I’ve seen the future of television drama and it’s . . . “edgy.” It broaches new levels of sexual explicitness and punctures TV taboos in prime time. It plays Brechtian games with form, mixes up genres and registers, constantly reminds viewers of the constructed nature of what they’re watching. It avoids easy narrative resolutions and toys with unhappy endings. It looks groundbreaking but essentially creates the contours for a new middlebrow.
You won’t find this stuff on network TV yet, but on cable’s pay channels. HBO pioneered the new style with The Sopranos, Sex in the City, Oz, and Six Feet Under, along with the related genre of feel-bad comedy à la Curb Your Enthusiasm. Now Showtime, Pearl Jam to HBO’s Nirvana, is muscling in on the alt-TV market. The network’s slogan is “No Limits,” and a current ad boasts, “Daring, provocative, undeniably different.” Until recently, the channel’s strategy was to target the neglected niche markets and identity-politics tribes of this divided nation: gays with Queer as Folk, Latinos with Resurrection Boulevard, smart buppies with Soul Food. (Lesbians will be catered to this fall with The L Word, Ilene Chaiken’s drama about West Hollywood dykes.) But now, with new series like Out of Order and Dead Like Me, both premiering in June, Showtime is reaching out to a broader mainstream audience that craves something more piquant and hip.
According to Gary Levine, executive VP of original programming at Showtime, the network is “looking for complex material that shines a light on the world in a way that more commercial fare on advertiser-supported television can’t.” He believes that Showtime’s setup gives them immediate advantages. “It starts with something as simple as this: We don’t have to build to some artificial mini-cliffhanger every 12 minutes so people will come back after the commercials, because we don’t have any commercials. That alone makes advertiser-supported television a very unnatural-feeling world. And the subject matter we’re willing to explore has no bounds. . . . Because we are not dancing to the tune of advertisers, the demographics are less crucial. We want subscribers, and they come in all shapes and sizes.”
“Edgy” requires taboos for the tweaking, and as the success of Six Feet Under shows, death is one of the most potent unmentionables. Showtime’s Dead Like Me, a weekly series that debuts June 27, is all over the subject like maggots on a corpse. The show’s teenage heroine gets snuffed barely half an hour into the series’ amusing pilot episode. Georgia (Ellen Muth) escapes her miserable life as a temp only to find herself stuck with a truly (un)dead-end gig, as a grim reaper. Invisible to mortals, she rounds up freshly deceased souls in tandem with her quirky colleagues Mandy Patinkin and Jasmine Guy, pausing every so often to deliver deep existential soliloquies directly to the viewer.
Out of Order, a series about the ailing relationship of a husband-and-wife screenwriting team in Los Angeles, is also fond of breaking the fourth wall. The entire two-hour pilot is framed as a trial, with Mark (Eric Stoltz) addressing the audience as his jury: “I’m about to place my fate in the hands of you, the jury. Yes, you out there sitting on the couch with your remote control.” Every so often, the camera pulls back to reveal the camera crew on the periphery of the “scene,” or someone holding up cue cards. The show links this frolicking with form to Mark’s occupation as a screenwriter. “Since I was a kid I’ve imagined my life as a movie, imagined a crew surrounding me,” he voice-overs at one point. He and wife Lorna (Felicity Huffman of Sports Night fame) often have competing cinematic visions: Mark sees a family confrontation as a scene from Raging Bull, while Lorna imagines herself as Dirty Harriet blowing the Thanksgiving turkey to smithereens with a shotgun.
The meta-knowingness can be kind of funny: In one scene, Mark is relating how men have sex on the brain. For a moment, the camera scans the park with Mark’s lusty eyes, physically appraising every woman that passes, then halts on a blond sex kitten who turns out to be jailbait. “Uh oh,” Mark’s subconscious mutters, “Polanski-ville. Not going there.” But mostly the show is tiresome in that clever-for-no-apparent-reason way. Each of the two episodes I’ve seen includes a scene in which Stoltz comes across a machine that has an “Out of Order” sign, a self-reflexive gesture that serves no real purpose. The constant cinematic references and obtrusive, almost Godard-like alienation effects sit uneasily with what is essentially a naturalistic “quality drama” about marital dysfunction, partners growing apart, and the onset of middle age. Albeit with a more diffuse narrative, a fair amount of cunnilingus, and lots of flashy camera work (particularly effective during a scene in which Mark jigs around the room on Ecstasy). Drugs are matter-of-factly incorporated into the everyday life of these characters (Lorna has a weakness for pot), but without the dire consequences and repentance that are obligatory in network television. But the real new frontier for the new edgy TV drama is jerking off: Early into its recent series, Six Feet Under‘s Nate stopped by the side of the road to release some tension caused by his married-with-a-kid status, and during Out of Order we see Mark having a wank in both of the first two episodes.
The most interesting thing about Out of Order may be its gender politics. Lorna is the dominant one professionally, while Mark is an oddly epicene character, with a high voice (Lorna reprimands him for shrieking like a girl at their son’s soccer game), a smallish penis, and a tendency to fill his emotional void by stuffing his face with chocolate and Pepperidge Farm Milanos. (He also dances around the room to Garbage’s “Only Happy When It Rains,” a cute Gen-X-reaches-midlife signpost.) When feminized Mark falls for soccer mom Danni, there is a faint air of the lesbian about their affair. Meanwhile, Lorna boozes and shoots the shit with her drug buddy Steven, a washed-up movie producer played by William H. Macy.
An awkward mix of glamour (power meetings with directors like Peter Bogdanovich), Thirtysomething angst, and superfluous postmodern gimcrackery, Out of Order manages to keep you watching even as it irritates. It’s hard to identify with these wealthy characters—something the series self-consciously acknowledges: “I know, nobody sympathizes with someone in a Mercedes,” Mark quips while driving his son to soccer practice. “But it’s the best car I’ve ever had, so don’t hold it against me, OK?” More frustrating is the sense that the show is grasping for a profundity beyond its reach. That’s the new middlebrow for ya.
Hey Monie is a series in the same vein as Sex in the City, except that its feisty gal pals are African American. Oh, and they’re also cartoons. Since March, Hey Monie has been airing Tuesday nights at 8 on BET, the first animated series to place a black woman at its center. Starting June 1, it will also run Sundays at 9:30 on Oxygen, which coproduced it with BET. The show revolves around Simone (a/k/a Monie), an upwardly mobile PR executive. In the episode I previewed, she’s struggling to impress her bosses at work, keep her wily grandma at bay, and stay tight with her best friend, Yvette, who makes her crazy but always comes through, in true sitcom style. Although there’s a little too much righteous head-waggling (of the “Uh-huh, sister, you tell it” variety), the fraught relationship between the sparring women results in some great dialogue and gentle, convincing comedy.