The Rise of the TV Antihero

We root for the bad guys now. What does that say about us?

Perviously in the Tank we discussed Hollywood-style antiheroes: lots of attitude, but not much actual wrongdoing. Things might be different when it comes to the Golden Age of Television.

Matt Belinkie:  Pete, last time we discussed antiheroes, you hypothesized that the 90s were a high point. You cited Wolverine, the Punisher, and Lobo. But those are all comic book examples. Would you agree that now we’re at a high water mark for antiheroes on the small screen? Tony Soprano remains the template for the modern prestige TV protagonist. Following in his wake are Vic Mackey, Frank Underwood, and Saul Goodman. These aren’t antiheroes in the way that xXx is an antihero. There are selfish people who hurt everyone close to them.

Peter Fenzel:  And they are certainly less fantastical. Even in Game of Thrones, the characters who are most morally confounding are also the ones who correspond to recognizable, contemporary people, and not the monsters and wizards. A lot of people identify with Stannis Baratheon in ways they do not identify with Swamp Thing.

underwoodJordan Stokes:  TV Tropes calls Underwood and his ilk “villain protagonists,” which seems like a useful distinction. The story is about them, but it’s not a hero story to begin with. (Vic Mackey seems to inhabit more of an antihero space: he does still fight crime, after all.) There’s something else that all of these guys have in common, though, which is that they are patriarchs. Usually they’re literally fathers, but that’s not necessary: the important distinction is that they’re men who hold the levers of social and political power within their particular subculture. (The Ron Perlman character from Sons of Anarchy is another really good example here.) These subcultures are always rule-bound. Sure, Tony Soprano is a crook, but the Mafia has its own code. And these guys are kind of like metonymic representations of the Law: they enforce it, it empowers them, it flows from them.

So it’s interesting that all of these guys are incapable of functioning within that same law. Tony Soprano is cracking up and seeing a shrink. Clay Morrow is embezzling from the club. Frank Underwood is murdering journalists.

The law that applies to everybody else doesn’t apply to them. They’re above it.

mackeyBut pretty much universally, this ends up biting them in the ass. The shows are about the fall of these degraded patriarchs (even if you run into The Scarface Problem, in which the fans, or even the writers, seem to forget about this).

So I think that villain protagonists of this ilk are a symptom of our particular zeitgeist. They’re related to Davos Man, and “We Are The 99%,” and things of that sort: the pervasive belief that the people who run the show are VASTLY powerful — like, their power is totally unfettered by institutions, which I tend to think isn’t factually true, but what do I know? — and morally monstrous.

But this wouldn’t apply to Deadpool, or Suicide Squad, or, like, the various Grand Theft Auto protagonists. So just as there are different types of antihero, there are probably different cultural associations.

Fenzel:  Yeah, a lot of these figures are tragic, a lot of them are failures, and a lot of their stories, even when they are superficially heroic to a casual watcher, damn their main characters even more than the clown damns Spawn. You could look for things that these people are “anti” other than “hero.” “Antifathers.” “Antiteachers.” “Antidaughters.” “Anticops.” “Girls” might have an unspoken “Anti” in front of it.
“Sons of Anarchy” hits this maybe a bit too on the nose in the title, with Jax giving over the role of his deceased father to his gun-running motorcycle club. “There at one point was a social structure around fatherhood but it has been replaced by the proxy relationships of a chaotic and extralegal social protest movement.”

hannah hovarthThat could point to a deepening despair about traditional social roles across the spectrum. Or it might be a way of dealing with wounds around them cathartically without discarding the institutions.

Fenzel:  But here we’re also casting a very wide net. The Sopranos ended almost 10 years ago, and The Shield not long after that. Mad Men and Breaking Bad are gone, as is Battlestar Galactica (with it’s antihumans, antifriends and antilovers), and even Sons of Anarchy.

I was going to mention Damages but then I looked it up and it ended four years ago.

So, what are we talking about that is “of the moment?” Game of Thrones, Better Call Saul, House of Cards, Sunny, maybe GirlsMr. Robot? Preacher?
Archer? Rick and Morty? Two Broke Girls?

robotStokes:  Mr. Robot has a very stark moral tone. (The main guy is a criminal, sure, but if he’s an antihero, Robin Hood is also an antihero.) Most people are presented as flawed, but when they are behaving heroically they are being good and the people who are bad are evil. You do see good characters doing bad things pretty often — but when this happens, it’s presented as a moment of weakness. That’s not generally part of the antihero archetype: when Han Solo shoots Greedo under the table, it’s not because he panics. It’s not a violation of his own moral code.

This might reveal something more general about heroes and antiheroes: they’re never weak. The classical hero thinks that running away is bad, so he never runs away. A cowardly antihero, someone like Rincewind for instance, thinks that running away is good, so he always runs away. But do we ever find an antihero who thinks that running away is bad, and does so anyway, and feels guilty afterwards?

An antihero isn’t someone who aimed for hero and missed. They are usually perfect examples of what they are trying to be.

Fenzel:  I can think of antiheroes who do things and hate themselves for it, but they are still doing exactly what they want and are perfect examples of people trying to hate themselves.

