What’s with all the bad men on TV? Take AMC’s Breaking Bad. The abhorrent protagonist, a teacher/meth chef named Walter, is the latest in a line of near-sociopathic characters who have infiltrated serial television.
My favourites: the prototype, Tony Soprano (mob boss, adulterer, malapropism-er); Mad Men’s Don Draper (alcoholic, womanizer, bad dad); and Deadwood’s Al Swearengen (runs a brothel, fed a body to a pig, uses the word “cunt” to Shakespearean effect). Then there’s Dexter, The Wire and Big Love. These are all shows that challenge our definition of good and bad, but ultimately put us in bed with the dark side.
Carley Fortune, lifestyle editor at Eye Weekly, got into journalism because she didn’t know what else to check out at the high school university fair. Though she loves Al Swearengen, her partner does not use the c-word. Follow her @carleyfortune
Carley’s five links
The allure of a bad boy isn’t new; women (some of us, anyway) have always been drawn to those brooding Byronic types. Without getting too tangled in female sexuality, Natasha Vargas-Cooper tries to uncover what makes introspective, sexually menacing men like Don Draper so irresistible–remember that scene with Bobbie Barrett?–even to strong women. (Fun facts: Joan Didion had a thing for John Wayne, and Joan Crawford said being around Clark Gable gave her “twinges of sexual urge beyond belief.”)
In this excerpt from a speech delivered at Oxford, Stephen Garrett links the rise of the anti-hero to society’s disillusionment with real-life “heroes.” A believer that TV dramas are a reflection of the times, Garrett argues that classic good guys are a relic from when bad guys were pure evil (the Nazis being the ultimate “baddies”). Now, world conflicts are morally ambiguous, and our leaders are suitably drawn in shades of grey. We don’t buy into the perfect man, or find him interesting, and there’s no going back.
This article from Newsweek bemoans an oversaturation of bad good guys on TV. The shows they’re featured on are, apparently, “inherently self-limiting”; the protagonists are infallible and viewers will soon tire of them. A total crock, if you ask me, and if you ask Stephen Garrett. His Oxford speech was, in part, a rebuttal to this piece.
Perhaps one of the reasons we’re drawn to supremely flawed characters is our belief in redemption. That’s why for years we were addicted to Tony Soprano. Sure he’s a murderer, but he likes ducks and horses! After suffocating his nephew (perhaps his most unforgivable act), some viewers wondered whether it was a mercy killing. Before the show wrapped, the Boston Globes Matthew Gilbert wrote this piece on why we search for the best in Tony.
Walter White is a meek high school chem teacher who begins cooking up fabulous crystal meth to fund his cancer treatments and build a nest egg for his family. In the process, he grows a pair. Sounds like a terrific black comedy, but this show isn’t joking. Walter is the most unlikable hero on TV. Ever. (Don’t believe me? Watch this.) In this piece, the Los Angeles Times brilliant Mary McNamara explores what makes Walter so disturbing: “This man is not finding his inner gangster, he’s selling his soul, right before our eyes.” And we like it.