Since the 1999 premiere of “The Sopranos,” a cri du coeur that TV really could be as ambitious and serious as its writers wanted to make it, the antihero has been inextricably associated with great television.
But in the past few years, the archetype has started to sour, and this year, I think, completely curdled. Walter White died and revealed the field behind him to be occupied by a bunch of wan copycats.
Shows like “Ray Donovan,” “Low Winter Sun,” “The Following,” “Hannibal” and “House of Cards” (yes, that’s a fighting list) followed “The Playboy Club,” “Boss,” “Magic City” and “Boardwalk Empire” in following the great “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos,” making for a lame cohort of paint-by-numbers Prestige TV.
A little ethical dilemma here, a little male hierarchy there; a little of Don Draper’s sex appeal here, a little of Tony Soprano’s menace there; add as much grisly violence as whatever network you’re on will allow and, voila, something dull and pretentious: a garbage monster looking for an award.
The decline of the antihero has led to some hand-wringing: Andy Greenwald at Grantland looked at all these bloodless copies of Al Swearengen and Vic Mackey and understandably concluded that TV had entered its zombie stage and begun eating itself. (“The Walking Dead” is another example of this plague.)
Greenwald argued that all these lurching, mindless corpses signaled an end to the “golden age” of television, a winding down of the grand, gorgeous ambitious era inaugurated by “The Sopranos.”
But I look out at the TV this year and I see something else: Not just those brain-dead shows dragging themselves across the ground moaning, but the vital series leapfrogging over them. TV that’s healthy, not inbred.
This year burst with series percolating on the themes of antihero TV — violence, amorality, likeability, gender dynamics — in new ways, from new angles, with new characters and different genres: shows like “Scandal,” “American Horror Story,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “Top of the Lake,” “Rectify,” “Key &Peele.”
Other series tweaked those themes in less aggressive but still effective and pleasurable ways: shows like “The Americans,” “Game of Thrones,” “Broadchurch,” “The Fall,” “Sleepy Hollow.” This year also had plenty of shows that were true to “The Sopranos’” real spirit: exploring something different, something we hadn’t quite seen before — shows like “Enlightened,” “Bunheads,” “Girls” and even “The Fosters.”
And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that almost every show I have just name-checked is about a woman. Sometimes new just means giving a voice to 50 percent of the population.
This was a great year for TV, if not a great year for really popular TV. Social media and the Internet have created a class of hyper-engaged TV obsessives, while America continues to watch “The Millers” and “The Walking Dead.”
There may not be “indie TV,” but is there already an art-house TV audience? Anyway, there was a lot of good TV this year, as reflected by the fact that “Mad Men” is all the way down at the bottom of my top 10 list:
2. “Top of the Lake”
3. “Orange Is the New Black”
4. “Breaking Bad”
5. “The Good Wife”
6. “The Americans”
7. “The Returned”
9. “American Horror Story: Asylum”
10. “Mad Men”