Anti-Heroes And The Stalled Ambitions Of American Television

I’m a bit late to David Haglund’s piece suggesting that ambition is ruining television, but I don’t think he’s entirely right about that. And I don’t think Erik Kain’s suggestion that it’s just a matter of quality writing is quite on the mark either (though no matter what kind of show you’re doing, writing matters).

It’s not that wanting to tell big, sweeping societal stories is a problem. It’s that prestige television has tended to be ambitious in the same way, collectively convinced that the best way to tell those stories and to get us to feel like morally sophisticated consumers is to get us to identify with anti-heroes (and they’re almost all men) and to test our tolerance even when their behavior becomes repulsive and unjustifiable. There are so many cable shows that do this, and it’s been proven so critically and commercially successful that going down that route is no longer really a sign of ambition, but of calculation. I tend to be bored with Boardwalk Empire‘s grand machinations, but I’m fascinated by its side trips into domestic dramas: I’d watch a show re-centered around Angela and Margaret. I’ll get excited when someone lays down a new marker, when they make us identify with a wholly different kind of character. Ambition is as much about innovation and perspective as about size. And venality or outright evil aren’t the only innovative sources of American stories.