British talk-show host and satirist David Frost once observed that television is “an invention that permits you to be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn’t have in your home.”
The really funny thing about Frost’s quip is that when he uncorked it, the most outrageous characters on TV were Colonel Klink of “Hogan’s Heroes” and Charles Nelson Reilly. Now, we have weekly series in which the main character may be, to cite a just few examples, a pot dealer (Showtime’s “Weeds”), a ruthless, philandering advertising executive (AMC’s “Mad Men”), a vigilante attorney (FX’s “Damages”), a shady FBI agent (A&E’s “The Beast”), a counterterrorist who operates by any means necessary (Fox’s “24”) or a serial killer (Showtime’s “Dexter”). anti-heroes have become TV’s cottage industry.
The textbook definition of an anti-hero is a protagonist who proceeds in an unheroic manner — by criminal means, for example, or through cowardly actions or for mercenary goals. These characters’ place in myth and drama goes back at least as far as Greek tragedy. Shakespeare’s plays are crawling with them (that Richard III was a piece of work). Movies about charismatic heels (“Hud,” “Alfie”) are practically a genre in themselves, and movies about gangsters (“Scarface,” “The Godfather”) unquestionably are. What’s new is the notion of spending hour upon hour with ignoble characters.
“We use all kinds of fiction to work through moral problems,” said Leigh Johnson, a philosophy professor at Rhodes College in Memphis. But an ongoing television series with characters we observe over time, she added, “presents moral problems closer to the way we encounter moral problems. The television iterations of the anti-hero are people we come to know in the same way we come to know the sort of standard television characters.”
It’s tempting to say that TV’s anti-hero wave began with Tony Soprano, a New Jersey mob boss who, apart from his willingness to whack anybody who looked crosswise at him, had mostly the same worries as a ShopRite manager with a wife and kids and a mortgage. But while HBO’s “The Sopranos” (1999-2007) was a watershed, it was also the fuller flowering of a TV trend long in the building.
Comedy actually led the way. As Jonathan Gray, an assistant professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University and the author of “Television Entertainment” (Routledge, 2008), pointed out, TV was determinedly upbeat for its first few decades. “The bad guys always got caught; Dad was always right,” Gray said. “And I think you start to see a sort of boil-burst against that in the ‘70s with shows like ‘All in the Family.’”
Indeed, the sitcom about a bombastic, bigoted working stiff from Queens stood television decorum on its head. More important, it clicked with viewers. By the end of its first full season on CBS, 1971-72, it was America’s favorite show. Sitcoms thereafter got earthier and more irreverent (“The Simpsons,” “Roseanne,” “Married ... With Children”). And in a new breed of dramatic series, such as “St. Elsewhere” and “NYPD Blue,” TV’s staple heroes, the once-infallible surgeons and cops, suddenly developed doubts, worries and character flaws.
Still, there’s a big difference between a cop who goes on a bender now and then, like “NYPD’s” Andy Sipowicz, and a cop like “Dexter’s” Dexter Morgan, a natural-born serial killer who finds good cover in forensics and an outlet in off-duty vigilantism. Or between a brilliant surgeon with an obnoxious ego, like “St. Elsewhere’s” Dr. Mark Craig, and “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White, a mild-mannered chemistry teacher who, upon learning he has terminal cancer, decides his best hope for leaving his family financially secure is to start cooking and selling crystal meth. These are the characters for whom Tony Soprano, the all-too-human cutthroat, made prime time safe — or at least hospitable.
Sara Colleton, an executive producer of “Dexter,” believes the continuing interest in such shows is rooted in disillusionment. “I think that for a long time, people looked to government, religion, to outside institutions to give them a moral compass, a code,” she said. “But in the last 15 years, or even further back, those have all let us down.” Now, she said, people looking to find their bearings are using characters like Dexter, an introspective fellow who “lives an examined life,” to help them examine their own.
Fordham’s Gray believes the Bush-Cheney administration, with all the debates it fired about anti-terror tactics and surveillance, fed the phenomenon. He cites “24,” which “showed even the good guys getting their hands messy,” as an object lesson. “It was like a weekly referendum on torture,” Gray said.
Economics are also a factor, however. The most challenging anti-hero shows are on cable channels supported wholly or in part by subscriber fees. “Dexter’s” weekly audience is about one-tenth that of a broadcast network hit like “Desperate Housewives.” “Being subscriber-based,” Colleton said, “gives us enormous freedom to stick to our guns.”
Vince Gilligan, creator of AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” likewise acknowledges the creative freedom cable offers. “There’s no place for me to write what I want to write on the traditional networks,” he said. And what he wants to write are characters like Walt White, “a character gradually chipping away at his own soul.”
Gilligan agrees that viewers see themselves in characters like Walt and Dexter and “Mad Men’s” duplicitous Don Draper. “We all rationalize bad behavior,” he said. “Most of the time, it’s relatively harmless little stuff — like, well, ‘I really need to run this red light here because I gotta get to work on time.’ Walt takes that to the nth degree. We recognize some basic humanity in him. I feel like he’s just an exaggeration of the rest of us.”
Joshua Miller, a philosophy professor at George Mason University who blogs about culture and other topics at anotherpanacea.com, suggests that what we like about these characters “is the way they handle their bigger problems the same way we would handle our smaller ones. They embrace how irreducibly messy ethical life can be. We all have trouble juggling the conflicting demands of family and work, we all have urges that only go half-suppressed, we all jettison principles when pragmatism requires it. anti-heroes don’t pretend to teach us our catechism, to re-emphasize the cliches of good behavior. They assure us that we’re not so bad, after all.”
There’s been grousing lately in some critical corners that TV’s anti-heroes, so startling a decade ago, have become predictable and cliched, and thus will fall out of favor. Gilligan doesn’t think so. “I don’t see how we backtrack from the ability to show these things,” he said.
Miller, the philosopher, wonders why we would want to. A hero, in the original, ancient Greek manifestation, was someone extraordinary, not someone perfect, he said. Heroes in the “white hat” mold are “very unreasonable, not at all in keeping with what the human experience includes. The understanding of heroes as impossibly virtuous was a temporary aberration. anti-heroes are a return to normal.”
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