THE decade opened with an alpha male in a psychiatrist’s office and closed with an alpha male committing himself to a psychiatric institution.
From “The Sopranos” to “House,” men marked the last 10 years of television less as hellions or healers than as analysands — fragile bullies who recognized they were damaged and sought help. The 21st century was ushered in by a He Decade: 10 years of men gazing at their navels.
Naturally, it’s the women’s fault. All those sitcoms and dramas of the ’80s and ’90s that reflected women’s liberation, self-actualization and consciousness raising paid off by wearing down the opposite sex; even made men buckled under the pressure. Accordingly, many of the most notable series of the last 10 years showcased men who examined their feelings or at least acknowledged their limitations.
Put it this way: “Sex and the City,” which began on HBO in 1998 and shut down in 2004, celebrated a certain kind of girl power of the ’90s. This decade is bowing out with “Men of a Certain Age,” a TNT drama about three male friends exploring their powerlessness at midlife.
Even reality television, perhaps the single most radical programming innovation of the last decade, reflects an altered male sensibility. Seemingly macho competitions like “Survivor,” a CBS show that began in 2000, are at heart jungle therapy. To the sound of Robert Bly tribal drums, contestants — male and female — are thrown into encounter groups and prodded to cooperate and clash, then taken aside to describe their fears and discontents in private sessions with the camera.
“The Office” on NBC and its many mockumentary successors are a comic inversion of the reality show stream-of-consciousness conceit. Self-deluded characters misinterpret their own behavior to an invisible filmmaker-therapist.
The first episode of “The Sopranos” actually began on HBO in 1999, but that’s a niggling caveat. It took a year or two for the series to catch on, and even the most distinctive eras sometimes spill over their calendar slots. (The Victorian age spilled into and beyond 1901.)
“The Sopranos” is a series that defined and helped determine the first decade of the 21st century, partly because it put a postmodern spin on the Cosa Nostra fable: the Mafia boss Tony Soprano was a suburban dad with a nagging wife and surly children who suffered acute spells of anxiety that drove him into therapy. The show was notable for its brutal violence and also for long, intense dream sequences that called out for Freudian interpretation.
“The Sopranos” paved the way for other dramas that burrowed into characters’ psyches, dreams and dysfunctions, most notably HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” about a family of undertakers who unravel after the death of the patriarch. The trend reached its apogee on HBO in 2008 with “In Treatment,” which takes place almost entirely in one-on-one psychotherapy sessions and which posits the therapist as a man as troubled and self-doubting as his patients. On television no pathology has been left unexplored: the hero of Showtime’s “Dexter” is a serial killer; its “Californication” is centered on a sex addict.
There are notable exceptions, of course, none better than “The Wire,” a Dickensian saga about crime and corruption in Baltimore that ran for five seasons on HBO. With multiple layers and scores of characters, the show required attentive viewing and to this day defies easy categorization. It was the best show of the decade if only because it was so different from any other.
So many dramas, good and bad, focused narrowly on the male mind. Every cop and fireman came with a set of complexes; witness “The Shield” and “Rescue Me” on FX. Fictional detectives have been eccentric and unorthodox since the days of Sherlock Holmes and Arsène Lupin, so it’s not unusual for television cops to be freakier than the robbers (and rapists).
But TV’s romance with the masculine psyche can be found even in the most prosaic network crime shows, including the evolution of “Law & Order” spinoffs. The original, which started on NBC in 1990, was conceived by its creator, Dick Wolf, as an antidote to crime shows like “NYPD Blue,” which fastened onto the psychic distress of antiheroes like Andy Sipowicz. For a while, at least, “Law & Order” kept crime and punishment in the foreground and gave viewers only sketchy details about the private lives of its detectives and prosecutors.
But even Mr. Wolf’s template gave in to the times. In 1999, on the cusp of a new century, came “Law & Order: SVU,” a procedural about sex crimes, but it soon turned out that some of the most lurid moments were found in the romantic and psychological entanglements of its central characters. By 2001 the lead detective on another spinoff, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” was a former altar boy burdened with a schizophrenic mother and a disturbing ability to bond with criminals and the criminally insane. In an episode titled “Untethered,” the detective (Vincent D’Onofrio) implodes and is suspended for psychiatric evaluation.
Female detectives are messed up as well, but in a welcome reversal of gender roles they are far more repressed about their feelings and failings. Nowadays they tend to follow the classic Raymond Chandler model, notably those played by Kyra Sedgwick, Holly Hunter and Mary McCormack on their shows on TNT. All three crime fighters are tough, dedicated loners who shirk help and hide their vulnerabilities under flip banter or bossiness. They are closer in spirit to Philip Marlowe than Miss Marple or Jessica Fletcher.
On the other hand, one of the most beloved private eyes of the decade was Tony Shalhoub in USA’s “Monk,” as a San Francisco detective with near crippling obsessive-compulsive disorder forced to leave the San Francisco Police Department.
Private eyes have throughout history nursed their wounds with alcohol; the Chandleresque hero of “Bored to Death” on HBO smokes too much pot and has low self-esteem.
It may not be a coincidence that mental illness became a new frontier in television entertainment at the same time reality television took hold. But the trend reflects the popularization of serotonin and books like “Prozac Nation.” In 2005 NBC actually tried out a sitcom, “Committed,” a romantic comedy about an obsessive-compulsive math genius and his nutty girlfriend.
Women are not spared the psychotherapy, of course (but they’ve been on the couch for a while). Most notably, Toni Collette plays a wife and mother with multiple personalities on “The United States of Tara” on Showtime. Nowadays the patient is likely male, and sometimes even a doctor, as in “House,” who last season checked himself into a mental hospital to grapple with his drug addiction and other demons.
In May, Fox tried to clone the success of “House” by adapting the trope to a psychiatrist, but “Mental” fell flat, perhaps because its hero was a little too well meaning and healthy for contemporary audiences.
Fox’s “24,” a cartoon thriller with complex special effects, also fell under the spell of the neurasthenic age. Unlike Bruce Willis in “Die Hard” or Steven Seagal in anything, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) was an avenger with a delicate soul: no matter how hard he struggled to be a heartless, feel-no-pain alpha operative, Jack couldn’t suppress remorse and self-doubt. Terrorism’s toll on his mental health was almost as central to the series as the threats to national security.
Naturally, all this psychobabble met with resistance. Premium cable rebelled with period dramas that placed its characters in past eras untouched by Dr. Phil and the domestication of the American male. “Deadwood” on HBO was set in a lawless gold-rush town in the 1870s and offered viewers a primitive, brutal community with no room for angst or midlife crisis. “Mad Men” on AMC is set in the early 1960s, and its hero, Don Draper, shuns his past and refuses to deal with his inner demons; instead he sends his unfulfilled wife to a psychiatrist who reports back to Don about her progress.
There were other pockets of denial, notably the “CSI” procedurals on CBS that made a fetish of science and kept characters and their shadow selves in the background. The top CBS dramas provide a safe haven from all these masculine effusions of feeling and self-scrutiny: the characters on “NCIS” and the spinoff “NCIS: Los Angeles” stay light no matter how dark the crimes; almost all the heroes have murky, traumatic tragedy in their past and choose not to dwell on it.
It could be that the pendulum on television is already swinging the other way; 2010 could be the beginning of the end of the years of living introspectively.