The success of HBO's True Detective seems to have confirmed for TV critics that we are living in the "Golden Age of Television." It's hard to disagree with this assertion — True Detective is just the most recent longform drama to innovate the medium, along with shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. The New York Times even called it an "excess of excellence," but something's not quite right.
These critical darlings are failing a large section of the population — women. Despite the brilliant quality of today's best cable dramas, they are still "really white and really male." And somehow, in all the celebration, we've lost sight of why that's not ok.
Here's the rundown on eight of the leading dramas from this "golden age," and how they treat women.
True Detective is an embarrassment of riches for HBO. Everything from the writing and direction to the acting is being praised as a grand achievement for the medium.
However, the portrayal of women on the show isn't exactly innovative. As critic Maureen Ryan points out, they are "usually seen when they're arguing or sleeping with the men." Creator Pizzolatto all but admits this, telling BuzzFeed: "Given that we only see things in their [McConaughey and Harrelson] POVs, that women are not given a full representation is correct for the story." But that isn't so much a defense as it is a description of the problem itself.
Breaking Bad is a prime example of the True Detective problem. It's constantly lauded as the best show to grace the small screen, but its female characters are only ever shown in relation to its leading men.
In fact, the show doesn't even try to use its female characters as anything other than foils to the antihero we're supposed to love. And when the characters are featured, especially Skylar, they are there to "remind Walt of his impotence and weakness." Perhaps this is due to the male dominance of the writing staff, or perhaps it really was necessary to the story. But whatever the reason, the best show on television did little to advance the portrayal of women past the shrill or annoying archetypes on which Hollywood so often relies.
This show is constantly praised as one of the best-written programs ever, and it's actors and crew have been nominated for countless awards. One of the biggest draws of Mad Men seems to be its historical accuracy — less so in terms of real details, but more in terms of the behavior of the characters. As we're frequently reminded, the 1960s were a period of casual sexism and repressed emotions.
But let's be honest, Mad Men is a show about white men created by white men. Don Draper may be an antihero due to his sexism and poor treatment of women, but he's still a hero. Sometimes it seems that the "historical accuracy" excuse is just that — an excuse.
The Wire was an early figure of the "golden age." Like Breaking Bad and Mad Men after it, the show is consistently described as the best-written drama in the history of television. In fact, it's been called the greatest television program ever made.
But the real problem with The Wire, as University of Minnesota's Elizabeth Ault points out, is that it condemns the type of women it should be aiding — urban, single mothers stuck navigating the politics of the Baltimore police force. Like many of these other shows, The Wire creates sympathy for the flawed men in its stories, but does not do the same for the women. For such a politically aware show, it's shockingly disinterested in gender politics and often relies on stereotypes.
Game of Thrones is probably one of the most gender-inclusive shows on television. It is often praised as a feminist's dream due to its strong, well-rounded female characters. I mean, what women doesn't think Daenerys Targaryen is one of the best characters on TV? But the real gender problems on this show exist behind the scenes.
Of the 12 directors the series has had, only one has been a woman. The ratio of male to female writers is six to two. Perhaps this is why, despite the great female characters, there are still complaints of sexism on the show (i.e. female characters getting naked for no reason. All the time). Even Daenerys herself has complained on occasion about the rampant nudity.
The Newsroom didn't begin as one of TV's best dramas — in fact, it was critically lambasted. But Aaron Sorkin's revamped second season has been called a vast improvement over the first. The show is coming into its own to become a critical darling.
Like Game of Thrones, the show has a lot of women in the cast. Unlike Game of Thrones, the women are hardly characters we root for. Frequently, these women are nothing more than stereotypes or tools for advancing the men on the show. Mackenzie McHale is a high-powered news producer who can't work her email. Sloan Sabbith is a hot Ph.D who threatens coworkers with physical violence. And don't get me started on Maggie Jordan.
While it may seem odd to call out a war miniseries for its lack of women, hear me out. Generation Kill, alongside Band of Brothers and The Pacific, has been universally praised for its portrayal of the horrors men face in war.
These are stories about men in war, and women should not be included as a show of tokenism. But it's worth remembering that Generation Kill depicts the Iraq War, where women figured significantly in combat. Even though that's not the show's focus, it seems fair that it's partially our media's duty to represent the service of those women in something other than a throwaway scene involving sexual harassment.
House of Cards is a counterpoint to all the above criticism. It is what TV could look like if balanced gender inclusion were the norm, not the exception. The show is a critical and commercial hit — and its antiheroes are equally women and men.
The women of House of Cards may be unlikable and conniving, but they're completely essential to the show's plot. Frank Underwood would be nowhere without Claire, and his plan to ascend to the Vice Presidency would have been dead in the water without Zoe Barnes.
Even better, this show is dedicated not only to featuring female characters, but also to telling female stories. And the inclusion of women on the writing and directing teams hasn't hurt, either. This show about screwed up national politics is actually worth a lot more attention as far as Hollywood politics are concerned.