This article may contain spoilers for many currently running series’ so beware if you haven’t seen any yet but plan to watch them in future.
Over the last few months I’ve gone through several seasons of highly successful TV shows, with some of the highlights being Boardwalk Empire, Dexter, Mad Men, Sherlock, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead among others. Thinking back, one of the biggest elements that unite the shows together is the fact that, for the most part, I wouldn’t like the central protagonists if I knew them in real life. The main characters of these shows range from smug narcissists to insane sociopaths, and are generally the sort of people I try to either ignore or restrain myself from kneecapping if I meet them in reality. So why do their stories interest me so much? Why are these the most popular narratives on TV? The answer to this seems to vary depending on the individual writing and delivery of each show. A pattern is definitely emerging however, and it seems to be that each new show that comes out is centred on a group of despicable (yet entertaining) assholes. As each show continues, their techniques of shaping their characters to be as horrible, yet compelling, as possible becomes ever more refined.
Broadly speaking it of course has to do with characters requiring flaws that precipitate conflict. If the characters lacked flaws then nothing would happen. Flaws create problems that need to be solved and this is the general theme behind every episode on these shows. However there’s more to it than that, as this is a trope that covers almost all narratives you see. For example Big Bird from Sesame St has “flaws” (e.g. childlike naiveté) that lead to conflicts yet nothing so dramatic as on the above-mentioned shows, and he remains loveable despite, or even because of, these flaws. On the adult shows, the characters’ flaws make them (supposedly) unlikeable to varying extremes. A popular term used to describe many of them is “anti-hero”, i.e. a protagonist that lacks conventional heroic attributes yet is the “hero” of the story nonetheless. For some reason we all find these anti-heroes’ stories enthralling.
Asshole characters, of both the deliciously evil and despicable kind aren’t unknown to television, but only very recently have they become “anti-heroes”. I can’t be certain but I think a vast majority of the blame can be levelled at Dexter. This show managed to step over the line into dark edginess whilst still keeping a foot firmly in the “safe zone”, setting a formula for other shows to follow. They managed this by showing his role as an emotionless killer that keeps his urges in check by following a morally ambiguous, yet “acceptable” code of hunting criminals. The series has been carefully constructed to try and make the audience like Dexter despite his existence as a serial killer that butchers people. The fact that he only kills “villains” disguises him as a conventional hero at face value. Even the rare occasions where he has caused the deaths of innocents have been played down as accidents or at least tolerable in a weird sort of way. The creators have tried to make him as much of a “good-guy” as possible whilst also keeping him a serial killer. Even just twenty years ago this sort of thing would never have been allowed to air. Hell shows often weren’t allowed to have criminals “win” half the time in case it gave people the wrong impression about crime, especially when the shows involved police. Dexter seems to be holding that middle ground balancing itself out morally. He sabotages police investigations but catches the bad-guy himself.
While it wasn’t even close to being the first show to feature this sort of anti-hero, it was one of the first to be popular on such a large scale, with the Sopranos being another. Their success seems to have led to the rise of a flurry of new shows starring a higher level of nasties. Here, the safe method of toeing the morality line seems to have been thrown out the window, most notably with Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire.
The characters in these shows are not good people. They have some good qualities, sure. They may even attempt or wish to be morally sound. But despite all their efforts and hopes, they are horrible, despicable people and for some reason it’s all so damn entertaining. Well, mostly. And here’s where I get confused. Thematically speaking, there’s not a lot of difference between Breaking Bad’s Walther White and Boardwalk’s Nucky Thompson. Both men start off their journeys in a Dexter-ish way as fairly decent people despite a certain amoral leaning. They have people around them constantly causing problems, through idiocy and ineptitude, which they need to solve. They care for their families and generally try to do the nice thing for people around them. As their stories continue however, both men start to have their fall from grace, becoming more vicious and Machiavellian, resulting in a fairly high level of bloodshed, as they realise that being the “nice guy” gets them nowhere. Where my confusion comes in however, is that despite the apparently strong narrative similarities I love Boardwalk and can’t f**king stand Breaking Bad.
Boardwalk Empire by contrast, does its utmost to give each important character the same level of depth given to Walther in Breaking Bad. Almost every character is a criminal, many based on historical counterparts, yet we find out their backgrounds and motivations beyond the need for making money through crime. Well to be fair not every character gets this treatment. To bastardise the Game of Thrones tag, the characters either evolve or they die. Any character that doesn’t change, learn, or reveal anything about themselves usually gets killed. I’m not just talking side characters as well. If a central character reaches a point where they aren’t evolving anymore they often find themselves on the chopping block. me, this style of writing works better as it not only reflects the criminal system it’s depicting but helps keep the narrative fresh. It also delivers the gritty, criminal aesthetic in a far more effective and realistic way. If this style were used for Breaking Bad, everyone in it would probably be dead by now.
So where does this leave us? Each of these shows has their own variety of assholes, schemers, evildoers, ruffians and reprobates leading the way through a narrative of misery and murder, yet delivering them in a unique (and highly watchable) style. While Dexter did its utmost to ensure its protagonist is ultimately seen as a good guy, these shows make no such efforts, yet we still find ourselves empathising with, and sometimes even liking them, in spite of all the atrocities they commit.