This post will focus on the increasing popularity of anti heroes in TV series, to name a few : The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, House of cards, True Detective etc.. This type of character seems to have increased in popularity lately… why? Does it say something about us as a society?
But first let’ s define the anti hero and why we find him/her so interesting. As more nuanced characters, anti-heroes have more issues and questions. You get a glimpse into their thoughts and emotions, and are able to see why they end up choosing exactly what they want to do. Anti-heroes can have moral failures and hypocritical beliefs, whereas traditional heroes tend to know what’s right and do it immediately. Because they are so strong in their moral beliefs, traditional heroes can be harder to relate to, and people enjoy characters they can understand.
Due to their lack of moral rectitude, anti-heroes have a tendency to be more relatable than heroes. They have more issues than heroes do, and they don’t just say okay and fight the bad guy. They question the bad guy, ask about his life, antagonize him and debate whether the fight really should happen. They tend to be more complex, which allows their storyline to be more three-dimentional, in other words more human.
Ultimately the anti-hero is more of a person, while the traditional hero is just that—a hero.
Why are there so many TV anti-heroes? Popular culture from the BBC
Morally reprehensible characters like Breaking Bad’s Walter White are all over our TV screens. But how did the anti-hero become such a fixture? Alan Moloney reports. (21 October 2014)
It’s the show that has already been labelled by many critics as one of the greatest ever made – and it has only two episodes left to air. For the uninitiated, Breaking Bad follows the actions of Walter White, a high-school chemistry teacher who, on being told he has lung cancer, decides to ‘break bad’ and start making crystal methamphetamine to provide money for his family. The show’s creator, Vince Gilligan has said the plan was to tell a story about a man who transforms from “Mr Chips into Scarface”.
So how has it come to pass that a drug-dealing, murderous sociopath is now the lead character on a primetime American television show? A show that has only become more popular as Walt has descended further into the moral abyss?
As Daniel D’Addario of entertainment website Salon points out, the portrayal of leading TV characters has altered greatly over the past two decades. “Characters seem to get worse and worse – the fact that it seems hard to believe that there was a time when protagonists of TV series were, by and large, unambiguously heroic points to just how much has changed.” This trend was in evidence as early as 1993, with the airing of police drama NYPD Blue, a series that was described by the American Family Association as “soft-core porn” and featured in Andy Sipowicz a central protagonist who struggled against his own alcoholism, sexism and bigotry.
Why the change? The moral shift in television characters was undoubtedly facilitated by the rise of American TV cable networks. Networks gave programme-makers freedom to create content that didn’t need such wide appeal, and allowed programme-makers to push the boundaries of what could be shown.
Maureen Ryan, television critic of the Huffington Post, sees the moral compass of these characters as far less fixed than their forebears, “Now, there’s much more flexibility on where even mainstream comedies and dramas can draw that line. And at places like HBO, Showtime, AMC, FX and other cable networks the line can be just about anywhere, as long as the story behind the transgressive behaviour is compelling and the actions the characters take are, in some way or other, justifiable.”
The character that is routinely identified as breaking the traditional ‘hero’ mould is Tony Soprano – the central character in HBO’s The Sopranos. Tony is a man who cares deeply about his families (both the traditional and criminal one) and seems to yearn for a simpler time in American history. “What happened to Gary Cooper?” he asks in the series’ pilot episode, “The strong silent type. That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do.”
Tony may have wanted to be Gary Cooper but he actually embodied television’s new American anti-hero, the man who indulges in his own transgressive behaviour and justifies his actions as being for the greater good – even if the greater good very often equated to his own.
Donna Bowman, a writer for entertainment newspaper The AV Club sees the anti-hero as “driven by the imperative of success and the imperative of security to do horrible, horrible things.” She adds: “We understand how conditions today don’t allow us to remain clean, and that it’s just a matter of how dirty we’re willing to get in pursuit of what we’ve always been told we should want.”
Tony Soprano may have come of age in a more troubled and complicated post-9/11 America but it was a Los Angeles police corruption scandal from the late 1990s that inspired a show that showed just how dirty one man was willing to become to get what he wanted.
