We are supposedly living in the golden age of the television anti-hero and yet, as Breaking Bad recently came to its brutal, bleak end, it was hard not to hope that troubled men like Walter White, with their furrowed brows and complex pasts, have had their day. After all, when every US import comes complete with its own morally conflicted male, isn’t television ripe for something new? Something, perhaps, with a more feminine twist?
That seems to be the thinking behind a slew of recent dramas, which have kept moral ambiguity centre stage but allowed women to take the lead. In Masters of Sex, which started on Channel 4 last week, Mad Men’s rules were inverted as Lizzy Caplan’s ambitious secretary, Virginia Johnson, brushed off her eager young doctor beau with a very Don Draper-esque lack of regret. Sky Atlantic’s new thriller The Tunnel, a UK remake of Scandinavian hit The Bridge, features Clémence Poésy as a brilliant but emotionally detached detective while the first series of hit Netflix prison drama Orange is the New Black gave us an array of difficult women.
But of all these shows, Masters of Sex is the most fascinating because it gives us an anti-heroine who feels different and new. Traditionally TV’s bad girls are acceptable only if in a supporting role – Luther’s Alice Morgan – or broken in some way. Thus, Homeland’s Carrie is bipolar; Nurse Jackie is a drug addict; Poesy’s detective is on the autism spectrum; and even Girls’ Hannah Horvath has OCD.
There have been exceptions to this rule: HBO’s prematurely cancelled Enlightened gave us Laura Dern’s gloriously manipulative Amy Jellicoe, while political soap Scandal is anchored by Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope, an anti-heroine so outrageous she not only stole an election but also had an affair with the man she got elected. But crucially, even in these instances, both women are child free. We might accept that women can break bad but not if they’re placing their children at risk.
And that’s what makes Virginia Johnson so interesting. A twice-divorced mother of two who revels in her sexual appeal. Her actions – having sex without strings, refusing to place her children over her job, bending the truth in her job interview – are transgressive for her time but, in contrast to other anti-heroines, she isn’t traumatised, troubled or sick. She proves you can break society’s rules without breaking yourself and her unapologetic enjoyment of life feels both fresh and long overdue.