What Purpose Do Bleak, Male Dramas Serve in 2014’s Diverse, Dramedy-Filled TV Landscape?

We continue to plunge deeper into the era of the dramedy. The best evidence for this: The Comeback. It was a pioneer of TV dramedy nine years ago, but after a single season, it was consigned to history as yet another pretty prophetic but also pretty canceled show. Having slowly paved the way for plenty of other TV dramedies, its influence finally created the necessary conditions for The Comeback’s comeback this year. The new season has reframed the show not as a dramedy satirizing reality television, but as a satire of its own genre of brief, short-seasoned bursts of high-quality genre confusion. As the first season coincided with the era of reality television, this second season declares the golden age of the dramedy.

Of course, it’s not really apt anymore to label dramedy’s prestigious affliction “genre confusion,” as such confusion has crafted what is now the most highly regarded — though not the most highly watched — form of television. Notably, as the dramedy has gathered steam and acclaim, this year’s new, painstakingly “serious” dramas have fought harder to uphold an air of aestheticized humorlessness. Where once shows like Six Feet Under (which plays like All in the Family compared to the new wave of cable dramas) consistently pierced their own darkness with rays of sardonic — or even, sometimes, earnest — light, the prestige-drama-with-comedic-elements seems to have bifurcated along the lines of the half-hour prestige dramedy and hour-long superlatives of bleakness. Interestingly, the demographics of their central protagonists also seem to have split: the dramedy now devotes itself, for the most part, to societally marginalized characters — i.e., everyone who isn’t a straight white dude (see: Orange Is the New Black, Transparent, Please Like Me, Girls, The Comeback, Getting On, Looking, Doll & Em) — while the central character in each of this year’s relentlessly grim TV dramas was, yes, a straight white dude.

In this new wave of bleak prestige drama, the three shows that stand out most are True Detective, The Knick, and The Leftovers. These three, for better or for worse, refuse to let any light in (with the obvious exception of the very last line of True Detective Season 1). All three have been lauded for their gorgeous cinematography, but criticized for privileging atmosphere over substance, as well as their unremittingly dark tones. Two of the shows have wooed critics (The Knick and True Detective), while the other, for the very reason that it’s the most extreme example of the genre, has polarized them (The Leftovers).

The Leftovers, which centers around an upstate community in a world (just like ours!) where two percent of the population has rapturously disappeared, makes an almost comical display of self-seriousness. The show announced its marriage to bleakness before it even arrived, by using the James Blake song “Retrograde” for its trailer — James Blake being the soundtrack of choice for anyone or anything that wants to convey that it will exude absolutely no warmth. Its credit sequence is a series of grimacing, animated, Renaissance-style depictions of the Rapture, announced with a blaring horn that gives way to the most funereal title-sequence music in television history.

Then, of course, there’s the actual content of the show — though criticism has suggested there isn’t much of it. In fact, it’s a suggestion that’s arisen regarding all three of these shows, but especially with The Leftovers. The latter’s tactic is to frustrate its audience with The Unknown, to turn us, like its characters, into puzzled leftovers. But its first season strained for opacity to the extent that one often felt merely bewildered instead of saddened, further annoyed by characters’ unyielding grimaces and by the show’s constant tiny-violin symphony.

Rather than trying to recap actual narrative content, then, let’s just say that every other scene features Justin Theroux crying, punching someone or something, and either shooting or deciding not to shoot a dog (oh, and occasionally, as though to reward everyone for enduring the emotional torture, we see his bulge). The other scenes find Ann Dowd, Liv Tyler, or Amy Brenneman wearing all white in a cultish display of misery, mutely (because they’re so miserable they won’t talk!) scheming ways to spread their noiseless white misery across the town. This is a show so blinded by its own salty tears that it couldn’t see what a silly idea it was to include a subplot about a man who hugs the sadness out of people. It’s so blinded that it thought it could sustain co-creator Tom Perrotta’s satiric novel’s title without making you think of a Tupperwear full of perplexed, sobbing lo mein. Of course, like True D and The KnickThe Leftovers’ monotone misery was hit home by its under-saturated, sickly (but handsome!) aesthetic.

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Similarly, True Detective exploited the mythological weirdness of the Deep South to create a bleak and alienating landscape for its characters. It immersed them in an otherworldly hell that just happened to be of this world. It was, as many have noticed, a show so self-assured in its seriousness that it often interrupted its action with philosophizing lectures about how time is the top of a beer can. Audiences were surprised when the final episode revealed that, despite the show’s theory-baiting tendencies, it was a relatively straightforward cop drama that used stark beauty, literary references, and religious analogies in the service of what amounted to a good guy-vs.-bad guy/light-vs.-dark narrative. Ultimately, many felt duped by the show’s bleak poetics when, in the season’s final moments, Matthew McConaughey looked up at the stars and said, “Well, once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.”

