What Do Antiheroes Mean For Today’s American TV Series?
By Rachel Bennett
Television Editor & Columnist
When a new TV series, especially a drama, begins, it’s assumed to have one specific ingredient in its recipe for greatness: the antihero.
On any given night of the week, you can find an endless amount of antiheroes to choose from, including Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) from HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp) of ABC’s Revenge and Hank Moody (David Duchovny) in Showtime’s Californication.
So what’s an antihero? An antihero is the protagonist of a show, but instead of expectedly being noble and fighting for the good of all, he or she has, as James Poniewozik of TIME says, “goals you did not relate to, whom a decent person would, by and large, not cheer for.”
Despite this disagreement, viewers share the protagonist’s point of view or largely follow the antihero, eventually seeing sympathetic and relatable aspects of the character that make him or her more likable — and even someone to root for. No one would support a serial killer, for instance, but Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) of Showtime’s Dexter is likable because he kills serial killers and is psychologically damaged from witnessing his mother’s murder.
The antihero trend has been around for a while, as we have seen traces of it in such characters as Det. Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) from ABC’s NYPD Blue and Cpt. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce (Alan Alda) of CBS’s M*A*S*H. These characters retained decent morals and honorable goals throughout each program’s run, though, which doesn’t make them total antiheroes.
The first pure TV antihero is often cited as Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) from HBO’s The Sopranos. The drama, which began in 1999 and ended in 2007 after six seasons, tells the story of mob boss Tony Soprano. Even though he killed people and cheated on his wife, Carmela (Edie Falco), Tony wasn’t depicted as evil. Instead, some audience members liked him — much to creator David Chase‘s chagrin. Chase had Tony become more unlikeable toward the series finale to counteract viewers’ sentiment for the character.
AMC’s Breaking Bad creator, Vince Gilligan, possibly took note of The Sopranos and pushed the notion of the antihero even further and to unforeseen limits. Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the protagonist of Breaking Bad, is increasingly becoming less of an antihero and more of a villain as the series progress — and that’s how Gilligan wants it. Gilligan frequently comments that his goal is to see Walt transform from “Mr. Chips into Scarface,” and as the episodes pile up, Walt becomes less sympathetic. Yet it’s difficult to say if viewers are ready for karma to catch up to him. His goal is to save enough money for his family before cancer kills him, and [SEASON FIVE SPOILER] he seemed to finally put Skyler, Walt Jr. and Holly before his pride in the midseason finale.
It’s difficult to say exactly where our love of antiheroes came from, but U.S. history could be a clue. The Sopranos debuted in 1999, the year after President Bill Clinton‘s affair with Monica Lewinsky came to light. The public had mixed reactions to the scandal, as 65 percent of Americans approved of how he handled being president, whereas only 39 percent considered him “honest and trustworthy” by the time he left office in 2001. The idea that such a trusted, noble figure as the U.S. president could be dishonorable had to have planted a seed of cynicism in America.
Though the Watergate and President Richard Nixon scandal in the 1970s also made the U.S. public question authority figures, the media wasn’t as widespread and prevalent as it was in the 1990s and is today. The terrorist attacks of September, 11, 2001, continued to spread fear and paranoia among Americans, and TV and the Internet reflected such feelings. Specifically, TV created the antihero — a figure who helped audiences understand why bad things happen and why seemingly good people are sometimes the ones to commit such terrible deeds.
As to whether or not actual, honest-to-goodness heroes still exist on TV, of course they do. How else do you explain the numerous police, doctor and lawyer series on every channel (though CBS’s excellent The Good Wife stretches the boundaries of right and wrong week after week)? They may not be the most likeable characters (Fox’s House M.D., anyone?), but they work for the common good of all.
AMC’s The Walking Dead is another example, but it differs from the others in that it’s a cable series and not a procedural. Still, its protagonist, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), is a police officer. The program’s popularity with viewers — the season three premiere attracted 10.9 million viewers and a 5.8 18-49 demo rating, the the largest adult rating of any entertainment series this season — proves that audiences aren’t ready to let go of actual heroes just yet.
Showtime’s Homeland is remarkable for numerous reasons, one because it features the hero and the antihero, and the events of the series largely revolve around the suspicion that stemmed from Sept. 11. Viewers root for Carrie (Claire Danes) to discover the truth about Brody (Damian Lewis) because it will allow her to protect U.S. leaders, but they are also supposed to sympathize with Brody. Even though he wants to attack the United States, he believes he’s carrying out his duties as a Marine and is doing so on behalf of innocent children who died at the hands of the United States.
This conflict of interests mirrors common American sentiments: More than 10 years after Sept. 11, are we ready to let go of our cynicism? Can we believe in the good of people, or do we have to keep doubting them? All signs point to pessimism, as neither Brody nor Carrie are trustworthy (It’s interesting to note that Brody is a politician this season). They each have psychological issues, and they act impulsively, sometimes out of self-interest and when it’s a threat to others.
What does this mean for viewers? As our heroes become more defined as antiheroes, are we becoming dangerously suspicious or, in a twist, increasingly empathetic? On that note, when does empathy cross the line of fiction and reality — we support Walter White for providing for his family, but can we really support his dealings in crystal meth?
Only time will tell, but I, for one, cannot wait for Homeland tonight.
Tags: ABC, Alan Alda, AMC, Andrew Lincoln, antihero, Bill Clinton, Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston, Californication, CBS, Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, David Chase, David Duchovny, Dennis Franz, Dexter, Edie Falco, Emily VanCamp, HBO, Homeland, House M.D., James Gandolfini, James Poniewozik, M*A*S*H, Michael C. Hall, Monica Lewinsky, NYPD Blue, Revenge, Richard Nixon, Showtime, Steve Buscemi, The Good Wife, The Sopranos, The Walking Dead, Vince Gilligan