I felt compelled to defend my couch potato brethren this weekend when I read Warren St. John's piece in the New York Times' Sunday Styles section called "What Men Want: Neanderthal TV." In it, St. John reports on a study by Spike TV (television for men, in case they get bored with what's on 80 percent of the rest of the regular channels) that shows that male viewers identify with violent, brooding or loutish characters like brutish Sawyer on "Lost," drug-addled Dr. Gregory House on "House," tattooed Michael Scofield on "Prison Break" and violent Vic Mackey on "The Shield." All these characters are flawed, but they are also the heroes of their narratives. Male television viewers' "patron saint," writes St. John, is Tony Soprano.
Well, duh. He's my patron saint too, though that doesn't mean I identify with the way he cheats on his wife with one-legged women and kills his best friends.
But St. John's story points to the possibility that there's a lot to be read into the tastes of these guys. Noting that the "most popular male leads of today stand in stark contrast to the unambiguously moral protagonists of the past, good guys like Magnum, Matlock or Barnaby Jones," St. John describes the new heroes as "unapologetic about killing, stealing, hoarding and beating their way to achieve personal goals that often conflict with the greed, apathy and of course the bureaucracies of the modern world."
One television producer tells St. John that thuggish heroes satisfy guys because "men are living a very complex conundrum today [, in which they're] supposed to be sensitive and evolved and yet still in touch with [their] Neanderthal, animalistic, macho side." And a communications professor speculates that "these kinds of characters are so satisfying to male viewers because culture has told them to be powerful and effective and to get things done, and at the same time they're living, operating and working in places that are constantly defying that."
The Spike study has apparently led the network to start developing all kinds of new television shows about reprehensible leading men, as television tries desperately to woo young male viewers away from computers and video games.
All this is interesting, but the notion that men respond to baddie-good guys as a release valve for all the pressures they face seems a little far-fetched. In part, because I think that women respond to the same kinds of characters and in part because the impulse to identify with the flawed protagonist is as old as Oedipus.
Who are the characters men and women have wanted to read about and watch since time began? Usually they've been a hell of a lot more interesting than (forgive me, Tom Selleck freaks) Magnum.
Some of the most compelling television characters from my youth included the racist, homophobic misogynist Archie Bunker on "All in the Family," the drunken, irresponsible David Addison on "Moonlighting" and the lecherous Arnie Becker on "L.A. Law." And it wasn't just television's men who were screwed up. What about alcoholic Christine Cagney on "Cagney & Lacey"; Kerry Weaver, who began her tenure on "E.R." as one of the most malevolent regulars ever to get near a Thursday-night lineup; or Laura Palmer, the druggie dead heroine around whom several seasons of beguiling television revolved?
These men and women weren't murderers or convicts, it's true, but back then HBO was not only "not TV," it was also "not that interesting." We had no weekly dramas about prisons or mob families or funeral homes or foulmouthed Western towns ... on cable or anywhere else.
And other genres that did make room for darkness and moral ambiguity were entertaining us with stories of charismatic serial killers like Hannibal Lecter.
Aren't we all more thoroughly drawn in by multifaceted, imperfect characters who force us to think than we are by watching Tootie and Blair squabble?
St. John's piece eventually gets to that same conclusion -- that it's the drama, stupid, that leads men to respond more to the darker personalities the tube offers up.
"On one level you could see the proliferation of these types of characters as an indication of the decline of American civilization," a Syracuse professor tells St. John. "A more likely interpretation may be that they represent an improvement in the sophistication and complexity of television."