half the ensemble became enemies of the other half; the recurring-cast roster of close to 30 judges, rival lawyers, and clients the series (whose guest casting is unrivaled in television) had amassed over almost 100 episodes all became power players in this drama. Alicia’s husband became governor of Illinois, Alicia’s ex-lover/boss (Josh Charles) went on a rage bender as if he were a woman scorned, and her ex-mentor turned foe Diane (Christine Baranski, creating a stunningly rich and precise portrait of a secure middle-aged woman in power) started fighting Alicia for control of the show’s moral center and our sympathies.

Thanks to great scripting and plotting, years of intelligent world-building, and a team of writers who figured out exactly how to use Margulies’s smoky, poker-faced inscrutability, all this was as rich and as layered as anything on cable this fall; it was also, against all odds, shockingly funny and shockingly fun. Legal dramas can be pious weekly doses of crusadership, a pitfall The Good Wife has always been careful to avoid, and one of the most satisfying things about watching the show become TV’s best viper fight is that series creators Robert and Michelle King didn’t cheat: This, they seemed to say with the 10-episode run, is who these people have always been. We took years to lay this groundwork. Didn’t you notice?

As a bonus, the Kings have also laid in a subplot: The law firm, in part because of its connection to the governor’s office and to certain questionable clients (Chicago’s biggest drug dealer has long been their meal ticket), was revealed to be the subject of NSA monitoring. This slow-boil story was set up with about 20 furiously and hilariously compressed minutes of plot involving two overeducated-nerd eavesdroppers at a government facility who go from being bored functionaries, to overhearing something important, to hitting the sweet spot of ethical collapse in which their concerns about the ramifications of what they’re doing collide with their realization that they’ve just made their boss really happy. Welcome to the Realpolitik of the Snowden era. Other TV shows (Homeland, The Americans) could have played with this but didn’t, and the movies will, as movies do, no doubt slooooowwly drag themselves upright and cough up something on the topic around the end of 2015. But it was a CBS show that still can’t scare up an 18-to-49-year-old audience to save its life (this could be Good Wife‘s last season, which would be heartbreaking) that came up with the first deft, smart take on the year’s central issue, and did it without pausing for breath, bending its characters out of shape, or straying off mission.

Whenever I’ve recommended The Good Wife to nonviewers, they’ve treated me with pained sympathy, as if I were making a case for NCIS: Los Angeles. In part, I think that’s because the show is on a network associated with drab, corpse-filled hours for the Olds, but there’s also a vague, polite “Oh, yeah, my mom really likes that show” vibe to the indifference. Anticipation of that reaction is one of the reasons many critics, me included, felt slightly apologetic a year or so ago when we started trying to explain that the Shonda Rhimes show Scandal was actually really good. In fact, it’s the second most entertaining show I watched this fall, and so many people have caught on in the last half year that apologies are no longer necessary. Scandal has fused glossy soap-operatics to a mordant take on what happens when people with no credentials but ambition and appetite take charge; it’s shrewd, nasty, electrified by the currents of gender, race, and power that run through it, and plotted, played, even spoken at a kind of self-immolating hyperspeed that suggests a rocket burning up and somehow converting its own incineration into fuel.

Every week, Scandal ends with a “Holy crap, how are they going to get out of that?” moment; the next week, the answer is revealed to be “They aren’t,” because every week, the map of the show is redrawn. Did you see the episode in which the righter-than-right-wing vice-president (Kate Burton) stabbed her gay husband to death, and then called the president’s gay chief of staff  — who had pimped his own husband out to the dead guy to squelch the VP’s budding plans to run against her president as an independent — and asked him for help? You didn’t? You really must catch up. Or just jump aboard. At a recent media summit, President Obama jokingly (or maybe not) asked Netflix chief Reed Hastings for advance DVDs of Season 2 of House of Cards; he probably wouldn’t be caught dead asking for Scandal, but I choose to believe he wouldn’t need to, because he and the First Lady are up to speed.

