I was prepared to strongly disagree with Tom Carson’s take on the role of the middle-aged white guy antihero phenomenon of prestige TV. And I do think he overstates his case, wildly underestimating how much criticism of their protagonists is built into these shows. Both Don Draper and Walter White are the villains of the show. How much more do you want? But he has a really good point here about how even as these programs criticize the ugly reactions of a certain kind of man when he realizes that his white maleness doesn’t actually mean he’s the flawless authority on everything, they still reinscribe the notion that white men are more important than everyone else:
If you ask me, the only sensible upgrade would be for Walter White, the late Tony Soprano, Don Draper, et. al. to join forces, Avengers-style, for one final showdown with the 21st century. Hasn’t it been their secret antagonist all along? However genuinely mold-breaking these series were—for which we’re, yadda yadda, duly grateful—their well-concealed retrograde streak has always been how tenaciously they posit middle-aged white men as the center of the universe.
To be fair, the problem is not any individual show. How middle-aged white men feel about the changing world—even if their feelings are really disturbing and childish—is important and interesting and clearly, by the quality of these shows, good stories can come from it. I’m extremely loathe to engage in the easy haterade that the internet particularly encourages, where a desire to see more shows about people like X means that you have a knee jerk hatred of yet another show about people like Y. That we need more shows about women and people of color doesn’t mean Mad Men sucks. It would be the same amount of good if it were in a sea of quality shows about diverse people as it is now.
So it’s really not the shows but the context, and in that context, I would say he has a good point.
I was pleased to see Tom point out that TV was not actually a complete wasteland prior to The Sopranos, as anyone who watches reruns of The Golden Girls on YouTube can tell you. Not only was there some fun stuff, but I’d say one show he singles out for praise was actually a forerunner to the modern crop of shows that look, on their surfaces, like shows about white guys asserting their white man authority on the world but, upon closer examination, are actually subversive shows that hold the authoritative white man up as an object of pity and ridicule. And that show is Bewitched.
I might be wrong, because it’s been a long time since I’ve seen it, but this is how I remember the show from my days in college obsessively watching it on Nick at Night. Still, how I remember it is this: Ostensibly, it’s a show that purports to be I Love Lucy, but with magic, where the moral lesson every week is how women need to tamp down their passions and skills and instead choose to be docile housewives in order.
But that is not how the audience actually reads the show. Instead, the show reads like a darkly comic take on the horrors of patriarchy, where a brave and magnificent woman named Samantha is trapped by a malevolent man named Darrin intent on destroying everything that’s beautiful and magical in the world for his own petty reasons. Samantha may claim to love her captor, but we all understand she’s just suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, and we firmly agree with her mother, who is the best woman ever, that she needs to get rid of Darwood or Darfuck or whatever his name is and rejoin the land of the living.The fact that Endora can never remember Darrin’s name shows she is the most prescient character on the show. Darrin is not just a man, but the living embodiment of The Man, an abstract symbol of oppressive patriarchal power. That’s why it was no thing to just switch the actors halfway through the show’s run. It matters not what the specific face of Samantha’s captor looks like so much as the idea of a white man who ruins everything because he’s power mad.
So, in a sense it’s similar to Hogan’s Heroes. A madcap sitcom about oppression and captivity. The fact that female power is associated with witchcraft is some straight up feminist lit shit. For the actual misogynists, you always had I Dream of Jeanie.
It’s hard to say if that’s what the showrunners of Bewitched were getting at, but by the powers of camp, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is how we in the audience feel. And we hate Darrin and long for Samantha to enjoy widowhood as soon as possible.
Considering all this, Tom has a really strong point. While it’s interesting seeing the world from Darrin’s perspective, as he lamely tries to assert his power by oppressing his magical and badass wife, as Bewitched shows, the wife’s point of view—and the mother-in-law’s—is also interesting. Something for future consideration on new golden age of TV shows.