In the aftermath of his death, many critics have correctly eulogized James Gandolfini's place in pop-culture history by citing his Sopranos role as a before-and-after mark for television. Before Tony Soprano, a drama series could not be built around a lead character who was immoral, violent and unlikable--the hallmarks of a villain rather than a hero. After Tony Soprano, television entered a golden age where drama leads stopped being polite and started getting real, like Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland, 24), Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis, The Shield), Gregory House (Hugh Laurie, House), Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall, Dexter), Don Draper (Jon Hamm, Mad Men), Walter White (Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad), Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi, Boardwalk Empire), Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer, White Collar), and Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant, Justified).
Most of those characters appear on cable, which is still friendlier territory for the antihero, but more importantly, all of those characters are men. In contextualizing the sea change of antiheroes in TV dramas, we must remember that it is still limited to male characters and male actors. There are very few leading antiheroines on television, and virtually none of them have a drama series built around them.
Showtime has created a niche market for antiheroines--Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker, Weeds), Jackie Peyton (Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie), Tara Gregson (Toni Collette, United States of Tara) and Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney, The Big C)--but these are largely comedic roles. The only recent villainess in a dramatic lead role was Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) on Damages. She was every bit as monstrous as Tony Soprano, but her series garnered attention for exactly one year before trailing off into is that show still on? territory and finally dying on Direct TV. Also, the lead role was shared by good girl, point-of-entry character Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), as if viewers couldn't handle an unlikable woman running the show by herself, even though they have no problem identifying with unlikable men. Finally, Glenn Close was a bona fide movie starwho brought the considerable cultural weight of femme fatales and bunny boilers to her role--the audience expected her to be a bitch. She was a typecast exception to the rule.
The women headlining drama series post-Tony Soprano are strong and kick-ass but still traditionally heroic like Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner, Alias), Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay, Law & Order: SVU), Brenda Leigh Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick, The Closer), Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife), Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos, The Killing), Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp, Revenge) and Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington, Scandal). The only one who breaks tradition is Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) in Homeland because of her mental problems and her lusting after a terrorist. But see, there is a terrorist and he shares lead credit with her, thereby establishing Carrie as the law enforcement good girl to Nicholas Brody's (Damien Lewis) bad guy. He is the prototypical antihero, not her.
In the era of leading antiheroes, there is the co-leading antihero wife, who is allowed to be bad, but only when her male lead is at least as worse. These include Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell, The Americans) with her sympathetic rape/background story and suspicions about her husband's loyalties, and Claire Underwood (Robin Wright, House of Cards) whose husband is a murderous villain. Nothing casts a girl in a better light than proximity to an even shadier guy.
In addition to paving the way for a different type of character to lead a drama series, James Gandolfini also paved the way for a different type of actor to lead a drama series--specifically an unattractive, regular-guy, character actor. This includes heavyset men like Gandolfini and Michael Chiklis or unpretty men like Bryan Cranston and Steve Buscemi. Indeed, consider Buscemi with his fish lips, bug eyes, crooked teeth, receding hairline and pasty skin--would an actress with those features ever be the lead of a prestige drama series? Or any series for that matter? Like the woman who works twice as hard as a man for half the credit, even talented character actresses have to be considerably better looking than Steve Buscemi for non-lead dramatic roles--think Allison Janney and Patricia Clarkson. The aforementioned dramatic female headliners are all attractive stars who can slip into sexy clothes (or out of them) when the script demands it.
While TV comedy has produced a few leading women of girth from Roseanne to Melissa McCarthy, TV dramas mostly relegate them to supporting roles like Tyne Daly on Judging Amy or Margo Martindale on Justified. Like Gandolfini, the latter was a heavy character actress playing likably evil in a dramatic fashion to critical acclaim and an Emmy win--but again, she was not the lead and no one like her is headlining a major series on HBO or AMC. The only not-skinny actress who recently headlined a major series was Kathy Bates in Harry's Law, a dramedy that limped off the air unloved. And even then, Bates was like Glenn Close, an Oscar-anointed movie star slumming on TV.
One reason for all this might be Americans' evolving notions about gender. Society may now accept assertive and even physically strong women, but those women still have to be relatable to other women and attractive to men. Another reason may be that actresses are now playing the heroic roles that actors are vacating to play antiheroes. Finally, TV writers write what they know and TV critics like what they know, and since both groups are overwhelmingly male, it's not surprising there might be a stronger focus on an evolving male lead.
None of this is a knock on James Gandolfini, a phenomenal actor who will be missed. Nor is it a knock on his legacy of extraordinary roles currently being written for other actors. But when people talk about antiheroes, the rise of character actors, and a new age of dramatic television, it is important to note that these changes do not yet fully include women.