Seitz: How the Best Shows Are Turning Viewers Into Shrinks

Damian Lewis as Nicholas
Photo: Kent Smith/Showtime 2011

The fourth episode of Homeland’s first season included a scene that illustrated just how far scripted TV has come in the 40-plus years I’ve been watching it. Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), a recently returned POW who might be a terrorist sleeper agent, shocked guests at a backyard party by grabbing a handgun and shooting a deer that had wandered onto his lawn. “It was eating all your flowers; what’s the big deal?” he asked his terrified wife, Jessica (Morena Baccarin). Why did Brody kill the deer? Because he was angry that his best friend, Mike, had fallen in love with Jessica while he was presumed dead in Iraq, and he saw Mike touch her arm at the party? Because his traumatic experience in secret terrorist prisons had made him a danger to himself and others? Or was the killing of the deer a dry run for whatever plot government profilers feared he was cooking up? All of the above? None? We couldn’t know at that point, and Homeland wasn’t about to tell us. We had to make an educated guess while leaving open the possibility that the mystery of Brody might never be solved.

Try to imagine a show like Homeland existing twenty years ago, or even five. You can’t. It’s one of the most dramatically and psychologically evolved series on television and one of the most demanding. It plays fair, mostly, but it also makes you work. You have to watch every scene, scrutinize every line and gesture, and dig out nuggets of insight without obvious clues from the writers and filmmakers.

TV wasn’t always like this. With rare exceptions, dramas and comedies were bubble gum for the mind. Psychology only got as deep as a single episode would allow. Shows were linear and goal-directed, and wrapped things up before the final credits: Catch the crook; win the case; develop a drug problem, then get clean. Characters rarely left TV’s well-paved narrative roads to hike along twisted personal paths, and their motivations were disclosed in dialogue that seemed to have been written by yutzes who came out of Citizen Kane thinking the sled explained everything. Director Sidney Lumet and playwright-­screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky — both of whom started in TV — called this the Rubber Ducky School of Drama. “Someone once took his rubber ducky away from him, and that’s why he’s a deranged killer,” Lumet wrote in Making Movies. Even the best shows were guilty: Archie Bunker got drunk and revealed that his right-wing, racist dad used to beat him. Homicide’s Detective Bayliss was a depressive, angry, kinky mystery until writers “solved” him by revealing that he’d been sexually abused by an uncle.

A symbolically loaded milestone arrived in January 1999, when the pilot of David Chase’s The Sopranos opened with its hero, mob boss Tony Soprano, squirming in the waiting room before his first appointment with his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi. Tony was there seeking treatment for panic attacks, but over the next six seasons, what he got — and what viewers got—was a guided tour of his tortured, hypocritical, self-justifying mind. The Sopranos was sprawling and ambitious, folding gangland violence, domestic drama, and social satire into each script, but Tony’s psyche was always its anchor. The show was less about what he did than why he did it, and the week-to-week plotting served mostly to fill his psychiatric case file.

To some degree, every modern scripted show worth talking about has absorbed The Sopranos’s lessons, letting characters develop over time and allowing viewers into the nooks and crannies of their minds. Homeland, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Treme, Boardwalk Empire, Sons of Anarchy, Louie, Girls, Community, Nurse Jackie, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Enlightened, The Office, 30 Rock, and Modern Family are as dissimilar as the animals at the Bronx Zoo, but they share two important characteristics: They’re more interested in the Why than the What, and they don’t care if you approve of their characters from scene to scene or week to week. They just want you to keep watching with a mix of empathy and clinical detachment. Like Dr. Melfi.

If The Sopranos taught us anything, though, it’s that change is not just hard but slow. Even the great dramas that hit the air after that show’s 2007 finale have psychological training wheels, and in the aughts, a lot of them had psychiatry scenes, or elements that suggested therapy or confession — moments when the characters spoke right to us and told us what they were feeling. HBO alone aired several shows set in therapists’ offices, including In Treatment and Tell Me You Love Me, and network comedies ­borrowed an affectation of documentaries and reality shows: having characters talk to an invisible interviewer.

Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, which premiered a month after The Sopranos ended, and Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, which debuted the following winter, may not have given the audience surrogates like Dr. Melfi to psychoanalyze their anti-heroes for us. But Mad Men is full of contextual clues, visual motifs, dream sequences, therapy and confession scenes, and nods to historical events, all of which help us decode Don Draper. And Walter White’s psychological trajectory on Breaking Bad is on conceptual rails, too, thanks to Gilligan’s oft-quoted promise that the series will “turn Mr. Chips into Scarface.” When a child was mysteriously poisoned near the end of season four, many viewers assumed the culprit was Walt’s nemesis, Gus Fring, who had endangered children in the past; but when we found out Walt was the poisoner, it made sense, because over the last 46 episodes he’d been inching toward Scarface one bad deed at a time.

But this past season, the training wheels started to come off. Homeland, Louie, Enlightened, and Girls refuse to unpack their characters’ baggage for us; they let the viewer do it. Homeland, which returns this month, is exceptional in this regard; it might be the least viewer-­coddling drama on American TV. From the very first scene, you felt unbalanced because the characters are so complex and elusive. The show’s heroine, Carrie (Claire Danes), was bipolar and sneaked off-the-books medication from her doctor sister so that her bosses wouldn’t learn of her condition and revoke her security clearance. She’s the heroine, but we’re never sure how much we can trust her. Carrie’s quarry, Brody, was presented as a traumatized but essentially decent Marine, just telegenic enough to run for office, but he pulled our sympathies every which way, and even after the season finale we still can’t quite read him. Carrie’s boss, Saul (Mandy Patinkin), seemed honest, wise, and patriotic, but near the end of Season One we weren’t so sure; between his marital woes, unshakable belief in his own rightness, and fatherly indulgence of Carrie, he could be primed to self-destruct, too. Each character contains multitudes. None is “likable.” And you can’t predict the plot because Homeland is without precedent, as strange, new, and endlessly fascinating as that show with the gangster squirming in his chair.

Homeland forgoes an audience surrogate, too, and mostly avoids the contextual prompting of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, so its recappers are more likely to come to different conclusions. Watercooler discussion has shifted away from “Did you see what happened?” toward “Why do you think that happened?” “I kinda saw the deer as a sit-in for Mike,” said a commenter on Alan Sepinwall’s HitFix recap. Todd VanDerWerff of AV Club thought the deer killing was a statement on how “those returning from war — in any era — are at best unable to be understood by civilians and at worst tossed aside by society.” Vulture’s recapper Joe Reid recalled that in an earlier scene with the deer, the animal was “encroaching on their yard from the same angle that [a] reporter took a few weeks ago.” All these interpretations feel true, but none alone explains Brody.

The old, easy answers that TV once supplied seem as much a relic of bygone days as sets with rabbit ears. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to interpret a character like Girls’s Hannah Horvath or Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman, but interpret them we do. And viewers’ interpretations reveal as much about us as they do the characters. Are you a prude for thinking less of Mad Men’s Joan for sleeping with a client in exchange for a partnership? Do you think Carrie and Brody’s furtive romantic weekend was a horrible mistake, or do you secretly wish they’d get back together—or both? Do you know why you like or dislike a character? Do you know why you wish them happiness, or want them dead? Are you denying something?    

This story appears in the September 17, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.

How Shows Are Turning Viewers Into Shrinks