PRE-SCRIPT: Last year I wrote up a little thing about an odd trend I’d noticed on TV of late: Why does it seem like all the leading men characters on the “quality” TV shows that I love to watch, especially on cable, are all cheating on their wives?I dug it out in honor of tonight’s premiere of one of my favorites, Rescue Me, which details the day-to-day lives of a bunch of NYC firefighters and the loves and losses they incur as they try—not so hard, it sometimes seems—to grow up. This piece was written around the time I discovered the first season of Mad Men, which details the day-to-day lives of a bunch of NYC ad execs (in the 1960s) and the loves and losses they incur as they try—not so hard, it sometimes seems—to grow up. Since writing this, I’ve discovered a coupla more shows I’d add to the list: Showtime’s Californication, with David Duchovny as a sexaholically stumbling once-famous writer finding new life in the sunny climes of LA, and Breaking Bad, in which the excellently morose and cancer-stricken Bryan Cranston marries himself to the drug trade as he sees his life ending before him. I titled the piece “Dirty White Boys” mostly because one rarely gets to see black middle-aged men suffer the slings and arrows of their failed dreams and hopeless home-lives–brothers rarely get to be more complex than Jesse L. Martin’s gambling detective on Law & Order a few seasons back—and you know how deep they got into back-story on that show.
I recently spent a coupla days glued to my computer, amazed at the style and grace and novelistic tension that was the first season of AMC’s buzzy, award-winning show Mad Men. Loved everything about it: the men in their “grey flannel” suits living lives of quiet desperation to the swell of that swinging early 60s soundtrack; all the cigarette smoke and martinis and Manhattans; the knowing nods to how things have changed (pregnant women smoking and cocktailing; no child seats in the Buicks) and how they haven’t (straight white dudes still run damn near everything—well, except the country, haha!). I really loved the idea of, essentially, casting a Gregory Peck with sex appeal opposite a Grace Kelly as the rich, bored, frustrated suburban housewife Kelly might have become had she not bucked the Main Line Philly trend and went to Hollywood, then married a Monaco prince. Okay, not really Peck and Kelly, but Jon Hamm and January Jones are so on-target good as Don and Betty Draper—the repressed post-50s icons that they do play—that sometimes the show feels like a Douglas Sirk melodrama if it’d been co-written by John Cheever and Lillian Hellman.
But all that said, among his other transgressions, Draper’s cheating on his wife. Just like Tony Soprano did (and being that all these TV anti-heroes are pretty much just the cathode-ray Hi-Def Sons of Tony, it makes perfect sense, I guess). Just like Vic Mackey did on The Shield, and Jimmy McNulty did on The Wire, and Tommy Gavin on Rescue Me and Sean McNamara on Nip/Tuck. Has infidelity become the default “fatal flaw” for all the middle-aged TV heroes these days? And if so, why? Is it because rogue dudes make for more interesting viewing (and screwing)? Are these the proto-typical guys who other most guys wanna be and every woman wants fuck? Or are all the writers and creators of these shows lost in some post-Updikean literary netherworld where they think the push-and-pull passions of cheating spouses somehow rises their characters to the level of art? Perhaps it’s some blue-stated gay Hollywood agenda to prove that heterosexual love can be as wobbly, insincere, and unstable as the Religious Right (and others) claim homo love to be to prevent the desired stamp of “marriage”? I don’t know what the answer is. And I’m not trying to judge or anything but I do find it curious that almost any time I turn on the telly, I’m bombarded with the boxer-dropping shenanigans of middle-aged white dudes who positively love their wives and children to bits, but also can’t seem to get enough new pussy on the side. (And maybe I should add middle-class to that description? Interestingly, the most faithful guys I’ve seen on TV lately are a ragtag bunch of low-down motorcycle thugs on Sons of Anarchy, who may be surrounded by strippers and biker broads, but almost always go home to the Main Molls at home. Or is this just middle-class TV writers patronizing to the salt-of-the-earthisms that the working classes do so well?) Maybe the answer is to give myself over to Big Love, which I haven’t seen since the first episode bored me to tears a coupla years ago—is it still even on? At least that character got to marry all his potential mistresses. Or I’ll just have to watch Desperate Housewives, where the husbands are pretty boring and disposable, but at least they sleep in their own beds most of the time.
The only TV hero I watch consistently who’s not cheating on his wife—though he is pretty dirty (did anyone catch him basically jerking of on his best friend’s couch earlier this season?)—is not doing it because he doesn’t actually have a wife (anymore), and that’s Dr. House, the irascibly sarcastic misanthrope who also manages to make a living as a world-class diagnostician, who frequents hookers and pops (popped?) pills with a vengeance. Then again, I guess if he was still with his wife—who was played by the luminous Sela Ward, who I love, but is also, it sometimes seems, one of TV’s most cheated-on women—he’d have reason to cheat. It was her decision to allow the surgery that basically crippled him. Here’s to love…
POSTSCRIPT: Please, if you haven’t already, please check out a new show on TNT (because They Know Drama) called Men of a Certain Age, not only because Ray Romano smartly puts a sad, comic spin on the crises of middle-aged American guys that feels thoroughly true and felt and considered, he was also brilliant enough to show that this is not the sole domain of white dudes who don’t have the knees to shoot hoops like they used to, that black men can be some fucked-up, father-hating, sad sacks too. Andre Braugher, TV’s reigning Important Black Actor these days (and deservedly so), is so good as the put-upon Owen Thoreau, you sometimes have to close your eyes so as not to see the drawn, blank look in his eyes that speaks to a life of bad mistakes and thwarted desire, of a guy struggling to make emotional ends meet somewhere in the middle of life. It’s sublime work. Check it out. The sad dirty dudes don’t always have to be white. Langston Hughes’s crystal stairs and raisins in the sun resonate as strongly as Updike’s running Rabbit—and hit you as squarely in the gut.