And Chase certainly didn't invent the antihero. American literature is littered with men in varying states of fracture, from the hypocritical Arthur Dimmesdale ("The Scarlet Letter") and "Moby-Dick's" obsessive Ahab to Bret Easton Ellis' "American Psycho." Much modern fiction lauds moral ambiguity as a sign of intelligence, the damaged lead as the true Everyman. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Updike, Mailer, Faulkner and Styron battled evil and banality in equal measure, their characters wounded and wounding warriors of the existential age. Tales that dealt with other themes might be good, but there was only one Great Story: Man versus Himself in a callous and confusing new world.
Never mind the rather insulting and wrong-headed insinuation that only women would benefit from more diverse lead characters, the real issue is not so much better serving the female audience — women love Dexter and Don Draper as much as the next guy — as it is broadening the definition of Important Story. The reliance on violence and vice to establish a show as deep and fearless all but requires male leads; with the exception of, perhaps, Patty Hewes on "Damages," women on television still cannot get away with murder.
Female leads, or so conventional wisdom tells us, can be complicated but they must be likable. The recent American remake of "Prime Suspect" softened the British antiheroine Jane Tennison to the point that she wore a kicky hat (and sank like a stone), while the bipolar reactions to HBO's "Girls" (It's the Holy Grail! It's sexist propaganda!) illustrate just what happens when this particular world order is even questioned.
Sundance Channel took baby steps away from the haunted hero model last year with Jane Campion's "Top of the Lake." Though bearing certain hallmarks of the Prestige in a Box (cops, dirt, violence against women), the show revolved around a woman with a more open-ended sensibility and often wandered into an amusing and insightful B-plot about a group of women literally fleeing the world of men. And though the latest antihero offerings — Showtime's "Ray Donovan" and "Low Winter Sun" — met with much ennui, comedies including "Girls," "Veep," "Nurse Jackie," "Enlightened" and most recently "Orange Is the New Black," have begun generating the sort of awards nominations and critical buzz previously reserved for dramas.
Along with a few police procedurals, these dark, almost borderline unfunny comedies have become the female equivalent of Important Television. Good shows, some even great shows, but not granted the same social respect as their dramatic peers. Which is why Netflix opened its original content gambit with "House of Cards" and slid out "Orange Is the New Black" with relatively little fanfare during the summer; not surprisingly, "House of Cards" dutifully scooped up an armful of Emmy nominations.
"Orange Is the New Black," however, may change the world. Or at least help end the tyranny of the self-absorbed antihero.
Jenji Kohan's adaptation of Piper Kerman's tale of serving time in a women's prison is an epic of a whole different stripe. On one level it is the female equivalent of "Oz," comedic where "Oz" was grim, focused on the delicate piecework of negotiation rather than the blinding fear of power.
It all requires the most auspicious cavalcade of socially, economically, sexually and racially diverse female characters ever seen on any screen, and none of them are lovable in the traditional sense. Prison has stripped them of their accessories, both literal and narrative; a premium is put on action, on ability rather than personality. "Orange Is the New Black" proves that women don't have to be likable or sexually alluring or deliciously catty to hold our interest, that multi-faceted female angst and enlightenment are just as compelling as the male variety.
"Orange Is the New Black" proves that the Second Wave of televisionism is upon us. It may remain hard to be a straight white guy in today's big bad world, but prestige, like suffrage, needs to become universal.