But, for example, the Phantom of the Opera is not an antihero.

craftStokes:  Yeah, it’s the difference between “Oh $%^& what did I do?” and “I can live with it. I can live with it.”

Fenzel:  Are you the one girl from The Craft, or are you all the other girls from The Craft?

Stokes:  Talk about your Utilitarian Nightmare World Dichotomies.

Fenzel:  Jordan, one phrase you used that stuck out for me was “morally monstrous.” I still resist this idea that we’re at “peak antihero,” but maybe we are at “peak moral monster.” Some of them are protagonists, some are antagonists, some are side characters, and in some shows or movies, it can feel like it’s everybody.

This would also line up a bit better with our previous take on “the new sincerity.” Sincerity and trust become more precious if you’re surrounded by monsters. The moment I’d contrast it with is the G-Men / mobster fight against the Nazis in The Rocketeer, when the mobsters turn on the Nazis and fight alongside the FBI out of patriotism. There’s this idea in that moment (maybe it’s partly what peak antihero was responding to) that even when people disagree, hate each other, or do bad things, deep down, we’re all on the same team.

That idea does not feel contemporary. When a fictional character walks into a room now, I do not assume they are among friends, or that they will be friendly themselves, waiting to be shown the exceptions. And I think I used to feel that way a lot more often.

nerdsAnother idea related to this is the decline of “boys will be boys.” The nerds in Revenge of the Nerds by today’s standards are rapist monsters. The two guys in Weekend at Bernie’s are horrifically desecrating the dead. All the dudes in the John Hughes movies would these days be targets of public shaming in a way they would not be then (which is often a major factor in how the movie worked). Pokémon is twisted slavery and abuse. Our culture now see these things and the dominant discourses demand their condemnation, as people eagerly go through the past in a sort of anti-Mormon quest to damn everybody who wasn’t damned during their lifetimes.

It’s hard to imagine Bart Simpson becoming a thing now and people thinking he was cool. If Saul Goodman had been on L.A. Law, neither his pathos nor his moral turpitude would have been seriously at issue. Mostly he’d have been seen as trashy and unattractive.

boys will be boys“WHAT HAVE I BECOME??”

Stokes:  You know, even if you contrast Girls with Sex in the City, the question with Carrie was always whether or not she was going to be happy. With Hannah Horvath, her happiness seems to depend on her becoming a much better person. So even there, there’s a kind of moral urgency, and a tendency to assume that most people are — if not exactly monsters — not very nice.

Next time, we look at the rise of female antiheroes.

5 Comments on “The Rise of the TV Antihero”

  1. Rob #

    It seems to me there’s an important distinction between two different types of antiheroes: those who profess worthwhile moral motivations but are ultimately revealed to be only self-interested (Walter White, Vic Mackey, Rachel from unREAL) and those who have an air of cynicism and self-interestedness but ultimately end up doing the heroic thing (Han Solo, Suicide Squad, Marlo Stanfield). Characters who are openly self-interested and follow through on it are more or less just villain protagonists.

    Also, I would object to calling Saul Goodman an antihero. In what we’ve seen of Better Call Saul thus far, he’s just a well-meaning guy who likes to cut corners — he would fit right into the heroic side of a network legal drama. If he is going to be corrupted, it hasn’t happened yet.


    • Crystal #

      Yes, Saul is not an ultimately selfish guy, at least not any more than the average person. He is incredibly selfless with how much he takes care of his brother. He has moments of weakness where he gives in to his impulses, but it comes from a place of wanting to prove his worth. I think he can fit into a certain model of anti-hero because he has a clear disregard for doing things by the book. He doesn’t mind skirting the law if it gets him results. But he certainly isn’t an anti-hero the way Walter White is.


  2. jmasoncooper #

    Being Mormon, @Fenzel, I loved your statement above: “Our culture now see these things and the dominant discourses demand their condemnation, as people eagerly go through the past in a sort of anti-Mormon quest to damn everybody who wasn’t damned during their lifetimes.”
    My history professor called it “the eternal now.” In other words, the inability to look at things that happened before and judge them by their context and instead impose our views and opinions and moral judgments on their behavior.
    My go-to example of this is to ask someone how they judge the Spartans. They killed handicapped babies, they abused their children, and every year they fought and conquered their neighbors so they would not have to grow their own crops. By today’s moral standards all those things are reprehensible. But without the Spartans, maybe their is no Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle because the Persians subjugate all of Greece. (I know that it was the naval victory at Salamis that was more decisive than the land battle, but it is still hard to argue about the contributions of the Spartans to the defeat of Persia in 380 BCE.)
    Wisecrack recently did a piece on the way that South Park is exposing this kind of neo-liberal damn everyone attitude that I feel like works as a corollary to your discussion here (


  3. Mike #

    Conspiracy time.
    Shows and movies are owned by heartless corporations. Hypothesis:
    Good characters are not written well, or written poorly (Superman) so we the people don’t aspire to be good.
    Evil characters are written well so we the people excuse or even respect people like them (have your pick at any politician or businessman).


  4. Dopamine Addict #

    Despite all the pc culture and high brow talk about empathy, people tend to identify with people who are strong and effective when needed, even if it goes against the rules or means taking a cynical view on their options. People are not angels.


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