Chinks written into the armor of otherwise noble heroes

Today’s writers of television drama can be merciless with their lead characters, forcing them into dilemmas so extreme they can only be called moral contortions.

Take this past season’s last episode of “ER.” Over the years, Dr. Mark Greene, played by Anthony Edwards, has proven himself to be a highly dedicated and ethical physician. But there he was, alone in an elevator headed for emergency surgery with a man who has just gone on a shooting rampage, killing eight before being shot himself by the police. The man was searching for his son, taken from his custody on Dr. Greene’s determination of child abuse.

What does Dr. Greene do? He discharges the defibrillator in mid-air. When the Hippocratic oath, as strong as it is for him, is pitted against other moral considerations — including the safety of his family — it lost. In the end, we don’t know if the killer lives or dies.

“As far as we know, Greene lets a man die,” says Jack Orman, the show’s executive producer. “That’s really big for him. We understood it intellectually and thought it would work, but we had no idea how strong it would be — and I wrote it.”

Such decisive moments have been the stock and trade of dramatists since the ancient Greeks, but until recent years they were more the exception than the rule in television drama. Whether it’s the otherwise idealized Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlett (“The West Wing”) raging at God in a cathedral like King Lear in a storm, or the normally wholesome Dr. Sydney Hansen (Melina Karakaredes) in “Providence” becoming involved with a married man, chinks have developed in the armor of these seeming paragons of virtue. In President Bartlett’s case, his anger and confusion over the accidental death of his longtime assistant Mrs. Landigham is compounded by his dilemma over having deceived the public about his health.

Despite their noble aims, flawed heroes are becoming the norm rather than the exception. Getting to this point, however, has been a gradual process. Writers point to Steven Bochco’s “Hill Street Blues” in the early 1980s as the show that paved the way for multidimensional dramas like Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick’s “Thirtysomething” and Dick Wolfe’s “Law and Order,” which in turn gave rise to the current generation of shows.

Across today’s television landscape, from Tony Soprano to Ed Stevens, from the baddest to the not so bad, TV drama protagonists often inspire mixed feelings from audiences, an ambivalence that writers work very hard to create.

“It’s sometimes unclear which side is right or wrong in life,” says Rob Burnett, co-creator and executive producer of “Ed.” “So it’s more important for characters to behave in a way that’s relatable to people rather than have them behave nobly all the time. If they did, people would lose interest.”

Instead of portraying moral paragons that are more abstract than real, writers are opting for flawed characters whose struggles with hard questions rarely yield easy answers, like life itself.

“When an audience empathizes with a flawed character,” explains Orman, “it has a greater impact to see them overcome obstacles.”

For Barbara Hall, creator and executive producer of “Judging Amy,” overcoming obstacles is essentially about growing up. “We see ideals get knocked out and wisdom knocked in,” she says.

In Hall’s case, defining Amy Gray, played by Amy Brenneman, went above and beyond the one character. “To me one of the biggest myths on TV is that women fall apart easily,” she says. “Women are copers. I wanted a character who makes mistakes but holds up well. I wanted to create a woman who seemed and sounded a lot like women in my life.”

But being true to life doesn’t mean simply reproducing it, these writers add. They have the task of finding a way to capture the everyday while heightening it dramatically. “In real life the same problems keep coming up again and again and again with people,” says Herskovitz, creator and executive producer of “Once and Again,” about the messy business of divorce, forming new relationships and their disruptive effect on the families. “You can’t do that in drama because it gets boring, but you can indicate that problems are tenacious and intractable.”

Writers employ various techniques to introduce weaknesses into characters and make them part of a broader story arc. “We spend a lot of time getting to know these people before writing a line of dialogue,” adds Herskovitz. “We knew Rick and Lily would have definite strengths and weaknesses and a definite pathology in their relationship.”

Jonathan Pontell, executive producer of “Boston Public,” says the show’s creator, writer and executive producer David Kelly, will sometimes call on an actor’s qualities to determine how to give complexity to a character, for better or for worse. In the case of Scott Guber, played by Anthony Heald, Kelly took one of the actor’s traits and pushed it to a point that is not always endearing. “Anthony is a very precise actor,” says Pontell. “He comes from the stage and has a very precise process,” says Pontell. “David builds on that. It’s a very symbiotic process.”

Adding flaws in a character can be daunting for writers when they fear they might backfire. “We introduced a new love interest for Ed at the moment Ed and Carol had been dancing around each other for 10 episodes,” says Jon Beckerman, executive producer of “Ed.” “We knew we risked people being angry, but even the nicest of guys like Ed Stevens is capable of something like that.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more