The Rise Of The TV Anti-Hero: A Modern List
Somewhere along the way American TV shows became spearheaded by anti-heroes. Gone are the days of the A-Team and Knight Rider, where the main leads would be steadfast in their battle against criminal scum. Our new heroes now are criminal scum. We’ve reached the point where we’re saturated by characters steeped in ambiguous grey tones, carrying out dubious actions. And yet every week viewers have kept returning to see what happens next. We are invested in these characters, the kind that if we met in real life we’d find them unlikable people at best, and criminal monsters at worst.
The reason we can endure such complicated and downright dreadful specimens of humanity on screen is because we recognize the bigger themes being explored through the characters. The inner struggle of an anti-hero is to survive in a world that rejects them, that strives against what they want, a world that attempts to give them what they need instead, but is continually fought against stubbornly. The very nature of an anti-hero seems like a bold retort to the bland hero in white. The anti-hero’s incompatibility with society’s rules is what makes for compelling drama.
We are drawn to them out of empathy though; our interest in their lives and well-being is a form of collective acknowledgement; an admission that just like them, we are only human. These characters give the appearance of being evil at cursory glance; leaving ruined lives in their wake, but we continue to watch them anyway, either rooting for redemption, or to see them wallow in their chosen path paying some kind of steep price.
Below is a list of some of the most critically acclaimed modern shows to have graced our screens, and all are lead by anti-heroes, morally complex individuals, and characters that seemingly do more bad than good. Disclaimer: most of the Youtube clips are NSFW, so click with caution.
Anti-hero: Tony Soprano
Anti-heroic acts: Infidelity with any female within a 10 yards radius. Killing people for making him have fishy nightmares. Pinching noses.
Why we kept watching: Because he loves his family. Except when he’s yelling at them and trying to kill them. The depth of James Gandolfini’s performance, and the writing by David Chase & co brought to life a suburban husband and father with modern fears and insecurities, which many could relate to. His blazing rows with his wife Carmela were taut and ugly, but felt so real that we could recognize the anger, if not his more unreasonable forms of rage that resulted in bloodshed. Threatened by the likes of the FBI, other mobsters, and severe depression, often we found ourselves rooting for the guy to survive it all, despite the fact that he was a mob boss. That is the power of award winning writing and acting, folks.
Anti-Hero: Vic Mackey
Anti-heroic acts: Killing cops. Sleeping with cops’ wives. Failing to be a cop.
Why we kept watching: Michael Chiklis’ bald-headed precursor to Breaking Bad’s Walter White had a weird code he lived by that was inconsistent, but prevented him from going completely to the dark side. He still had traces of humanity buried underneath his corrupt antics. He loved his kid intensely, and tried to look out for hookers with hearts of gold. Regardless of his misdeeds, watching him trying to navigate his way out of being caught and arrested by his own police department was addictive viewing, as was watching his friendships slowly deteriorate to devastating effect over the course of seven seasons. The Shield is one of those rare shows to have a superb ending that wrapped up the character’s journey flawlessly.
Anti-heroes: Nearly every character on the show!
Anti-heroic acts: Drug dealing. Corrupt activity at city hall. Misuse of a funeral home.
Why we kept watching: Often cited as the greatest American TV show ever made, this sprawling view of Baltimore was populated by anti-heroes of all sorts. From Dominic West’s drunk and disheveled cop Jimmy McNulty to Michael K. Williams’ vigilante Omar Little, the city was seething with complex people juggling their duties and their desires, often beaten down by a bureaucratic society trapped in cycles, regurgitating the same tragedies over and over. Essential viewing, and so authentic it’s almost like watching a documentary.
Anti-hero: Al Swearengen
Anti-heroic acts: Violent drug dealer and pimp of desperate women. Giving long curse-ridden monologues during oral sex.
Why we kept watching: Another magnetic performance kept viewers glued to their screens, with Ian McShane serenading us with profanity as if he was regaling us with a Shakespearean sonnet. Though Swearengen was a mean guy to put it lightly, he had enough humor and pragmatic spirit that he didn’t completely repel us. Instead, we were dying to see his next interaction with Mr Wu. There’s something seductive about a character with a shrewd business-sense and the determination to go through with a plan fraught with danger and risk. As a classic example of how an anti-hero is a retort to bland conventional heroes, his run-ins with Timothy Olyphant’s Sherriff Bullock had us rooting for the man in black instead.
Anti-heroic acts: Jabbing people in the neck with a syringe containing a powerful sedative. Sabotaging Miami PDs efforts to catch killers. Wearing the same green top for seven years.
Why we kept watching: Well, given the varying quality of every season past the first, some viewers may have abandoned the show, but for the ones remaining the motivation has always been the titular character, rather than anything else. There is a charming quality to Michael C. Hall’s jovial serial killer with a code, who only kills criminals who haven’t been caught yet. Dexter’s oddball alter ego is amusing to watch as he attempts to act ‘normal’ around his colleagues and strangers, but his other more honest self is also something we can relate to. Not so much the need to kill, but his efforts to manage his destructive desires is something that’s relevant and touches upon a profound truth. Let’s try to ignore the fact that the show, and the last season in particular, has decided to squander such meditations in favor of soap opera-level nonsense populated by abysmal characters nobody cares about.
Anti-hero: Don Draper
Anti-heroic acts: Infidelity with any female confirmed to have a heartbeat. Petty revenge on work colleagues. Shifty dad.
Why we kept watching: A trend forming slowly in this list is the Hitchcockian aspect of a character thrashing around trying to get out of a set of circumstances beyond their control, and likewise we watch Don Draper’s struggle to define his modern identity and escape from his bleak past which looms over him like a ghost. Jon Hamm’s performance as the dapper ad exec sells the soul-searching that Draper undergoes in his most intimate moments, and manages to keep us riveted to the screen when his mask comes back on and he morphs back into a horrible human being.
