I'm Over Critically Acclaimed White Dude Television
I’m writing this piece under my own name, but I semi-seriously thought about using a pseudonym because that’s how afraid I am of admitting that I never finished watching "Breaking Bad." Or that I’m halfway through the first (and so far only) season of HBO’s "True Detective" and I don’t feel the overwhelming compulsion to binge watch the rest of the show this weekend. That I’ve only seen a few episodes of "The Sopranos." I love" Mad Men" and I’ve seen every episode but have grown increasingly tired of Don Draper. There are episodes of "House of Cards" I am obsessed with and there are episodes where as I watch I can feel my brain leaking out of my ears.
Here’s another way of saying what I’m saying. I’m tired of watching middle-aged white men having mid-life crises and cheating on their wives and failing as fathers and committing terrible crimes and trafficking in moral ambiguity or outright immorality/amorality and all the while feeling so very, very, very sorry for themselves or so very, very, very pleased with themselves or a jacked up combination of self-pity and self-aggrandizement. In short, I’m over Critically Acclaimed White Dude Television.
I’m not here to completely tear down the aforementioned series. They’ve heralded in and propelled forward the golden age of television. They’ve revolutionized their own medium. They’re art. I respect these works tremendously and deeply admire the writers, actors, producers, executives and crews that have brought such remarkable stories to the small screen. I completely get what is great about these shows. I’m just over them. Or rather, I’m over the throne the White Dude Sub-Genre sits on in the Royal Court of Serialized Entertainment.
Critically Acclaimed White Dude Television reigns on high as the King of Prestige Television. And as we all remember from our AP World History classes, kings have a direct line to God, they are infallible and beyond reproach. So it goes for the White Dude Shows of Prestige Television. There’s this unspoken rule that you can’t criticize "Breaking Bad" or "True Detective." This feels akin to criticizing gospel.
Making a White Dude Show isn’t the only way to create critically acclaimed television. On network television we have Shonda Rhimes-helmed, Kerry Washington vehicle "Scandal" on ABC, two black women powering one of the buzziest dramas in a medium that has historically been unfriendly to women and minorities. We also have "The Good Wife," a show run by husband and wife team Robert and Michelle King, boasting several leading ladies over the age of 40 in a medium that has been, as mentioned above, unfriendly to women, and outright hateful to older women.
On cable, the score is the same. You don’t get show more talked about amongst critics than HBO’s "Girls" and you don’t get a show that makes a bigger media splash than the breakout freshman season of Netflix’s "Orange is the New Black."
These shows, which are about inclusive as White Dude Prestige Television is exclusive, these shows have battled the odds and they have managed to be born and exist, which is a beautiful thing, and they are watched and beloved by critics and audiences alike, which is an even more beautiful thing. But they are not above reproach.
As often as "Scandal" is praised for its storytelling skills it is just as often labeled “soapy” and “a guilty pleasure,” which are, real talk, just codified terms for “women’s television.” "The Good Wife" is constantly called “the best show on network television,” and I wonder if this is because it would make critics uncomfortable to declare a network show the best show on television or because it would make critics uncomfortable to declare a show where the most pivotal and powerful characters are older women the best show on television. "Girls" pulled off the acrobatic feat of being a show that looked and sounded like no other show on television, and yet, since its first episode aired, it has weathered airstrike after airstrike of criticism regarding what the show is not, and amidst the constant noise it becomes difficult to take a clear look at the show and appreciate the series for what it is. "Orange is the New Black" is Netflix’s splashiest show to date (and, mind you, "House of Cards" is pretty freaking splashy), it is one of the most inclusive series in the history of television, the show tells the most original stories because it’s telling the stories of so many people whose stories have not been told on this kind of platform. "Orange is the New Black" is critically salivated over, but said critics would never be allowed to rank it above, say, "Breaking Bad."
You can just imagine The Gods of Prestige Television pursing their lips and shaking their heads and wagging their fingers at you while telling you in their snootiest British accents that this just isn’t done. The best Not White Dude Show just can’t be better than the best White Dude Show. Prestige Television is all about diversity and inclusivity as long as the shows that are diverse and inclusive never rise above the shows that aren’t.
Don’t even get me started on poor ABC Family. Between "Switched at Birth" and "The Fosters," ABC Family is delivering entertainment that is groundbreaking in its inclusivity. "Switched at Birth," for example, is a series with a focus on the deaf community, it’s a show you can’t watch on your laptop while checking e-mail and bidding for useless stuff on Ebay because you’ll completely miss out on all the scenes conducted entirely in American Sign Language. Last year there was an entire episode in ASL.
"The Fosters" is a show about a nuclear family, headed by two married matriarchs, and it's an inclusive mix of ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. While recent Oscar film "Dallas Buyers Club" was coming under LGBT community fire for Jared Leto’s hetero-cisgender-male ignorance regarding the transgender character he played in the film and the community that character belongs to, "The Fosters" just went ahead and had enough integrity to cast trans actor Tom Phelan as Cole, a pivotal character in the second season of their show ("Orange is the New Black" broke similar ground casting Laverne Fox to play Sophia Burset).
These shows are doing such thrilling, necessary work, and they barely register as a blip on the critical radar. A notable exception to this rule is New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum, who continually impresses me with her gutsy critiques of Prestige White Dude TV and her fearless championing of Decidedly Not White Dude Television. Alyssa Rosenberg of the Washington Post is another cultural critic who is a great inclusivity ally. They’re out there. These voices exist. And so the these two ABC Family shows do remains largely critically ignored because they are not on A Station That Old White Dudes Watch.
I’m tired of going along with the notion that the cream rises to the top in television. It doesn’t. This is not a meritocracy. It’s a Privileged Straight White Man-ocracy. And it has insidiously brainwashed us all into thinking that the best work being done on television has to have a troubled white male at the center of the action (and/or a white bro who is CAUSING all the trouble). And this just isn’t the case. We either need to drastically expand our definition of what is allowed to sit on the Prestige Throne, or we need to throw the throne out of the palace altogether and establish a Round Table where all worthy shows can sit like equals.