[Paleopsych] NYT: What Men Want: Neanderthal TV

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Wed Jan 4 23:13:32 UTC 2006

What Men Want: Neanderthal TV


    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
    in yourself."

    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
    of yore.

    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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