Think about this for a second: in general, the best TV shows of the past 10-15 years or so are believed to be The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men and some combination of other shows you like (Walking Dead, foreign shows like Luther, etc.) If you’re big into pop culture cache, you might add Girls to that list. Now stop for another second. Eat a banana. Just kidding; I wanted to see if you were listening. Let’s talk “lead character” in those shows. 1: mob boss who cheats on his wife. 2: many lead characters, but let’s say it’s McNulty (drunk who cheats on everyone and rigs homicides). 3: meth kingpin with about a dozen deaths linked to him. 4: handsome, suave prick who isn’t really who he says he is and again, cheats on everyone. Add Girls. Now you have a girl who goes to the funeral of her book editor, tries to make the event about her, and asks his widow if she knows what’s happening to her e-book. Essentially, while all these people have solid qualities that keep us coming back (reference the last scene of Season 6 of Mad Men, or numerous moments in the Walter White arc, etc.), they’re all fucking awful people. How are these characters the ones that resonate the most for us? (If you add in True Detective, which might be the best show currently going, both main characters are massively flawed.)
The base psychological explanation you’ll find for this all over the Internet (and in casual discussions with friends, etc.) is that essentially, we’re all bad people, but societal norms and responsibilities keep that in check. Therefore (“ergo…”), we all want to believe we’d become Walter White if faced with that exact set of circumstances. The true fact is, if we were faced with those circumstances, we’d probably (a) die of cancer or (b) get killed by a shard of glass that Krazy-8 is holding in Season 1. We’re not really badasses in this way.
This is a stark contrast to how even one generation before us consumed pop culture:
We follow these characters throughout their journeys: their quests for redemption, fame, fortune and love — the same common goals we find ourselves longing after. And like ourselves, we see the selfishness that comes with attaining goals and dreams. We watch other people commit betrayal and wrongdoing that comes with human nature.
Unlike the shows of our parents’ generation, when the main characters were examples of the ideal American citizen, housewife, husband or child, these main characters are the undesirables, the flawed and the evil that encompasses the true American culture, not just projections of what we want it to be.
So then the question becomes: why? Is it really because we see ourselves in them? Or is it because —
Life isn’t simple and neither are we. We are all racked with insecurities, demons and regrets. We like to watch people with emotions and hardships like ours. We expect the characters that we’ve invested so much time in to have the same complex emotions as ourselves. A housewife who is always chipper and happy isn’t realistic; we can’t relate to her.
I’d buy that. Here’s another theory, from Den of Geek, similar to the above in some ways:
We love these characters because they broke the stereotypes that we were inundated with as we grew up. Take for example, the aforementioned three antiheroes: Dexter Morgan, Walter White, Tony Soprano—or, a serial killer, a drug kingpin, and a mob boss. The accepted temperaments of these characters, the typecasts if you will, are that each of these types of people are ruthless, unforgiving, and brutal. Serial killers are motivated simply by their lust to kill, drug kingpins and mob bosses by power, reputation, and the insatiable lust for capital and sovereignty…right? However, Dexter, Walter, and Tony were portrayed each with a shred of humanity; Dexter’s mother was murdered and he was left in a pool of her blood—he kills according to a strict moral code, and even then, he’s taught to only kill other serial killers. Walter went into meth production because he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and wanted to leave money behind to his wife, teenage son, and infant daughter after his demise. Tony sat on a couch with a shrink and confessed to his ever-growing anxiety and Mommy issues.
If you take it to literature, you find similar things — for example, I’d do a cliche guy thing and probably list my favorite book as Catcher in the Rye. I love Holden Caulfield conceptually, but he’s basically a deplorable person. I love The Great Gatsby but Gatsby is basically the 1900s literary equivalent of Don Draper (i.e. not a great man). Honestly, I was just trying to rack my brain for all-good, all-the-time heroes and beyond Jesus (which begins the whole process of “the hero’s journey,” a totally different type of post), the main one that pops culturally for me is Luke Skywalker (who has allusions back to Jesus, no doubt). There are other all-good heroes, for sure, but most captivating characters have to have some series of flaws. Isn’t that how people teach you to write characters anyway?
Now here’s the next question: Walter White (spoiler alert!) and Breaking Bad died in September. True Detective is over in two weeks. Season 2 of House of Cards — which has another antihero in Francis Underwood — is out in full. Could this be the end of the antihero period on TV, or no? In short answer, probably not: a protagonist with no complexity/moral ambiguity turns away viewers, which turns away advertisers, which leads to shows getting dumped. I’ve seen theories on comment threads that the current rise of the antihero is a backlash to the two book/film franchises that dominated much of the last decade — Harry Potter and Twilight. Edward Cullen is a vampire and kills stuff, but only bad stuff, so I guess he’s a pretty dove-white hero in most respects. So’s Harry. So maybe as a society we needed guys like Draper and White because those franchises were so omnipresent? That’s a potential theory.
There’s also this: anti-heroes can be legitimately strong. Remember this from Breaking Bad?
I won. Wouldn’t we all like to say that after blowing up some dudes in a nursing home? Of course we would.