Pancakes for Husbands

Curator's Note

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



You are right on the mark about the husband characters on Nurse Jackie and United States of Tara. The flattness of their roles, the dull masculinity they represent, raises questions for me, too, as a viewer of both shows. I agree that the house husband can be a refreshing change from the macho and strong-leading-man stereotypes; however, Kevin and Max don't provide a refreshing enough change for me.

Your comments take me to Nick @ Nite, the reruns of 60s and 70s sitcoms: although I haven't analyzed this fully, it does seem that the housewives in those shows are not quite as dud-y as Kevin and Max. They conform to a 60s/70s model of the middle-class, white housewife; however, they also have some substance and effect on episode plots -- even if minor and in service to their husbands' decisions and actions (I'm thinking here of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie). Do you think that the writers of Nurse Jackie and United States of Tara have gone too far, perhaps, in their attempts to portray domestic masculinity (I mean beyond verisimilitude)?

I have also wondered why this has happened to masculine characterization on these two shows? What is it about both shows (their overall narrative strategy, the worlds they aim to present) that require Kevin/Max roles? I haven't worked out answers to these questions; however, I suspect that the answer in relation to United States of Tara might be quite different from the answer in relation to Nurse Jackie.

Finally, would you make the same argument for the representation of masculinity in Weeds and Big Love -- or True Blood, even The Closer for that matter? It seems to me that the representations of neither men nor women nor even children are as pancake flat as the representations of husbands on Nurse Jackie and United States of Tara.

You raise great questions, Carra.

I'm not sure if it's that the writers of Nurse Jackie and Tara have gone too far in their attempts to portray domestic masculinity. Part of me simplistically thinks so much effort, energy, and screen time are devoted to the female leads, that it's (mis-)treated as a zero-sum game, and thus the men are given the short end of the stick -- or, as you wrote, "dull masculinity."

I like your question about the representations of masculinity in those other series. Andy from Weeds is likely the closest dominant (or at least constant?) male figure in Nancy Botwin's life. Though he plays their uncle, Andy takes on a paternal role with Nancy's sons. And while he's a major source of comedy, his character stills exhibits much more complexity than Kevin and Max do.

As far as Big Love goes, this most recent season was uneven and a little outrageous, but I enjoyed seeing Bill Henrickson making repugnant choices that benefited only him and not his family -- and not at the cost of the development of Barb, Nicki, or Margene either. It felt like "old school" HBO.

Hello, Carra.

I have now watched the first two episodes of each new season of Jackie and Tara -- sadly, nothing new or transformational, despite the episodes being entertaining.

Then again, I don't watch any previews of future episodes (to avoid any spoilers), so you may have seen something that I didn't see.

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