Was it all so simple? It led many to wonder whether, if the cinematographers had used a less jaundiced filter, if they’d focused on fewer dying trees, if the makeup artist had made McConaughey’s cheeks look a little less sunken, would we have had a completely different show on our hands? Was the show’s decorative bleakness so superficial that it could be stripped away by one almighty line of dialogue?

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The Knick has also been noted for its impeccable atmospherics. Steven Soderbergh’s shaky camera, the austerity of his anachronistic electro score, the seriousness so… serious that the show doesn’t even have a title sequence, the lackluster palette of old New York, the melancholy behind every lovely, typhoid-filled brownstone — these instant signifiers of bleakness create a world so immersive that it refuses to be shaken by the sometimes-stilted dialogue. While the writing may expose some qualitative holes, The Knick’s content, perhaps unlike that of The Leftovers or even True Detective, is deserving of its bleakness; nothing is bleaker than the state of medicine (the show is a parade of failed Caesarean sections and syphilitic noses) or race relations in New York at the turn of the 20th century, and The Knick provides a studied explanation of both.

So within this trend of bleak televisual aesthetics and tone, especially when compared with more often female-or-minority-driven dramedies, there arises yet another revealing trend: between Rust Cohle, Kevin Garvey, and Clive Owen’s Dr. John Thackery, we get a glimpse of where all this bleakness — as portrayed by these shows’ male creators (Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta for The Leftovers, Steven Soderbergh for The Knick, and Nic Pizzolatto for True Detective) — is coming from. At the center of these stories there is always a put-upon, grief-encumbered, frightening but secretly bighearted male lead. He’s miserable, but goddamn it, he’s a cop or a doctor, and goddamn it, he saves people. When these large, high-production-value dramas still feel the need to anchor themselves with a leading hetero, white male character (despite having supporting characters from other demographics) — and when that character is therefore systemically prone to privilege — where do these shows find their drama? When the liberal audiences of cable networks like HBO have thankfully shifted their focus (or at least split their focus) to the structural difficulties that burden oppressed and marginalized people, where do these white men find the immense grief they need to reign as the saddest in the land?

Abstraction, it seems. Atmosphere, it seems. These characters, unlike the protagonists of our favorite dramedies, are not systemically oppressed. There is a freedom that pervades their existences. Unlike Getting On’s Dee Dee, their gender and their color haven’t made it harder for them to earn a livable salary. Unlike Orange Is the New Black‘s Taystee, an underprivileged upbringing didn’t lead them into the arms of a drug lord and into the bowels of the prison system, and unlike Piper, their lesbian acts won’t lead them to get solitary confinement. Unlike Hannah Horvath, their toplessness won’t lead to scolding scrutiny by the blogging masses.

So, never having to deflect bigotry, never having to figure out how to move within the bounds of social immobility, never having to overcome disenfranchisement, these characters’ problems must come from somewhere else: they’re depicted in existential horror. The agoraphobia of being free, the burdens of being unburdened. Rust Cohle and Woody Harrelson’s Marty have clearly had a lot of time to let their existential woes fester (though for Marty, they’re obviously less verbalized). Theroux’s Kevin Garvey is plagued by visions, by questions that will probably never be answered for him or for audiences. And Dr. Thackeray’s way of coping with the burdens of his privilege — and the privilege he has to be able to help people — is to become addicted to drugs.

When compared with the dark but humorous dramedy, what stands out about these three relentlessly bleak, expensive, and over-aestheticized shows is the outsize self-importance of the Straight White Man Who Takes Himself Very Seriously, as well as networks’ belief in his importance. That they’re hour-long, and that much of their beauty comes from their ability to languish in this length, speaks to this form of self-aggrandizement. Dramedy connotes a sense of self-deprecation; the humor often comes from human flaws. These flaws are not heroized, but rather made laughable, just as they can be in real life. And real life, while dark, is often broken up by laughter, by lightness. The new wave of bleakness seeks, on the flip-side, as in the most egregious qualities of (now increasingly dark) superhero narratives, to mythologize male flaws through these cop-and-doctor, savior-gone-sour characters. By mostly removing laughter and handsomely adorning their shows in mournfulness, these shows set this male pain apart, isolate it, and ultimately distance it from the human experience.

A good deal of the year’s standout dramedies are either created by women, with female protagonists, or created by queer people, with queer protagonists. These shows are pioneering within their often 30-minute slots, making complex drama that brings laughter in to render their characters more human. Despite my criticism, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all three of the bleak, male-driven shows I’ve critiqued (even the ridiculous The Leftovers). But there’s no question that hour-long prestige drama, especially the new wave of unyieldingly bleak drama, could benefit from just a little less self-seriousness (or at least surprise us and center one such show around a protagonist who isn’t straight and white and male). It’d be a welcome change from all of those depictions of abstract, existential suffering experienced by all that true D.