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Holding Out For an Anti-Hero: The Rise of the Morally Ambiguous Protagonist…

Sure, comedies have a long history of featuring genuinely unlikable characters as leads, but I think the last number of years have seen an explosion in the number of morally ambiguous (and sometimes downright villainous) protagonists, both on the big and small screens. Of course, the entire film noir movement was based upon the idea of a compromised hero, in recent times we’ve found ourselves increasingly cheering for the bad guy.

A serial charmer...

In fairness, maybe it’s just the “less good” guy. The wonderful black comedy Showtime thriller Dexter asks us to sympathise with a serial killer, if only because he only ever kills truly evil people. Compared to mindless killing machines that this forensics expert takes out, he’s a paragon of virtue – controlling his dark and sinister urges by venting them on people who well-and-truly deserve it. The Punisher was based around the idea that it was okay to root for a murdering psychopath, as long as he only really killed bad guys.

You could make an argument that HBO shows like The Sopranos and Deadwood are centred around two thoroughly evil lead characters – or, at least, two very compromised and flawed individuals. That’s not even going as far as shows like Boardwalk Empire, where the lead character is involved in very illegal activity, but tries to live by his own moral code. Hell, The Shield asked us to root for a bunch of corrupt cops who had crossed the line once and found it increasingly easy to make horrible choices. Depending on how much credit you give the writers (as to whether they are writing it intentionally or not), Jack Bauer in 24 is an incredibly compromised individual who will make truly reprehensible choices that will damn him in service of “the greater good.”

Maybe we don

Depending on your own personal preference, network television in the past number of years has produced any number of anti-heroes. Hell, there’s even a trend towards good guys who are just a little bit edgier than normal – like the lead on House, for example, who is a hard-working life-saving doctor who is also a selfish and manipulative asshole. I think it’s safe to say that there’s been an explosion in these sorts of characters over the last number of years.

You might argue that it has something to do with changing times. After all, the world seems to be a much more complex place than it was decades ago. Instead of two powers standing for black-and-white on the political chessboard, the world is a myriad of different colours and shades. We accept that things are inherently more complex in this age of terrorism and unilateral intervention, so perhaps we expect our heroes to be similarly more complex.

Not sure I'd want him as a House guest...

Of course, there’s always been room for anti-heroes. One need only look at the classic exploitation films – Charles Bronson’s nearly infinite number of Death Wish movies were all centred around a man systematically killing those who had wronged him; you could argue that the Dirty Harry movies weren’t exactly based around an especially nice character either; truth be told, Michael Carleone wasn’t always the nicest person either. Still, I think that it has become a lot more apparent in the past number of years, at least on network television.

Perhaps some of this is down to the growth of television as a medium. In the eighties, with shows like Miami Vice and Magnum P.I., it seemed that the box was primarily hoping to be used as a device to pump “mini-movies” with regular casts into people’s homes. Blockbuster movies seemed to the be the target that most prime time television aspired to, and to suggest that a major television drama could churn out an episode equivalent to a movie on a weekly basis seemed to be the most sincere form of flattery. Producing a movie-like piece of entertainment once a week seemed to be something to aspire to.

Down to the Wire?

I’m not criticising that approach. It clearly has its place. I think that shows like Miami Vice simply don’t get enough credit for what they attempted to do. However, I think that television has evolved since then. Of course, you have shows that still produce drama on the “mini-movie every week” format (like CSI and, to an extent, Law & Order), but I think that shows on HBO demonstrated that you can produce entertainment on television that simply isn’t possible in a two-hour movie, and that this sort of long-form entertainment is something unique to the medium and worth exploring.

The Wire has been praised as something like a novel in televisual format, and I think that’s fair. A large number of shows these days have moved beyond self-contained episodes towards larger and over-arching plots. It’s easy to point to novels as an obvious influence, but I don’t think that’s entirely fair. It’s a valid comparison for shows shot and shown together in large clumps (and thus, perhaps, a more apt description of “event” miniseries than long-running shows). I’d argue that the better point of comparison is a serialised novel, much like the way that (for example) The Stars My Destination was originally published. With a gap between each instalment, it’s a very distinct experience digesting something in weekly chunks as opposed to all at once. I’d also argue, perhaps more controversially, that comics are also a valid comparison.

Shady characters...

I think that this change in focus, this realigning of the idea of television, is perhaps why we are seeing so many complicated and conflicted leading characters emerge. In the past, with episodes promising a new adventure every week, the lead characters couldn’t ever be so complex that they would overwhelm that week’s narrative. Of course, sometimes you’d get an hour tied to their past, but that was very much the exception rather than the rule. With the goal to produce on independent hour of television, fully accessible to all audiences, the leads needed to be relatively generic. That isn’t to suggest bland or any such thing – just to observe that they couldn’t have the same complexity one might expect in a novel or even a two-hour film.

On the other hand, the sort of sequential story-telling that television seems to embracing allows you to develop a character fully and consistently across a large number of chapters – because you aren’t worried about each of those chapters having to be self-contained. Your character no longer needs to be straight-forward enough to fit within a single 45-minute episode, it can be spread across an entire season. And those episodes don’t need to stand alone, they can serve as building blocks to one another.

He needs to watch his temperance...

So I think it’s possible to build greater sympathy and development for characters who might have initially been dismissed as mere villains. Hell, in theory, television should allow you to develop more complex characters than film could ever really dream of – because you aren’t confined in the same sort of way. You can dig so much deeper underneath the surface that the audience can still relate to these seeming monsters. The Wire was especially good at this, allowing its viewers to understand the people who engage in the crime day-by-day.

4 Responses

  1. Strange that we’re starting to pull for the bad guys isn’t it?

    Great post, and to this list I’d also add Don from Mad Men and Walt from Breaking Bad.

  2. Morality was always ambiguous.
    “Rooting for bad guys?” Define “bad.”
    We’re just becoming less naive about what makes a person good or evil.

    I’m a moral realist. I believe there are objective right and wrong, I just don’t think our previously established ideas are going to cut it.

  3. I hope you would be happy to see the same kind of moral ambivalence in your leaders, in your policemen, in your security forces, and in your politicians. Because if you are not then you are in trouble, because the newspaper shows that they like these shows too, and have been taking some lessons…

    • That’s a bit unfair. After all, Watergate happened before these anti-heroes became popular, as did any number of humans rights abuses from governments in authority – MK Ultra was on-going before you could even show this sort of violence on the big screen. To imply causation from correlation is a bit of a stretch – you can point to fans of 24 who tortured, but I’m fairly sure a lot of Lybian soldiers guilty of war crimes never heard of the show or Dirty Harry or any number of American archetypes.

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