In many of their thematic preoccupations, The Good Wife and Scandal are not all that far removed from their male-driven counterparts. They explore worlds of criminality, of moral elisions and compromises of the soul, and they do it through characters who consistently test themselves and are often unhappy with the results. But these aren’t gender-blind parts; they’re more interesting than that. Alicia and Scandal‘s Olivia Pope wield authority within a male world, one that often holds them in contempt, diminishes them, or seeks to sexualize them. In turn, they learn to suppress their disgust, master the rules of that game, discover how to turn it to their advantage, and then inventory the parts of themselves they’ve destroyed in the process. You can call that a soap; I call it good drama.

The dramatic possibilities of women not being precisely who the world wants them to be have always been part of The Good Wife — the tension is embedded right in the title, a reference to an approved role that is, for Alicia, both a worthy goal and a noxious pigeonhole. And Scandal could almost be retitled The Good Mistress, since much of its dramatic arc has been following poor, glamorous, fetishistically authoritative, monstrously damaged Olivia as she tries to live out that near-paradoxical definition and nearly splinters from the stress. If Margulies is a study in cool-temperatured overcontrol, Kerry Washington is her opposite number: She plays Olivia at a vibratory frequency that suggests the dam containing her madness is so close to bursting that she can only get out One. Word. At. A. Time. For these approaches, Margulies is sometimes accused of underplaying (funny; when that’s said about men, it’s always a compliment), and Washington of going over the top. But both are in perfect control of characters who know their emotions are constantly being monitored by men and understand just how to manifest or suppress them for maximum impact.

I have heard Scandal dismissed as lacking credibility or having jumped the shark, which is so off the point — from its first season, this series has sought out all species of shark and piled them like cordwood in order to surmount them — that I suspect what’s going on is the same kind of mild condescension that too often greets The Good Wife. By network and by format, these shows court disdain.1 When midperiod Breaking Bad trafficked in the visual tropes of spaghetti Westerns or The Sopranos played off gangster-movie history, those gestures of style were properly grasped as respectful and inventive appropriations. Riffs on cop shows, film noir, and horror are all A-OK. But when Scandal references Douglas Sirk or Mahogany, it’s seen, somehow, as revealing that its DNA is garbage, and the fact that The Good Wife makes women the most active agents of its streamlined, pungent storytelling gets it labeled as Lifetime-y by an audience that would otherwise have a much better time watching it than they do watching … well, watching nominally better cable shows I won’t name. But you know which ones they are; they’re the shows you let stack up three at a time on your DVR, and it’s becoming hard to get around to them because “moody” and “about a dead girl” and “tortured protagonist” and “dark” are, at this point, getting to be a little played out.

It’s not hard, right now, to contrive a roster of shows that leaves that model behind. In fact, TV is doing it for you. Whatever you make of the erratic and in many ways deeply misbegotten story arc of Homeland, as the season finale made clear, it’s Carrie’s show — nobody else’s. The imperfect but promising new drama Masters of Sex owes a lot to Mad Men, but its unashamed, multiply divorced, sexually enthusiastic, challengingly bright main character is a woman (superbly played by Lizzy Caplan) who is waiting for her chilly, self-deceiving male counterpart to catch up, and Allison Janney’s staggering work on the series is, in itself, an essay on female awakening in the late 1950s. The biggest first-year hit in Netflix’s attempt to rebrand itself as a home for original shows was not the mostly male House of Cards but Orange Is the New Black. The breakout new cable-drama star of the year was Orphan Black‘s Tatiana Maslany. With Veep, Girls, and the underheralded but magnificently bleak and caustic Getting On (six episodes, Laurie Metcalf, a mostly female cast, do not miss!), HBO has long left Entourage behind. 2013 may indeed have been the end of an era in television. But don’t ignore the excellent news that it was the beginning of a new one.

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