The Shield debuted on US cable channel FX in 2002 and presented its central character, Detective Vic Mackey as, in his own words, “a different kind of cop”. For seven seasons he indulged in behaviour worse than the criminals he was chasing, while operating behind a badge of public trust. As Daniel D’Addario explains, “A TV show will go as far as it’s allowed. If there are effectively no structures, a show will place its star in far more dodgy situations.” And compared with Tony Soprano, The Shield offered Mackey, “even less chance at redemption.”
Maureen Ryan sees The Sopranos and The Shield as two of the most influential shows of this era. “A few years after The Shield and The Sopranos debuted and once the handcuffs were off in terms of how you could depict people and their motivations, it was as if a dam had been burst.” She adds that, “Creators were not only allowed to delve into difficult areas, they were encouraged to by a great many ‘me too’ cable networks, all of whom wanted to make their mark with shows that were perceived as dangerous and subversive.”
The Sopranos may have introduced the torch-bearing anti-hero, but Tony has since been joined by a plethora of others (both on US cable and network television). 24, House, Dexter, The Wire, Deadwood, House of Cards and Mad Men as well as countless others have all come to challenge the traditional notion of what it means to be a hero, asking just how far you can push a character and expect the viewer to stay with them. Tony Soprano, Vic Mackay and Don Draper all still have their advocates – despite their often despicable behaviour. Bowman believes that for these types of characters to engage with an audience, “We have to understand why they do what they do; their actions have to flow from character and circumstance that we comprehend.”
What then of Walter White and his transformation from “Mr Chips to Scarface”? Perhaps only when the series has ended will we be able to properly assess where he stands in the rogues’ gallery of television’s anti-heroes. But even death or redemption (if that is even possible) can’t change the dreadful effects of White’s actions over five years.
As Maureen Ryan puts it, “Lesser shows make you pump your fist and root for the lead characters, no matter what they’ve done. But first-rate shows never let you forget that the lead character is not someone you want to emulate, and at times, they make you question why you empathise with them at all.”
The Rise Of The Anti-Hero In Popular Culture
We live in a society that has idolized the hero. They started as the Knights of the Round Table, then they were the Phantom, and Superman. Heroes took over popular culture, especially in the form of comic books. In the 1960s, the protagonist characters who were normally heroes took a turn towards something darker.
Heroes became complicated, they went from characters who filled every ideal of the perfect champion of justice and turned into grim, weary men and women. Batman, Spawn, Rorschach from “Watchmen,” Alan Moore’s V, Walter White, all of them were characters who strove to achieve justice or do the right thing, but without the same rules as the rest of the heroes of their times.
So what is it about these darker characters that makes them so popular with audiences? Some writers explain the anti-hero’s popularity on wish fulfillment fantasies. Author Auden Johnson explains it through describing the characters as not being “restrained by consequences,” fulfilling a fantasy that many people feel in their day to day lives. Characters like Rorschach, violent vigilantes, take the law far past into their own hands, acting as judge, jury and executioner.
It fills a certain visceral need people feel to mete out retribution for legitimate or perceived wrongs. This frustration with the state of things has continued to grow, especially in recent years. As humans, we need outlets for our angers and frustrations. Unfortunately, we can’t punch someone in the face just because they bother us, we can’t just scream and break things when our days don’t go well.
The rise of the anti-hero is a result of both mounting anger in readers and a desensitization to violence that has increased as the years have passed. Such desensitization to violence makes men and women not be shocked by nor put off from it. A University of Alabama at Birmingham study from January 2016 found that “Exposure to violence at high levels or across multiple contexts has been linked with emotional desensitization, indicated by low levels of internalizing symptoms.”
When we don’t react to violence due to lack of emotional sensitivity to it, it becomes something cool. Violence and retribution aren’t discouraged, they’re viewed as entertainment. Anti-heroes fill this niche in what we read, watch and play, assuming the role of a character who “takes no sh*t” from anyone and does whatever they want, while still fulfilling the role of a champion. Outlaws have become romantic figures, idealized as misunderstood heroes rather than men and women who act outside of any laws but their own.
AMC’s “Breaking Bad” was a hugely popular drama for five years. A chemistry teacher dying of cancer just wants to be able to leave his family enough money to live comfortably when he dies, but as a teacher, he earns little. When combined with the insanely high costs of medical care, he turns his knowledge of chemicals into cooking methamphetamines to save money for his family. Throughout the show, Walter transitions from loving family man with a dark secret to full-on villain-level scheming and darkness.
