Richard Beck in Prospect:
[P]erhaps there is another reason why television’s anti-heroes have been such a hit. In a conversationrecently published by the website Slate, Stephen Metcalf proposed a theory about our obsession with the middle class father living a double life in crime. The economic collapse of 2008, he argued, revealed the hollowness of the economic promises made to the middle class. A responsible life of white-collar work no longer guaranteed you a retirement or a house of your own (at least not a house with any value). What’s more, the middle class was destroyed by a group of plutocratic investment bankers whose behaviour is widely regarded as criminal in its own right. With the rules degraded to the point of cruel uselessness, why should it be any surprise that TV viewers find themselves hungry for shows in which middle class dads break the laws that were not really protecting them in the first place?
It’s a compelling argument, but it misses an important aspect of the genre, which is its aggressive and resentful masculinity. At a recent appearance in New York, the novelist Norman Rush observed that, over the last half-century, men have steadily lost many of their “prerogatives.” A man can no longer control his wife’s finances, for example, nor can he feel up the pretty secretaries who work for him, at least not without being sued. At the same time, men continue to dominate the legislatures of every country on earth, and they also control the vast majority of the world’s wealth. This dual phenomenon, Rush said—the loss of many smaller, everyday privileges, combined with continued possession of all the bigger ones—has enormous psychological consequences. Prestige television hints at what these consequences might be. Many of the genre’s flagship programs are organised around a man who remains angry and unhappy despite the power he wields over every other character in the show. Tony Soprano, the head of a criminal empire, sees a therapist because of family anxieties. Walter White, in becoming a drug kingpin, puts his family in extraordinary danger, and he justifies his actions on the grounds that he is simply trying to protect his family.
Viewers’ devotion to these characters has reached such a pitch that Anna Gunn, who plays Walter White’s wife on Breaking Bad, felt compelled to write an editorial this August about the vitriol directed at her character by fans of the show. “I have never hated a TV-show character as much as I hate her,” one fan wrote online. This is not a fringe view. It is, in fact, an unattractive premise of certain prestige television shows. In Difficult Men,Martin reports an early brainstorming session around The Sopranos. “Look at what’s going on in this country,” a colleague remembers David Chase saying. “Now, nobody’s taken care of. And marriage is the same thing: You go to work and everybody’s selling you out and you get home and your wife’s busting your balls.” (AlongsideThe Sopranos and Breaking Bad, shows like Homeland and Mad Men also present variations of the ball-busting wife, who is also usually blonde.)