[Paleopsych] NYT: What Men Want: Neanderthal TV
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Wed Jan 4 23:13:32 UTC 2006
What Men Want: Neanderthal TV
By WARREN ST. JOHN
THERE was a heart-wrenching moment at the end of last season's
final episode of the ABC series "Lost" when a character named
Michael tries to find his kidnapped son. Michael lives for his
child; like the rest of the characters in "Lost," the two of them
are trapped on a tropical island after surviving a plane crash.
When word of Michael's desperate mission reaches Sawyer - a
booze-hoarding, hard-shelled narcissist who in his past killed an
innocent man - his reaction is not what you would call sympathetic.
"It's every man for hisself," Sawyer snarls.
Not so long ago Sawyer's callousness would have made him a villain,
but on "Lost," he is sympathetic, a man whose penchant for
dispensing Darwinian truths over kindnesses drives not only the
action but the show's underlying theme, that in the social chaos of
the modern world, the only sensible reflex is self-interest.
Perhaps not coincidentally Sawyer is also the character on the show
with whom young men most identify, according to research conducted
by the upstart male-oriented network Spike TV, which interviewed
thousands of young men to determine what that coveted and elusive
demographic likes most in its television shows.
Spike found that men responded not only to brave and extremely
competent leads but to a menagerie of characters with strikingly
antisocial tendencies: Dr. Gregory House, a Vicodin-popping
physician on Fox's "House"; Michael Scofield on "Prison Break," who
is out to help his brother escape from jail; and Vic Mackey, played
by Michael Chiklis on "The Shield," a tough-guy cop who won't
hesitate to beat a suspect senseless. Tony Soprano is their patron
saint, and like Tony, within the confines of their shows, they are
all "good guys."
The code of such characters, said Brent Hoff, 36, a fan of "Lost,"
is: "Life is hard. Men gotta do what men gotta do, and if some
people have to die in the process, so be it."
"We can relate to them," said Mr. Hoff, a writer from San
Francisco. "If you watch Sawyer on 'Lost,' who is fundamentally
good even if he does bad things, there's less to feel guilty about
Gary A. Randall, a producer who helped create "Melrose Place," is
developing a show called "Paradise Salvage," about two friends who
discover a treasure map, for Spike TV. He said the proliferation of
antisocial protagonists came from a concerted effort by networks to
channel the frustrations of modern men.
"It's about comprehending from an entertainment point of view that
men are living a very complex conundrum today," he said. "We're
supposed to be sensitive and evolved and yet still in touch with
our Neanderthal, animalistic, macho side." Watching a deeply flawed
male character who nevertheless prevails, Mr. Randall argued, makes
men feel better about their own flaws and internal conflicts.
"You think, 'It's O.K. to go to a strip club and have a couple of
beers with your buddies and still go home to your wife and baby and
live with yourself,' " he said.
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. They are also not simply flawed
in the classic sense: men who have the occasional affair or who tip
the bottle a little too much. Instead they are 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.
"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," said Robert
Thompson, the director of the Center for the Study of Popular
Television at Syracuse University.
Consequently, whereas the Lone Ranger battled stagecoach robbers
and bankers foreclosing on a widow's farm, the enemy of the
contemporary male TV hero, Dr. Thompson said, is "the legal,
cultural and social infrastructure of the nation itself."
Because of competition from the Web, video games and seemingly
countless new cable channels, television producers are obsessed
with developing shows that can capture the attention of young male
To that end Spike TV, which is owned by Viacom and aims at men from
18 to 49, has ordered up a slate of new dramas based on characters
whose minds are cauldrons of moral ambiguity. They will join
antiheroes on other networks like Vic Mackey, Gregory House, Jack
Bauer of "24," and Tommy Gavin, the firefighter played by Denis
Leary on "Rescue Me" who sanctions a revenge murder of the driver
who ran over and killed his son.
Paul Scheer, a 29-year-old actor from Los Angeles and an avid
viewer of "Lost," said that not even committing murder alienates an
audience. "You don't have to be defined by one act," he said.
"Three people on that island have killed people in cold blood, and
they're quote-unquote good people who you're rooting for every
week," Mr. Scheer said. The implication for the viewer, he added,
is, "You can say 'I'm messed up and I left my wife, but I'm still a
good guy.' "
Peter Liguori, the creator of the FX shows "The Shield" and "Over
There" and now the president of Fox Entertainment, said that most
strong male protagonists on television appeal to male viewers on an
aspirational level. Those aspirations, though, he said, have
changed over time.
In the age of "Dragnet," "everything was about aspiring to
perfection," Mr. Liguori said. "Today I think we thoroughly
recognize our flaws and are honest about them. True heroism is in
overcoming those flaws."
Part of the shift to such complex and deeply flawed characters
surely has to do with the economics of television itself. Cable
channels, with their targeted niche audiences, are no longer
obliged to aim for Middle America, and can instead create dramas
for edgier audiences.
The financial success of networks like FX and HBO has also opened
the door for auteurism that has embroidered scripts with dramatic
complexities once reserved for film and literature, where odious
protagonists - think of Tom Ripley, the murderous narcissist
protagonist in Patricia Highsmith's "The Talented Mr. Ripley" -
have long been common.
Still the morally struggling protagonist has been evolving over
time, Mr. Ligouri said, pointing to Detective Andy Sipowicz on
"NYPD Blue." Sipowicz was an alcoholic who occasionally fell off
the wagon, and he often flouted police procedure in the name of
tracking down criminals. Like all good protagonists, Sipowicz was
also exceedingly good at his job.
Mr. Liguori took the notion of the flawed protagonist to new levels
in the creation of Vic Mackey on "The Shield." At the end of the
pilot for that show, Mr. Liguori said, Mackey turned to a fellow
cop he knew to be crooked and shot him in the face.
"There was a great debate at FX about how the audience would
react," he said. "I thought 50 percent would say that's the most
horrible thing, and 50 percent would say he was a rat." Mr.
Chiklis, who plays Vic Mackey, won an Emmy for his performance in
that episode, which was the highest rated at the time in the
history of the network.
"The ability to let the audience make that judgment was my 'aha'
moment," Mr. Liguori said. "I think that moral ambiguity is highly
involving for an audience. Audiences I believe relate to characters
they share the same flaws with."
Mr. Liguori added that in a world where people are increasingly
transparent about their own flaws - detailing them on blogs,
reality TV, on talk shows and in the news media - scripted TV drama
had to emphasize characters' weaknesses.
"The I.M.-ing and social Web sites, they're all being built on
being as open and honest as possible," he said. "You cannot go from
that environment to a TV show where everyone is perfect."
With the success of shows featuring deeply flawed leads, the
challenge for networks is to rein in the impulse to create ever
more pathological characters. Pancho Mansfield, the head of
original programming for Spike TV, said he could see network
television going the route of "Scarface."
"With all the competition that's out there and all the channels,
people are pushing the extremes to distinguish themselves," Mr.
Mansfield said. But for now, he argued, the complexity of
characters on serialized TV shows is a kind of antidote to the
increasingly superficial characters in Hollywood films, which he
said, have come more to resemble the simplistic television dramas
Dr. Thompson agreed. "On one level you could see the proliferation
of these types of characters as an indication of the decline of
American civilization," he said. "A more likely interpretation may
be that they represent an improvement in the sophistication and
complexity of television." If you accept that view, he added, "Then
the young male demographic has pretty good taste."
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