Somewhere, in a prop warehouse owned by HBO, there is a big pile of guns. Dusty, unused, bewildered perhaps by their strange and sudden obsolescence, they can only wait and wonder why premium subscriber television has simply abandoned them.
Where once Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen (“Deadwood”) and Jimmy McNulty (“The Wire”) ruled their hellish fiefdoms with a righteous love of the f-word and a fistful of bullets, now a sweet-voiced Botswanan lady detective solves crimes without a cell phone, much less a weapon (“The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency”); a sassy Southern gal explores the nature of love with a sad, sensitive vampire (“True Blood”); and the once-rough-and-tumble hunk Gabriel Byrne sits around listening to a bunch of neurotic New Yorkers talk about their feelings (“In Treatment”).
And it isn’t just HBO forgoing blood and guts. At Showtime, “Brotherhood,” the only traditionally he-man show still standing, is on the bubble. “Dexter” may have a very high body count, but he’s more criminal mastermind than cowboy (and he’s pretty domestic for a serial killer).
“The Tudors” has plenty of megalomanic violence (the time period, of course, precludes real firepower), but at its heart it’s a costume drama, with as many heaving bosoms as a supermarket bodice-ripper.
Otherwise, we’re looking at a crazy mom (“United States of Tara”), a pot mom (“Weeds”), Tracey Ullman’s “State of the Nation,” and “Californication,” in which David Duchovny plays what is essentially the anti-“real man.” (No, that most definitely isn’t a gun in his pocket.)
Take a quick trip over network way, and though there are still plenty of blood and “drop-your-weapon” moments, there is also the new and continually cloning cerebral detective.
On “The Mentalist,” “Eleventh Hour,” “Lie to Me” and “Castle,” the brains behind the operation are not authorized to pack any heat. Meanwhile, “Life on Mars,” which returned viewers to the pre-“Serpico” days, when men were men and police officially brutal, just got the ax.
On FX, “The Shield” is gone, leaving Patty Hewes, the calculating central character of “Damages”; she may be a mob boss in her own way, but she does all her best work with words.
NBC’s “Southland” shows gritty promise, but the closest thing we have to the old-fashioned drunk and disorderly, weapon-wielding hero is Grace Hanadarko on TNT’s “Saving Grace.”
It’s almost as if the gun-control lobby, or women, to whom many of these new shows are clearly skewed (possibly because more women watch television than men), have secretly taken over television.
Except of course it isn’t, and they haven’t. The pendulum swings one way and then it swings another, and the world in which “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” and “Deadwood” were revolutionary television has changed, mostly because of the existence of “The Sopranos,” “The Wire” and “Deadwood.”
Though no one can replicate the greatness of such shows, their tone and their envelope-pushing sex, violence and beyond-black humor have been replicated over the years into nonexistence; even the best photocopier will wind up with only shadows at a certain point.
So those looking to continue or re-establish their reputations as industry innovators are taking another tack – the psychological over the physical, the lush over the gritty, the adult over the sophomoric, the feminine over the masculine.
It’s a big gamble, particularly that last. Yes, women are still a slight majority, but conventional wisdom, buttressed by market analysis, has always held that though women will watch and read stories about both genders, most men limit themselves to stories about other men.
In other words, when you have the right writers and actors, even a balding, fat mob leader can become a sex symbol.
Which brings us back to HBO, which recently launched the most improbable television series ever conceived. Critical raves notwithstanding, “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” is, by industry standards, a primer for how to make a show guaranteed to not succeed.
It not only has no guns, no sex and no f-bombs, but a slow and steady pace and a large and cheerful black woman as a main character who drinks only bush tea and is motivated by a need to do good.
A gun introduced in the first act still should go off in the third, but sometimes you can have great drama without a gun at all.
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