There are so many “bad” characters on screen now-a-days I surprisingly find myself rooting for most of them. Characters such as Walter White, Francis Underwood, Jaime Lannister, Don Draper, Dexter, Tony Soprano and so on. Don’t act like you haven’t rooted for at least one of them because I have a feeling that you’ve sat there on the sidelines secretly cheering them on in their endeavors. But have you ever wondered why?
What is it about these deplorable characters that reels us in? It seems that if the character in question is shown with an ounce of humanity or some kind of sympathetic trait, then we relate to them on some level and we let them get away with anything. Then to further our compassion for these would be foes, we tune in week to week to see what they will get away with next.
I for one think it’s awesome and high time that the idea behind who a “hero” is and can be, is altered. Now don’t run your mouths off on me just yet, I’m not comparing all of this to real life in such a way that I want people going out and making drugs in order to supplement their income. I’m strictly relating this to today’s television hits and how we yearn for someone who is clearly on the wrong side of the fence.
Arguably the guy that got the ball rolling … and some heads too.
First I think we need to look at the past generations of television. There were hits like the M*A*S*H*, Wonder Years, the Cosby Show, Family Ties, Night Rider, Bonanza, Happy Days, Hee Haw, Andy Griffth and Little House on the Prairie. Do you see a trend there? Not one of them had a central character who was the “bad” guy/gal in any sense of the word. Today’s television hits are breaking the stereotypes of yesterday and are forging new ideas of what can be expected out of the weekly TV line up. Within that line up are a wide array of personas that are far deeper and more tangible for the audience to sink their teeth into. We as a society have come to expect more and production companies are meeting those expectations exceedingly well.
So what changed? Our idea of who we want to relate to is part of it. We as an audience have come to expect people on television shows that have flaws. We no longer want to watch seemingly perfect families struggle with minuscule problems that in the grand scheme of things won’t change the outcome of the show. Audiences want characters that have inner demons, people who on one level or another have a lot more going on than what we’ve seen before. Again, I’m not trying to bash anyone’s fond memories of say the Cosby Show and what that family went through. But if you compare the Cosby Show to something like Breaking Bad it’s clear that times have changed.
Who cares if you slept with your sister, we still <3 you Jamie!
Let me say that a lot of this is due largely in part to what I like to call the underdog theory. The idea that we tend to evaluate and justify a character’s existence within a story based upon the fairness of the situation. This leads us to feel sympathetic towards the character and establish them in a positive light – however small of a light it might be. Typically this light is found in a back story where the audience is given a glimpse into the character’s past and are shown something that has happened and laid the foundation for how the person is presently. It’s this glimpse where we fall in love with someone we might’ve loathed up to that point. All of a sudden we now have a reason to “feel” for him/her and almost empathize with their present plight. A fantastic example of this was when Jamie Lannister, (Game of Thrones for those of you not keeping up) exposed and with nothing left to lose, pleads his case to Brienne giving the viewer a glimpse of a different side to his character that we otherwise would have never known about. Granted it’s told from his perspective and could all be a lie, but the sincerity that he utilizes as he delivers this compelling information is more than convincing. Now instead of hating him, I find myself rooting for him, hoping that he can somehow overcome the namesake of Kingslayer and the reputation that precedes it.
Today’s television heroes are flawed, realistic to some degree, show admirable intentions and an ability to persevere. Above all I feel that they show a large amount of strength. If you look at many of the characters I mentioned earlier, they are prime examples of people who exert extreme amounts of personal strength in order to accomplish their goals. Walter White dealt with his cancer to sell drugs and provide money for his family. Tony Soprano had issues with controlling his ever imploding mob all while going to a shrink to deal with his own inner demons. And Dexter took out his vengeance on other serial killers … they all do it with strength and a certain integrity that we admire. Everyone knows of a weakness inside themselves and we wish we had the strength to combat it. When we see one of these people take on a challenge and win – it helps give us some amount of courage because we can’t help but feel that we would probably approach that same situation in a similar fashion. I mean, put yourself in Walter’s shoes; would you go in to a drug lord’s lair with some kind of explosive chemical to make a point if you could? That one scene not only showed courage, but balls of steel and we all cheered as Mr. White walked back to his car.
Proof that charm and a good suit can get you anywhere in life.
Our admiration of these characters and stories are evident that there is a swing in the nature of television. Sure there are plenty of shows that aren’t going to cross into this grey area of anti-heroes but those are the shows that are playing it safe. If the Emmys are proof of anything, it’s that a new era of television is happening. I couldn’t tell you the last time someone mentioned a show to me to watch where there was a clear line drawn in the sand of where each character stood. It seems that now more than ever it’s good to be bad and I welcome the change.
Hey guys & gals, my name is Lucas Tetrault and if you like this post or any of the others I’ve done – please feel free to venture over to my Blog and take a gander at some other stuff I write about. I promise I don’t intend to waste your time.
I work as a Creative Director and spend time away from my job with my wife and son, writing for Unreality, and trying to be creative with my own personal projects.