Robert Lloyd has a provocative essay about the increasing dullness of prestige television’s anti-heroes up in the L.A. Times that I largely agree with:
We are not yet out of the age of “The Sopranos,” which, when it muscled in on the cultural conversation back at the end of the 20th century, made darkness and dysfunction the norm, first for premium cable, then basic cable and broadcast TV: “Nip/Tuck,” “Rescue Me,” “Deadwood,” “The Shield,” “The Tudors,” “The Borgias,” “Damages,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Weeds,” “Dexter,” “Californication,” “Mad Men,” “Boardwalk Empire” and “House” are, to varying degrees, its progeny. Many have been among the best things on television. But as much as I love Hugh Laurie, I am over the hopeless Gregory House; his ups and inevitable season-ending downs feel more contrived with every passing year, tricks to make a static character look dynamic.
In the same way, though Tony Soprano began as a person in apparent flux, long before the tardy end of “Sopranos” it was clear that the character was fatally fixed…Gilligan has smartly declared next season the last for “Breaking Bad,” but part of me — the part invested in the narrative, not quite paradoxically — wants Walt stopped now, not so much for the payback but to stop the insanity. No one he knows is better off for knowing him. The show belongs to Jesse now, who, though he has much to answer for himself, remains redeemable; he is quietly haunted where Walt is loudly self-justifying. Jesse is an antihero, too, but one with room to grow.
It seems important for shows to consider why a character ought to be an anti-hero. As I’ve written before, something like The Sopranos felt as fresh as it did when it came out because it let audiences test their sense of their own moral sophistication against the challenge of sympathizing with a sociopath in his struggles to commit more effective murders, to run a more efficient crime syndicate, to surmount the challenges of family life. But twelve years after the premiere of The Sopranos, that’s no longer a new proposition, and our collective ability to emotionally invest in very bad people is extremely well-established. And once we’ve proved that, character stasis becomes more important, and more frustrating, for audiences.
That’s not to say that there can’t be power in stasis. Characters who try to change, and fail, like Stringer Bell, can be as fascinating as characters who undergo long-lasting and hard-won transformations. But if you’re going to create an anti-hero, reveling in making badness compelling is probably no longer enough to produce an immortal show.
The Wire stands above other cable shows that rely on bad men as their main characters because their anti-heroes all have very specific roles. Stringer Bell’s experiences show the intractability of institutions in two directions, the inability of the drug trade to become truly efficient, and the labyrinthine nature of government regulation, which makes it easy to shut out new entrants and presents opportunities for corruption. Frank Sobotka can’t grow because he embodies a defeated institution that’s out of chances to evolve and survive—his death is the catalyst for his union’s death, and they go down together in the darkness. For a while on House, House’s irascibility was a useful illustration of the equally intransigent and uncaring approach to healthcare practiced by the hospital’s administrators, though now it’s mostly just an excuse for increasingly baroque darkness. The Tudors, which I think is not necessarily a good show, though it does have some good things in it, is an illustration of what happens when an anti-hero doesn’t have to chafe against the restrictions of society because he has dominion over them. I’m only a couple of episodes into Deadwood, about which much more to come, but Al Swearengen strikes me as an embodiment of pure capitalism that may not change over time, even as it manifests itself differently.
All of these shows have specific uses for their anti-heroes beyond the sheer, savage pleasure of watching people we like behave badly and get away with it. Not all anti-hero shows have to use those characters to illustrate social or institutional problems—Breaking Bad works despite the fact that I’m still now sure how the show’s creators feel about the Drug Enforcement Agency, something I intend to write about later in the week. But I do think that social analysis is often a good match for anti-heroics. The world’s not composed of saints and angels, and saints and angels may not be the people who see the world with the greatest clarity.