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Criminal Machismo and Contemporary TV

Criminal Machismo and Contemporary TV

Perhaps it was “The Shield.” “Oz,”  though, certainly played a role…as did the “X Files.” And who can forget “The Sopranos?” These are some of the first shows with criminal protagonists. Oh, sure, there were forebears. “Dukes of Hazzard,” anyone?

Since the 2000s, however, there has been a major shift. TV began looking at darker elements of authority and those outside it…from those perspectives. Goodbye, adorable Special Agent Charles Cooper. Hello, Tony Soprano.

Cable still has a huge share of shows that focus on authority. Police procedurals are plentiful as cockroaches this day and age -and as often killed. Just about every show including rebelliousness does so from a legalistic sphere. The recent focus on cooperation with civilian contractors, the pp’s “consultant,” is an interesting phenomena. Too bad it’s seems more and more a pipe dream.

The militarization of police is an interesting juxtaposition. We feel bad for their victims and are taken by the drama’s totality -family, perpetrators, victims, etc. Go figure, now there’s more TV focus on people who hightail from the law.

We usually finger AMC as the bedrock of this wave -“Breaking Bad” has a lasting impact. Ditto for FX’s surplus of shows that fixate on outlaws. Perhaps it started with “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” Now, though, just about every channel is playing with the motif.

We can never dismiss politics. They contextualize any show’s setting. They contour creative teams’ focus and interest. “Mr. Robot” and “Animal Kingdom” are the case-in-point. What’s surprising, however, are the channels these dramas are surfacing on -USA and TNT, respectively. We hardly expect these channels to create worthwhile or original shows. Nonetheless, their mimicry is also contributing to the genre’s elevation.    

“Mr. Robot,” for instance, tosses out concepts of profiteering and exploitation. Instead, we learn about the workings of a spartan organization that bears a cheesy resemblance to Anonymous. The protagonist’s inner monologue acts as a guide to his actions. It becomes Fight Club-esque and treatment of his psychology has neoliberal undertones -not exactly a show worth endorsing, right?

Sure. It’s limited -and a generic self-aggrandizing fantasy of haxors everywhere. Nonetheless, try finding another show that wholly focuses on a provocateur’s inner machinations and challenges. There are none. 

“Animal Kingdom,” meanwhile, examines the workings of a family criminal clan. Yawn. That’s been done before. Even the emphasis on a powerful female lead is kinda old at this point. “24” was playing with the concept ages ago. Still, “Animal Kingdom” is a standout for its attention towards machismo bullshit. It is also quite different than that of “Mr. Robot.”

“Animal Kingdom” is about the bourgeoisie lifestyle without the means. It’s about heists to support skydiving and paintball and fast cars. The show does not merely examine surfers with psychopathic tendencies. It, instead, utilizes their medium, predominantly extreme sports videos, to explain their highs.

The show also emphasizes nurture over nature. Each of the “boys,” even the youngest, has their own damage thanks, in part, to their matron-in-crime. What they’d turn into without her influence is never questioned -there is no outcast among them. Leave such one dimensionality to Australia, right?    

Maybe this is the biggest sign that these shows cater to USA and TNT audiences. The subject matter is different. So are the focuses. However, they have conservative realities. There are still the same assumptions that pervaded the 90’s, the 80’s, and not the 70’s. The motif, however, has changed. TV’s vicarious appeal  is shifting, at least if TNT and USA is any indication. Who knows if this will continue as the state pushes through reform via steady-cams and other novelties.  

Thank you specialolympicsusa for the shot via Creative Commons

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John Lion

John is a freelance writer with a passion for everything TV. A fan of thrillers and suspense, he also enjoys screwball comedies like Louie and Venture Bros. John has a particular fascination with TV's impact on public awareness and concerns. Email him at johnloeblion@gmail.com.

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