Golden Age television continues to evolve, and it’s evolving the idea of the hero with it.
When you think of a screen hero, you think of the obvious – Superman, Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones, Batman, Buffy, Harry Potter, John McClane; I could go on. Admittedly, they all have their flaws, but they are all synonymous with good. The current trend of television protagonists suggests writers want an entirely new hero – the anti-hero, a person that embodies both the protagonist and antagonist. Since the inception of the brilliant Tony Soprano, a man who juggled his Mafia life and family life in the HBO hit series The Sopranos, the television hero has become more diverse and considerably more sinister.
Only days away from the finale, Walter White seems too far gone for redemption, but many fans continue to stick by him
Walter White, the chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with terminal cancer in the critically acclaimed TV series Breaking Bad, is a prime example of a troubled ‘good’ guy. Like the title suggests, Walter has been on a downward spiral towards evil since the moment he got that earth-shattering news in the pilot episode. With only days away from the series finale, Mr White seems too far gone for redemption, and his metamorphosis into the antagonist has turned fans against him, for obvious reasons, but many fans continue to stick by Walter White. Why is that? Why do so many fans forgive a character for doing heinous things?
The audience are eased into it by the character’s situations, making their actions somehow justified by their motives. Walter White, for instance, is terminally ill; he has a disabled son, aptly named Walt Jr; he has a family to care for; and he has no savings to support that family when he’s gone. This allows Walt a little leeway with the audience, so when he turns his attention to dealing crystal meth we kind of understand. Drastic reaction though it is, we still want him to succeed. It’s similar for Dexter Morgan, from the thrilling Showtime series Dexter. He is a blood-splatter analyst for Miami Metro who moonlights as a serial killer.
How on earth could an audience get behind what Dexter does? Again, it’s his motive that makes empathising with him a little easier. Similar to Bruce Wayne putting on his Batman costume to rid Gotham of the unjust, Dexter harbours his “Dark Passenger,” a proverbial mask to kill those who the justice system fails on, and he does it by following a very stringent code. Dexter punishes those who have caused suffering themselves, but ridding the streets of Miami isn’t his only intention, it’s feeding the monster that lives within him. We empathise with characters like Dexter because we believe that they’ve been thrust into these situations due to unforeseen circumstances. It’s this fine line that separates hero from villain.
Viewers seek the good in people. They tune in in the hope that Walt, Dexter and Don Draper will turn away from their wrong doings
A character’s difficult situation is a start for the audience to back-up his intentions, but it isn’t enough. Another important aspect is finding the good in them. Walter White has a family who he protects; Dexter has a sister and son who he cares for deeply; Don Draper, the suave, sophisticated, chain-smoking advertiser from AMC’s Mad Men has his work friends and children. They all have their Achilles heel, and when these characters are around the people they love, for an audience member, it’s hard to see the demons within. That has a lot to do with viewers seeking the good in people, and more importantly, the hope of redemption in the main protagonists. They tune in week in and week out in the hope that these characters take a stand and turn away from their wrong doings.
There are many more examples of course; Vick Mackey’s corrupt detective in The Shield, Nucky Thompson’s politician/gangster in Boardwalk Empire, Nancy Botwin’s the marijuana dealer in Weeds. Much like the previous examples, they too have had certain situations forced upon them, causing them to act the way they do.
So have we changed as viewers? Is TV changing to match the wants of the audience? Or is the Golden Age of television pushing more boundaries yet again?
The short answer: All of the above. Viewers want to see dynamic and relatable characters that face difficult situations, situations that force them to make difficult decisions. How many people can relate to Superman? Not many, although Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is building enough muscle to be as strong as him. These anti-heroes are a lot more relatable – although their dilemmas and choices are exaggerated for dramatic effect, it’s the fundamentals that audience members across the world can empathise with.
Golden Age television continues to change the structure and experiment, especially with character
The Golden Age of TV does continue to push boundaries, and one of those boundaries is the dynamics of a main character and how they fit into a TV show. Contemporary television continues to change the structure and experiment with the form, in the search of originality, because originality is like gold-dust in content creation these days. Modern TV has to change in order to stay relevant. The interesting thing about Breaking Bad is the evolution of a character and how his entire understanding of the world changes. It’s this evolution that makes it unique.
Despite the fact Breaking Bad and Dexter have now come to an end, the anti-hero continues to stay relevant. The Netflix original series House of Cards has a protagonist/antagonist hybrid at the helm in Frank Underwood and the second season is set to be released early 2014. Ray Donovan, the crime show that’s making waves both sides of the Atlantic, has recently completed its first season, led by Liev Schreiber as the title character. These shows and more continue to carry the anti-hero formula that made Tony Soprano so intricate and complicated, and television continues to evolve, forcing the idea of the hero character to evolve with it.
Featured image: AMC
Inset images: Showtime; AMC