Despite his actions, viewers loved Walter more and more, and hated the more moral characters who got in his way. The line between justice and righteousness, and self-fulfillment has become blurred, with anti-heroes surging in their popularity as a result. These characters who defy authority more as a personality trait than as a choice are indicative of a growing problem in our society.
People are angry and frustrated with their situations. Gas prices are too high, a public figure famous for family values is revealed to be a child molester and adulterer, the government is allowing corporations to buy off policy changes and prevent progress. Walmart moved the kitchen supply aisle from one side of the store to the other without any warning.
The rise of the anti-hero heralds a new social climate, where acting on your frustrations is respected more than showing restraint. It shows a society where due process and rationality are knocked aside in favor of instant gratification. With role models shifting from heroes to anti-heroes, what’s to stop someone from copying them and acting on their fantasy, taking justice into their own hands?
The right answer should be the people themselves. Looking at the state of the world, I can’t trust that answer.
5 types of anti-heroes (https://thewritepractice.com/anti-heroes/)
The Classical Anti-Hero
Traditionally, a classical hero is a character who always wins their battles, with sharp intellect, unshakable self-confidence, and excellent judgment.
So it stands to logic that the classical anti-hero, which is the original anti-hero, is terrible in a fight, is not the brightest crayon in the box, riddled with self-doubt, and makes decisions based on self-preservation instead of bravery. The classical anti-hero’s story arc follows the conquering of his own fears and coming to terms with himself to fight whatever threat faces him.
Frodo falls into this category, since he’s a decent guy, but there’s a lot of baggage that comes with carrying that ring through three books.
The “Disney” Anti-Hero
This is what most people tend to think of today when they think of an anti-hero. At his core, the Disney Anti-Hero is still fundamentally good, but doesn’t have the relentless optimism of a classical hero.
They tend to be sarcastic and more realistic, and tend to put logic before honor, but they won’t outright perform acts that are morally ambiguous. Like the Classical Anti-Hero, odds are pretty good that this type of anti-hero will develop into a classical hero by story’s end.
Haymitch Abernathy from the Hunger Games trilogy and Severus Snape of Harry Potter fame are two good examples of this type of anti-hero.
The Pragmatic Anti-Hero
The Pragmatic Anti-Hero is basically exactly what it sounds like. Generally no worse than neutral in morality, the Pragmatic Anti-Hero takes a big-picture view of his role, and if something or someone needs to be sacrificed for the greater good, so be it.
They won’t kill indiscriminately though: anyone who dies at the hand of the Pragmatic Anti-Hero either had it coming, or had to be killed in order to achieve the higher goal. These anti-heroes are equally as likely to defect from classical heroism by the end of the story as they are to convert.
Harry Potter himself, by the end of the series, fulfills this role, as he is constantly breaking rules, and uses two unforgivable curses and robs a bank by series’ end in order to off Voldemort once and for all.
The Unscrupulous Hero
This is as dark as you can get with your anti-hero while still being technically good.
The Unscrupulous Hero lives in a world that has a morality that is made up of varying shades of grey, with their grey being slightly lighter than that of the villains. Often they live in a really crappy setting, which accounts for their distrust of humanity and penchant towards violence. They’re big on revenge, and when they take their revenge, count on it being something to see. There might be some collateral damage in their actions, but that doesn’t faze them.
Jack Sparrow of the Pirates of the Caribbean film series and the Blues Brothers of the titular film are examples of this type of anti-hero: their intentions are good, and they are fighting on the moral high side, but they don’t really care how much damage they cause or who they double-cross on their way to achieving their goals.
The “Hero” in Name Only
These anti-heroes fight on the side of good, but they have no good motivation. Either their intentions are completely selfish, and they only happen to be pointing their weapons at the token bad guys, or their motivations are only slightly less terrible than the villains’. Sometimes they’re just bored and need someone to point a gun at.
You’ll still root for them, but you won’t agree with a lot of the ways they do things.
Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s re-imagining of the character is an example, since he explicitly describes himself as a high-functioning sociopath, and makes it clear that he only takes on cases that he finds mentally stimulating. Dexter of the TV series of the same name walks the line between this and a villain protagonist.
Which is your favorite anti-hero type?
Pick one of these types of anti-heroes and write for fifteen minutes, introducing your reader to the character. Give a sense of your anti-hero’s motivation.
Anti-heroes What makes them different? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YbYD6AQ6e60