Three (White, Male) Tough Guys Sign Off. Is It a Moment?
Biologists trace changes in the environment through die-offs: a lake of belly-up fish or a sudden drop in the honey bee population. The …
Biologists trace changes in the environment through die-offs: a lake of belly-up fish or a sudden drop in the honey bee population. The television ecosphere is less conducive to scientific analysis — the recent arrival of the final episodes of “Bosch,” “Mr. Inbetween” and “Jack Irish” within just over a month could be coincidental. On the other hand, it could be a sign that the climate has become less hospitable to hard-boiled crime dramas with middle-aged white male heroes.
This convergence wouldn’t be worth mentioning if the shows involved were ordinary, but all three were superior, if disparate, examples of their genre. (Spoilers ahead for each show’s final season.) “Bosch,” whose seventh and last season streamed June 25 on Amazon Prime Video, was the best procedural police show around during its run. The Australian dramedy “Mr. Inbetween,” whose third and final season ended July 13 on FX, was sui generis, a smart, deadpan, quietly daft deconstruction of tough-guy clichés.
“Jack Irish,” which ends its run of three TV movies and three seasons with Monday’s episode on Acorn TV, was more lightweight and formulaic than those two, a breezy but downbeat neo-noir with an angsty private eye surrounded by colorful reprobates. It was elevated by its lovely Melbourne setting and a stellar cast led by Guy Pearce as Irish. (That two of the three shows were Australian may say something about environments more congenial to traditionally male-driven story forms.)
The laconic, old-school Los Angeles detective Harry Bosch (played by Titus Welliver), the diffident fixer Jack Irish and the sardonic heavy-for-hire Ray Shoesmith in “Mr. Inbetween” (played by Scott Ryan, also the creator and writer of the show) were distinctly different character types. What they had in common was adherence to their codes, and those personal ethics — roughly similar and familiar notions about fair play, loyalty and the unfortunate but sometimes necessary application of violence — were the linchpins of the shows, as they have been for nearly a century’s worth of stories about world-weary tough guys.
They also made the shows feel increasingly old-fashioned at a time when the old formulas of genre fiction are subject to criticism and revision for their racial, gender and systemic-institutional biases and blind spots. If you’re allotting production dollars for a network or streaming service, a high-concept comedy tweaking sitcom gender roles or a science-fiction thriller that changes up the usual racial representation will probably attract more, and more positive, publicity from the outset.
“Jack Irish,” “Bosch” and “Mr. Inbetween,” which premiered from 2012 to 2018, represented an interim stage — like most genre shows of the last few decades, they exhibited at least an awareness of contemporary sensibilities. Their casts were reasonably diverse; and while you could decry the partner-of-color as a retrograde cliché, it meant that Jamie Hector (Bosch’s partner, Jerry Edgar) and Aaron Pedersen (Irish’s friend and protector Cam Delray) got major roles. When story lines involved Latino neighborhoods in Los Angeles or South Asian immigrants in Melbourne, the screenplays were conspicuous in their attempts to be respectful.
None of that was unusual for a contemporary show trying to finesse the increasingly uncomfortable fact that its protagonist was a white man on the wrong side of 50 whose dramatic arc tended, however reluctantly, toward violence. Perhaps in response, another thing the three shows had in common was that their lone-wolf heroes were caring and involved fathers.
Bosch, throughout the series, was as defined by his relationship to his daughter, Maddy (Madison Lintz), as he was by his police work; she softened him, and he toughened her, to the point that she took the police entrance exam in the final season. That set the stage for an already announced, untitled spinoff series in which Welliver and Lintz will presumably share top billing, with a now retired Bosch working as a private detective.
“Mr. Inbetween” made fatherhood even more central. Much of the show’s comic energy and dramatic complication flowed from Shoesmith’s stern but doting parenting of his daughter, Brittany (Chika Yasumura). Irish was more traditionally solitary during that show’s run, a choice that made sense given that the series began with the murder of his wife. But in the just-concluded final season, a son suddenly appeared, a filius ex machina who allowed for a painfully contrived, if inevitable, happy ending.
That might be the most telling thing that the three shows had in common: In contrast to earlier antiheroes like Tony Soprano and Walter White, their central characters got to go out on positive notes. Harry Bosch’s incorruptibility ended his police career, but his daughter has the right stuff to carry on the family tradition. Ray Shoesmith’s murderous livelihood finally caught up with him and forced him into hiding, but even in his new life as a put-upon ride-share driver, no one is going to keep him down. (The series’s final shot, of Ray’s flashing his just-shy-of-maniacal grin into the camera, was ideal.)
The evolution of the traditional hard-boiled narrative is well in progress — you can see it in shows that give themselves cover by remaking it as historical fiction, like “The North Water” or “Taboo,” or fantasy, like “The Mandalorian,” or more directly in shows that simply flip the hero’s gender, like “Briarpatch” with Rosario Dawson, “Jett” with Carla Gugino and “Reprisal” with Abigail Spencer. “Ted Lasso” may be the show of our pandemic-weary moment, but there’s always an appetite for violent loners with codes.