TV’s Anti-Hero Glut and a Return to Moral Clarity

EW’s Ken Tucker, in his season-end roundup of the year in television, is sick of anti-heroes, or more specifically, turned off by American Horror Story, which he calls “a deeply despairing show.” He writes:

Indeed, at this point, the edgiest thing a producer could do would be to mount a stylistically daring, well-acted show that was free of bleakness, snark, or the promise that we are being shown the corrupt underbelly of any given profession. Even though I’m not a great fan of it, Once Upon a Time exhibits a generosity of spirit I can applaud, and I’m glad it’s a success. While it comes on as a dark, edgy show, Person of Interest is another ratings hit that is actually, if you watched its progress over the season, quite open to the goodness of humanity — for what is this show really about, at bottom, if not the redemption of the wounded souls of Jim Caviezel’s Reese and Michael Emerson’s Finch, and those to whose aid they come? A Gifted Man might have been similarly uplifting in an interesting way, but something about the show took a wrong creative turn early on; perhaps that’s what star Patrick Wilson was at least in part referring to when he said the series was ultimately not what he “signed on for” in a tweet after it was canceled. And Smash: For all the carping that I and other critics did about it, there was never any doubt that creator Theresa Rebek wanted to share with network television viewers the same bursting joy for the musical-theater experience that she has felt, even if it was only Megan Hilty who occasionally came close to embodying it.

At Salon, Willa Paskin has noted something related, though not precisely the same: a return of moral clarity and easily hateable villains to shows like Downton Abbey, where good and evil are precisely delineated in sweeping, emotional terms, and Game of Thrones, where loyalties may shift constantly but Bad King Joffrey is the worst.

One of the things that’s interested me about the Age of Anti-Heroes is a sense in many of the great cable shows that it takes a bad person to accomplish certain kinds of things. On The Wire, Jimmy McNulty would be vastly less effective if he was a paragon, a knight of Baltimore flashing brass instead of Valyrian Steel. In Damages, lawyer Patty Hewes has to be ruthless to the point of murder because the corporations she goes up against are so powerful and amoral that someone has to sacrifice herself and her humanity to oppose them effectively. Breaking Bad initially considered whether cancer-stricken chemistry teacher Walter White had options other than cooking meth to provide a nest egg for his family after his death when his son set up an online fund for his treatment, but moved past that idea. And part of Walter’s evolution into a monster has been his inability or unwillingness to stop his life of crime once he’s laid away that money and his wife has found a way to launder it—he doesn’t just need to be the one who knocks, he wants to be. The Sopranos is entirely dedicated to the question of Tony’s efficacy: he enters therapy in the first place because his issues are making him ineffective, and Dr. Melfi ultimately decides she can’t continue to participate in perfecting him.

But in this new crop of clearer-hearted shows, there’s much greater trust in the idea that you can still be a decent person and beat the bad guys. On Once Upon a Time, Emma Swan may get a little feisty occasionally, but she’s fundamentally a good-hearted person, which is precisely what makes it possible for her to pick up a sword in the finale and slay a dragon. Her goodness gives her courage. Downton Abbey operates on a much smaller scale, but the show is fundamentally a romance that trusts Matthew and Mary to find their way to their hearts and to each other. Now that they’ve come around to each other and plan a union that will both satisfy their families’ financial needs and the pulls of their own hearts, does anyone seriously doubt that Sir Richard will emerge victorious? Revenge has an anti-heroine for its lead, but she also has a best friend who constantly tries to draw lines for her, who doesn’t want to see her debased both for her own good and for the success of her plan. On Grimm, Nick’s work against fairy-tale monsters has two purposes: it keeps his community safe, and brings him closer to a true understanding of his family. And of course Parks and Recreation finished its fourth season with an affirmation of the idea that a passion for public service and kindness can put you over the top, even in a world and in an arena that doesn’t often reward those values.

None of this means that anti-heroes can’t be good spiky fun (ditto for villains). But there’s something morally and artistically reinvigorating about the idea that there’s more than one way to tackle difficult problems, and that the struggle to hold on to goodness is a worthwhile enterprise to engage in and story to tell in and of itself.