After working a long day at her hospital, nurse Jackie Peyton returns home. She greets her two young daughters who are excited to see their mother and the Moon Pie she has brought them. Jackie works her way into the kitchen, stealthily puts her wedding band back on, and sees a man wiping his hands with a dishtowel. Sporting a ring of his own, the man says, “Hey, babe. I made pancakes for dinner. How great is that?” (See clip.) In his first moment, Kevin Peyton embraces the stereotypical housewife role – watching over the children, proudly greeting his partner at home, and preparing dinner for the family. We can’t help but wonder, as Showtime delivers another boring male figure, where have you gone, Tony Soprano?
Following a decade in which HBO was King Midas in the world of television, churning out hits like The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and Six Feet Under, Showtime original programming has burst on the scene with niche programs of its own. Weeds, The United States of Tara, and Nurse Jackie center on complexly drawn, female leads, who have provided a welcome contrast to the male protagonists who dominated popular HBO and FX series throughout most of the 2000s.
Representations of masculinity on television shifted during this period. Dramatic series gave us more complex characters, as Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, and Al Swearengen exhibited duplicitous, adulterous, or murderous desires. Later in the decade, as HBO lost both its visionary CEO Chris Albrecht and its signature series The Sopranos within a tumultuous five-week period in 2007, Showtime and other cable channels continued their assault on Goliath. Female characters started making their own disastrous, self-destructive choices, either to help their families or merely to please (and simultaneously punish) themselves. For instance, Weeds’ Nancy Botwin became her neighborhood marijuana dealer, an operation that escalated into violent struggles with rival drug dealers and mobsters in Southern California and Mexico.
Actress Edie Falco, who played Tony Soprano’s materialistic yet unfulfilled wife Carmela, represents a bridge that connects these momentous periods for HBO and Showtime. She currently plays the titular character in Nurse Jackie, which, like The United States of Tara, premiered to significant buzz and critical acclaim in 2009. Jackie is an overworked nurse who tries to juggle her job, marriage, two daughters, an affair, and an affinity for painkillers. Tara stars Toni Collette, who has won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her portrayal(s) of a woman with dissociative identity disorder.
Despite inroads made by Showtime, these two shows have failed to develop complicated husbands. Tara’s Max and Jackie’s Kevin – played by two Sex and the City alums[i] – are devoted, supportive, and yet ordinary. The final scene from the Nurse Jackie pilot exemplifies how Showtime female leads have evolved and their men have become subservient characters and partners. Kevin emphatically adopts the role of the stereotypical housewife, something Max is proud to do as well. Whenever Tara transforms into one of her alters, her dutiful husband cleans up whatever havoc she wreaks. Have the iconic, flawed male protagonists (d)evolved into boring homemakers? Men proudly cooking dinner and caring for their families provide refreshingly new gender representations on today’s television, but these husbands are often as flat as … pancakes.
[i] John Corbett and Dominic Fumusa, respectively