In the first minute of Love, Judd Apatow’s Netflix sitcom, our nebbish, bespectacled hero Gus (Paul Rust) is pictured in bed with his longtime girlfriend picking out a new rug before engaging in some vanilla, missionary-style sex. He is only likable in the sense that there isn’t anything aggressively hateable about him—the sort of reasonably flawed thirty-something Hollywood writers assume make up the overwhelming majority of Americans. He’s not attractive or interesting, but he’s fine. Frankly, most girls would be lucky to end up with someone so not-terrible. So goes the unsaid logic, anyhow.
A world away on HBO, Bobby Cannavale plays Richie Finestra on Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger’s VINYL. Unlike Love, Richie is definitely …something. Our first minute of VINYL shows Richie very clearly in the final throes of a downward spiral, snorting a little nighttime coke in the back alley of a grimy Los Angeles club while his parked car throbs from the energy of a nearby punk rock show. His car is quickly caught up in a stampede of Los Angeles’ young and beautiful rock and roll fans, swarming to get into the club. Richie’s a music record exec. It’s 1970. He doesn’t know what punk rock is yet, but as he watches the next generation writhe to the music, he knows it’s gonna be big. He’s not young, but he’s smart. Any new music genre would be lucky to end up with him at the helm.
These are competently created programs being produced by two of Hollywood’s surest bets. The potential for both is interesting. Who wouldn’t want to see Apatow throw his weight behind the wild, risky proposition of a Netflix series, which remains the rule-breaking, paradigm-shifting Wild West of TV programming? What doesn’t sound appealing about Martin Scorsese—the director of Goodfellas, for god’s sake—turning his attention to one of his great loves: classic rock and roll?
They have different aims and even different audiences in mind, but both are immediately tripped up by their focus. In delving into addictive, wildly diverse worlds full of potentially fascinating characters. But in both cases, Scorsese and Apatow make a centerpiece out of their least interesting characters: a predictably flawed but ultimately redeemable white dude who’s innate dullness is deeply magnified by the kinetic energy of everyone he’s surrounded by.
This is a trope nearly as old as TV itself, but reached critical mass sometime in the past five years when the list of America’s greatest television shows starred uniformly tragically but appealingly flawed white men. Don Draper and Walter White are the prime examples, of course, but there are others. True Detective, House of Cards, The Walking Dead, Hannibal, Justified, Sons of Anarchy, Louie, Sherlock, ad infinitum. Scorsese’s own Boardwalk Empire was guilty, as was Game of Thrones, which only occasionally featured people other than tragically, but not crushingly flawed white men, frequently in states of undress, duress or preferably both.
Outliers? There are plenty. Orange Is the New Black, Scandal, Girls, 30 Rock, Homeland, Parks & Rec, Broad City, The Mindy Project, New Girl, Luther, Empire, Mr. Robot, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Jessica Jones and a multitude of others all excelled at flipping conventional prestige television wisdom on its head, and put someone other than the tragically flawed white male at the lead. And not just anyone else, but fully realized, deeply dimensional characters who defy an elevator pitch. This is a trickier method to pull off, of course. A 2014 study by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies found that 60 percent of broadcast television shows have a writing staff of less than forty percent female. Unsurprisingly, those numbers are worse for minorities, who make up less than ten percent of the writing staff of more than sixty percent of broadcast television shows.
Simply put, television is largely run by white men who like to think of their flaws as beautifully tragic and so are far more likely to greenlight the next Don Draper than the next Mindy Lahiri. But at this point, the results speak for themselves, both in quality and ratings.
In VINYL alone, the supporting cast is dripping with opportunity. For my money, the most interesting choice would be Juno Temple’s Jamie Vine—an eager LA office girl who’s hungry to break the next big band, already falling for a future rock star with a heroin problem and running away from what sounds like a pretty miserable home life. And then there’s Ato Essandoh’s Lester Grimes, a promising soul singer who gets betrayed by his friends and left in the clutches of a violently unpleasant contract. He’s clearly the living, breathing emblem of music’s future in soul and funk, but his story is sidelined. But even he gets more screentime than Olivia Wilde, a bonafide star who plays Devon, a former Warhol Factory Girl who left it all to marry Richie, raise his children and give him glowering looks whenever he starts getting on yet another tragically flawed streak.
Now, the point isn’t that these characters won’t get screentime in the future. This is a show that’s already been given a second season order, so don’t be surprised if the ensemble cast starts getting occasional shots in the spotlight a la Peggy Olson. The point is, they’re all still filtered through the lens of our Normal Person who, for the purposes of television, is assumed to be a straight, white man. Being a woman, a person of color or queer is measured against the white straight male norm.
That’s even clearer in Love, in which there’s barely any attempt to make our principle white straight male a compelling character. In contrast, Gillian Jacobs’ Mickey is a force of nature. Every time she’s onscreen, the narrative quickens. That’s to say nothing of Gus’ socially avante garde platonic gal pal Cori. She’s portrayed by Korean-American comedian and actress Charlyne Yi, who has a long and terrific comedy resume and is here regulated to awkward bff status. The mind boggles at the creative possibilities of following her quest for love in LA. Alas.
Of course, a white straight male protagonist can make for fascinating television, as the past few years of prestige drama has proved. But if VINYL and Love, featuring the world’s arguably most reliably gifted drama and comedic minds, respectively, fumble the execution here, then it’s time to ask how much fuel is really left in the tank.
Representation is often viewed as an appeasing mea culpa to audiences who will make a fuss if they don’t see some token females and minorities in various creative projects. This is in spite of the fact that a 2015 media survey found television shows with a 41-50 percent diverse cast scored the highest ratings in black and white households alike. But if Love and VINYL prove nothing else, it’s not just ratings that get a boost when a show prioritizes diversity. The creativity gets an uptick too.