Anti-hero: Walter White
Anti-heroic acts: Cooking and selling meth. Destroying anyone he comes into contact with. Killing people with science.
Why we keep watching: Bryan Cranston’s schoolteacher turned drug dealer Walter White has been a revelation. The show has gained popularity at a steady rate and now in the throes of its final season has become a major hit, causing endless discussion around the water coolers of every office. Everyone has been utterly enthralled by the tale of a man having the most demented mid-life crisis ever. Walter’s every man nature slowly succumbing to a darker persona in the form of Heisenberg has been essential viewing. Watching a man struggling to deal with cancer and resorting to crime to provide for his family is compelling, and doubly so when in the first season he’s offered a simple solution but his pride won’t let him accept it. This choice has set off a chain of disastrous events that has destroyed lives and sent Walter spiraling into a moral vacuum, a bubble where he continually justifies his own insane actions to himself. Walter White is a brilliant fascinating character that has simultaneously entertained and horrified us in equal measure, and he shall be sorely missed once the series ends its five year run.
Anti-hero: Nucky Thompson
Anti-heroic acts: Corrupt politician and gangster hi-jinks. Bootlegging during Prohibition. Harbouring young pyromaniacs.
Why we kept watching: Steve Buscemi’s Nucky is probably the least likable of the bunch in this list of characters, lacking humor, wit and sympathetic traits. Instead, Nucky is a cold man with a hard stare, another pragmatic businessman that methodically consolidates and maintains power through intimidation and manipulation. The world he inhabits is a major pull on viewers, as it’s not one depicted often on TV, especially with such high production value and starry line-up of excellent actors. Nucky is ironically the least interesting thing about Boardwalk, but Buscemi has slowly been coming into his own over the two seasons its been on air, and his character has been getting more ruthless, ever since committing to his inner gangster by dispatching someone close to him. His only moment of humanity has been his tense relationship with his father, but that hasn’t really been the focus of the show, so as a result we’re left with a man with no moral code laying waste to his enemies with little justification other than: because he wants to.
Game of Thrones:
Anti-Heroes: Nearly every character on the show!
Anti-heroic acts: Ok, so the Starks are painted as the good guys really, our sympathies lie with them despite their ineptitude at the game of thrones. But the rest of the kingdom of Westeros is a hall of fame for all manner of despotic villainy. All compulsively watchable. Whether it be the Lannisters with their supreme form of political intrigue to maintain a status quo in the kingdom, the Baratheons with their penchant for black magic to win the iron throne for the rightful heir, or lesser individuals like sellsword Bronn who simply want to live to fight another day. George R. R. Martin’s subversion of the fantasy genre brings attention to the unflattering realities of history, where heroes were only born in songs and tales, but the real victors of war were the ones willing to do whatever it took.
Anti-heroes: Philip and Elizabeth Jennings
Anti-heroic acts: Spying on the USA for the Soviet Union. Manipulating and occasionally killing innocent people. Bad wigs.
Why we keep watching: The brilliance of this show is having us transfixed by characters that are on the wrong side of history. They have no idea the Berlin wall is going to fall and so is everything they’re fighting for. But they’re such well-developed characters, ones we can completely emphasis with. They live in suburbia, they have kids, they have everything to lose, and with each tense encounter with the FBI, we hope they pull it off, even while at the same time we’re left feeling sick at the way Philip (Matthew Rhys) deceives an innocent lady into a long term relationship to pump her for valuable info, and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) executes a neighborhood watch officer on the verge of bringing their life crashing down around them.
House of Cards:
Anti-hero: Francis J. Underwood
Anti-heroic acts: Clawing his way up the political food chain. Breaking the fourth wall to insult people. Petting a dog incorrectly.
Why we keep watching: Kevin Spacey blazes across the screen as political schemer Francis, who will do whatever it takes to gain power, tossing anyone in his way under the bus. Again, this pragmatic determination to succeed is addictive viewing, to watch a character accomplish something monumental while shrugging off any semblance of a moral compass. There is a kind of wish-fulfillment going on for the viewer, deriving entertainment from the kind of behavior we are sick of in real life. But when its Kevin Spacey acting this way, it’s entertainment at its finest.
Anti-heroic acts: Eating people. Manipulating people. Not telling Will Graham he can’t draw very well.
Why we keep watching: Mads Mikkelsen’s take on Hannibal has been riveting stuff. The educated and charming psychiatrist plans elaborate dishes all throughout the first season and you’re wincing each time anybody takes a bite and compliments him on his culinary skills. Mikkelsen plays the role with cool, calm detachment, but also with subtle suaveness. There is no rabid animal under his skin; the man is totally in control of himself, which makes him admirable. The only time we’re opposed to him is when other characters we like are threatened, but thankfully those moments are few and far between. Though if it had to come to a choice between Hannibal and Graham biting the dust, there’s not much of a debate about whom we would want to stick around.
The trend of anti-heroes on TV does not seem to be letting up, with 2013 shows like Ray Donovan, Low Winter Sun, and Bates Motel, keeping our screens populated by people who don’t quite look good in white, who don’t fit in, the kind of people who do things we won’t. Conflict is what makes drama, and anti-heroes are burdened with it, much to their frustration and our enjoyment. There is the risk that it becomes stale to see them on TV every year, with repetitive shows featuring characters we’ve seen handled before, struggling with the same conflicts. But as long as American TV continues to take risks we’ll continue to meet memorable characters who are better left on the other side of the TV screen.