Trendspotting: TV’s Sexy Jerks

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Welcome to “Trendspotting,” a new bi-weekly column dedicated to exploring current television trends across a variety of genres, networks, and streaming platforms. This week we dive into a sea of sexy jerks on TV.

When The Mindy Project premiered in 2012, it was a clear homage to creator Mindy Kaling’s true love: The romantic comedy. Allusions to the classics of the genre (When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail) abounded in early episodes, many of which centered on a typical rom-com conceit gone horribly wrong — like when a horse-drawn carriage ride abruptly ends after the horse drops dead. But as the show progressed, its rom-com critiques dug deeper. Mindy’s love interest, the sexy Italian-American OB-GYN Danny Castellano (Chris Messina), so smoldering in the beginning, began to look arrogant and controlling as the series went on.

Danny’s evolution from a swoon-worthy love interest to a selfish prig is emblematic of a larger shift on TV. From sitcoms to musicals to thrillers to broody hour-long dramas, TV is awash in hot jerks — physically attractive men whose bad behavior doesn’t make them look more adorable. It just makes them look like assholes.

Danny’s closest counterpart is probably Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Greg (Santino Fontana), one-third of the love triangle between him, his crush, Rebecca (Rachel Bloom), and her crush — and his friend — Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III). A bartender in the Southern California town of West Covina, Greg is a smart underachiever, an attractive, intelligent man stuck in arrested development.

Like Orange is the New Black, Crazy Ex is adept at drawing complex portraits of its characters, and Greg — who Rebecca’s bestie says is hot “if you like angry” — is an example of someone whose anxieties and pessimism only ruin his chances for happiness. One of the musical series’ funniest songs in its first season, “I Could If I Wanted To,” is a grunge-style tune where Greg insists he could make millions, have children, make this song better — if he wanted to, which he doesn’t, because whatever, who cares. “Whoopy-freakin’-do!” At the end of the song, a random woman on the street deflates his defensive bravado: “You’re an idiot.”

Greg and Danny are more benign versions of this type, but Veep’s Dan Egan (Reid Scott) is an unambiguous asshole (to be fair, that’s true of pretty much everyone on Veep.) One of the funniest and most frustrating aspects of the series is the fact that his coworker, Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky), has a perpetual crush on him despite his dickishness. Amy and Dan’s will-they-won’t-they flame has been the show’s pilot light, burning low and steady since the beginning, but the current season veered closer than ever to an actual hookup — until Dan sleeps with Amy’s sister. What, you didn’t think Veep was going to redeem him, did you?

It’s every straight woman’s prerogative to moon over a sexy jerk at some point in her dating life — a rite of passage, even. Despite their obvious flaws, Greg, Danny, and Dan are appealing in part because their shitty behavior clearly masks deeper insecurities. So what’s Noah Solloway’s excuse?

Played by the hunky Dominic West, the leading man of The Affair has little to redeem him: A high-school English teacher and novelist, Noah lives in a cushy Brooklyn brownstone courtesy of his wife’s wealthy parents. He decides a family vacation at his in-laws’ Montauk mansion is the perfect occasion to begin a torrid affair with Alison (Ruth Wilson), a waitress at a diner where he eats with said family.

When the affair comes to light, Noah’s wife, Helen (Maura Tierney), doesn’t yell and scream and throw plates and kick him out of the house. Instead, in a far more interesting move, the writers make it clear that Helen is still hopelessly in love with her husband — even after he leaves her and their four children, writes a successful novel, and moves to a glitzy high-rise apartment in Manhattan with a now-pregnant Alison. The show’s greatest frustration is watching both Helen and Alison go gaga over a man who uses both of them for his own selfish benefit. Up until the second season finale, when he sacrifices himself for both Alison and Helen, we’re given virtually no reason to sympathize with Noah.

Although that finale neatly tied up a mystery that had strung viewers along since the series began, I have to admit I was disappointed to discover Noah was being set up for this heroic act all along. It’s easier to fall for a bad boy when he puts himself on the line for you — or, as was the case with TV’s hottest bad boy in recent years, Mad Men’s Don Draper — when he’s got a backstory that begets panty-dropping sympathy.

Played by the ridiculously good-looking Jon Hamm, Don is the child of a prostitute, who died during childbirth, and one of her clients. When his biological father dies, his stepmother takes up with a pimp named “Uncle Mac,” and he loses his virginity at a very young age to an older prostitute in the brothel where he grows up. How’s a guy like that not supposed to have issues with women?

That’s why it was such a smart move for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to cast Jon Hamm as the show’s goofy villain, Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, who kidnapped Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) and three other women and held them in a bunker for 15 years. The leader of his own brand of cult — he clothes the girls in 19th-century-style dresses, teaches them to worship “Gosh” and “Jeepers,” and convinces them the world outside the bunker is an apocalyptic hellscape — Reverend Wayne is a faceless character until the end of the first season, when Kimmy testifies against him in court.

In keeping with Kimmy Schmidt’s colorful, cartoonish tone, he’s not a coolly menacing rogue but a damn fool. And yet he knows enough about the absolving allure of an attractive white man to shave his wild beard and trim his nest of hair before appearing in court, where he charms even Kimmy’s friend, Titus (Tituss Burgess).

The casting of Jon Hamm, who skyrocketed to stardom on the back of Don Draper, felt like a statement: You like the idea of a sexy, complicated asshole? Well, good-looking jerks often get away with doing terrible things because they’re attractive.

Two BBC series hammer home this idea. The Fall’s villain is a serial killer with a seemingly normal home life, complete with a wife and young daughter, who’s played by Jamie Dornan — the same actor who played the sex symbol Christian Grey in the movie adaptation of Fifty Shades. On Happy Valley , police sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) finds a nemesis in the attractive young Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), who raped her daughter years earlier and tried to kidnap her grandson, Ryan — the product of that rape.

Behind bars, Tommy manipulates a lonely woman, Frances (Shirley Henderson), who visits him in prison and agrees to take a job at his son’s school to get close to him. Frances tells Ryan that she Googled his dad, and doesn’t believe he really committed the crimes he’s accused of. Why? “Because he has such a kind face.”

If I had to pick a single favorite TV show, it would probably be Mad Men, and as much as I love me a slice of Jon Hamm, in our post-Don Draper TV landscape, it’s not enough to place a hot, brooding man at the center of a show and then proceed to explain away his toxic behavior. In the near-decade since Mad Men premiered, TV has become more morally complex: On The Americans, the Cold War-era Russian spy Philip (Matthew Rhys) is attractive not because he’s cool as a cucumber while he does his dirty work, but because that work is so ethically conflicting for him. On Outlander, the show’s ultimate villain, Black Jack Randall, is played by the same actor (Tobias Menzies) who portrays the loving, thoughtful former husband of the show’s protagonist, Claire (Catriona Balfe).

It used to be so much easier to fall in love with a bad boy on TV. But a variety of recent shows — many of them, like Happy Valley, The Affair, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and The Mindy Project, created by women — are sharpening their critiques of a kind of chauvinism that is so engrained in our culture as to render it sexy.