Tess Milligan explores our obsession with the bad boys of TV
It seems that more protagonists than ever are becoming characterised by villainy. The cold and calculated, ‘by any means necessary’ Walter White is the protagonist of Breaking Bad. Ruthless politician Frank Underwood in House of Cards has us backing him. Psychopathic vigilante Dexter ensures that those who slip through the net of the law are brought to quasi-justice. More and more television protagonists seem to be breaking from the archetypal hero mould and embracing amorality. The question remains, however: why are these characters becoming so popular?
The anti-hero has always appealed to us, as far back as Achilles in Homer’s Iliad near 3000 years ago. Shakespeare gave us the recognisable characters Hamlet and Lady Macbeth. Charlotte Brontë gave us Edward Rochester. A generation of Americans were enamoured with Holden Caulfield.
Film noir was replete with anti-heroes. The seventies were full of films about anti-heroes reminiscent of the ones found in old westerns (with a gorier edge), from Jimmy Doyle of The French Connection to Paul Kersey in Death Wish, and of course Dirty Harry. Perhaps there is no greater example of the violent but intelligent psychopath in cinema than Dr. Hannibal Lector. These incarnations would be reflected within the American Psycho (2000), a thriller (I daresay black comedy) which centres on the life of Patrick Bateman: wealthy investment banker, monstrous serial killer.
Television took a bit longer, largely because of its position as a family medium. The entire format which a program had to take would negatively affect these modern day shows, with each episode needing to end neatly where it began by the time the credits rolled. This would not have fit in with today’s trend of complex plots and new depths of character exploration. It was comedy that was the prominent genre, with Norman Lear’s creations of Archie Bunker and George Jefferson in the early 1970s particularly popular. The greatest anti-hero of television arrived in 1978 in the form of J.R. Ewing, who viewers of Dallas loved to hate.
The anti-hero really became a trend after HBO switched things up with The Sopranos. The show focused upon the life of Tony Soprano, a (fictional) New Jersey-based Italian gangster and the everyday struggles of trying to balance family life and his criminal organisation. Subsequently, cable television became the place where the boundaries of human conduct could be examined. When Walter White cooked his way into the mainstream and Breaking Bad became available on Netflix, an anti-hero had effectively been chosen for the popular on-demand service’s first big show. NBC, desperately trailing behind the other networks, has double downed with Raymond Reddington and The Blacklist. And given that Better Call Saul (a spinoff of Breaking Bad) is Netflix’s latest venture, we can only guess that the trend may continue.
There are probably a hundred reasons that could be given for why anti-heroes are so prevalent in today’s media. Part of it is probably that television copies what works elsewhere. Part of it may be that writers are yearning to write complex, flawed characters. Maybe the turmoil in society has us welcoming disillusioned, cynical characters - characters that aren’t afraid to fight back, in whatever way works best for them. The worlds in which shows are set nowadays tend to reflect more accurately the world we live in today, rather than an idealised world in which good continually triumphs over evil. There is a level of escapism where these characters do what we can’t - but a little part of us might want to.
The answer to why we as the audience enjoy these villainous protagonists could be to do with the complexity of the characters presented to us within the show. A character, we have now learned, need not be good to be likable. Often, the reasons for their actions invoke at least some degree of sympathy within the audience. Walter White’s original intentions were to provide for his family in his final months. Tony Soprano also wanted to provide for his family, and just happened to be tied to a life of crime. Dexter carries out vigilante justice against other serial killers who would otherwise walk free, all the while following the rigid ‘code’ his father has bestowed on him, to fruitfully orientate his psychopathic inclinations. Anti-heroes are generally intellectual, with at least one family member who remains as their last link to humanity, while also often being a major burden within their lives, making the need to conceal their terrible deeds all the more urgent. Thus, the vulnerability within these otherwise fearsome individuals drives the main plot forwards, while also creating a multitude of branching sub-arcs.
For whatever reason, the trend is one that won’t be dying out soon.
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