A strong argument can be made, I'd say, that television series hold up a mirror to society. If that's true, any American man looking bleary-eyed -- or even clear-eyed -- at his image in the bathroom glass is gazing at someone severely damaged. Or compromised. Or both.
Sure, we'll all agree we've come a long way since father knew best. We've grown accustomed to male bumblers on boob-tube sitcom after sitcom. But what I'm talking about goes much farther into the sphere of the extremely damaged -- sometimes physically, sometimes mentally, sometimes physically and mentally or, at least, pushed to the limits of physical and mental endurance.
Need examples. Take Gregory House who lends his surname to Fox's blockbuster House. Not only does he have a game leg as a result of a misdiagnosed condition but he's so addicted to pain-killers he could be the poster boy for Vicodin. What about In Treatment (itals for title) psychotherapist Paul Weston, who needs his own shrink and is even worse off in the just-inaugurated second season now that he's divorced and minus his children?
There's Charlie Crews of Life, who has his wits about him but is caught in a mystery surrounding his recent 12-year jail sentence and who's behind his imprisonment after being wrongly convicted of murdering a partner and the partner's family. Sure, he solves the weekly homicides with his signature thin-lipped smile and a figurative snap of his fingers but never without being preoccupied by a search to unravel the presumed conspiracy against him.
Not to mention Eli Stone of Eli Stone, apparently due to be canceled after the final four episodes are aired this summer. Stone is a whiz at getting to the bottom of his defending-lawyer's cases but only because the brain aneurysm he suffers -- and to which he could succumb at any moment -- affords him discombobulating second-sight. And don't forget Michael Westen of Burn Notice , another hero under a siege not unlike Charlie Crews'. A former international spy, he's been dropped by his agency and left to fend for himself existentially while he picks up detective assignments in Miami. Both Westen and Crews are in good health, but their dilemmas place them in constant peril, take the air out of their lungs.
But as late-night commercials phrase it: Wait, there's more. Consider fireman Artie Gavin of Rescue Me with his almost Section-Eight nutcase ruling and AA membership. How's about brilliant but obsessive-compulsive Adrian Monk of Monk) or Don Draper of Mad Men, who's living a made-up life to disguise his lower-class origins.
Scope out Jack Bauer of 24 . Until this season -- during which the ratings are off, perhaps as a consequence of the writers strike-generated hiatus -- Bauer's government-agent work hampered him with family relationships but he usually justified his proclivities to violence as necessary. This season, he's airing his misgivings more frequently and, worse, has become literally and dangerously ill as a result of being exposed to a biotoxin.
Yes, Jack Bauer is literally and terminally sick. He's Jack Bauer, of course, and will survive. Nevertheless, his situation added to the plethora of situations in which the other teledrama heroes find themselves -- don't overlook Tony Soprano's therapy sessions -- make it difficult not to sense a metaphorical sickness abounding in the United States to which television writers and producers are responding, consciously or unconsciously. It's metaphysical dysphoria to which they're holding up that unforgiving mirror.
But how new is this? There's no denying that in the past The Fugitive (, for instance, depicted a man accused of murdering his wife hunting down the real killer while being pursued Les Miserables-like by a relentless policeman.
Ironside dealt with the eponymous detective confined to a wheelchair. ER's John Carter confronted a drug problem. In addition, there's no getting away from afflicted women like Patty Hewes in the tellingly titled Damages or screwed-up Grace Hanadarko in Saving Grace.
So granted that there have been imperiled television heroes before now and granted that there may be some women under psychic attack, but the overwhelming abundance of men in extremis nowadays seems to be pointing to something abroad that's more acute, more dire about men in America today.
But to what can it be traced? Can it be that the empowerment accorded women as a result of the feminist movement somehow simultaneously led to the perceived dis-empowerment of men? Or is the psychological climate change -- while a challenge -- not so much a dis-empowerment as a recognition that men and women are equally weak and strong? Are the tv-series men facing poor physical or mental health actually a healthy sign? Maybe. Maybe this is an overdue recognition that men -- traditionally socialized to be strong, to deny their flaws adamantly -- are finally able to come face to face with them. Face to face with them, that is, in television's ever-present mirror.