Can we still call them antiheroes if antiheroes are all that seem to exist anymore?
Up and down the line of roles played by the lead actor Emmy nominees in drama and comedy, deeply flawed characters are truly the norm. Charles “I am not a role model” Barkley had nothing on this crew.
For all the emphasis on darkness, however, the reason that these 12 thesps have been nominated for Emmys is that they have been able to convey the humanity in men of quite questionable character. While it’s their dark sides that keep us riveted, it’s their redemptive qualities that keep us invested.
Several actors are tested by playing antiheroes, perhaps none more severely than Jon Hamm of “Mad Men.” You could argue Bryan Cranston, unapologetic as meth mastermind Walter White on “Breaking Bad,” has the most difficult battle to stay in an audience’s good graces, but here’s why Hamm might actually have it rougher.
Nearly a decade of story time into the tale of Don Draper (not counting flashbacks), “Mad Men” has royally toyed with our expectations of how much personal growth he should have achieved. In his work, in marriage, as a father and frankly as a drinker, he has hit what would qualify as rock bottom more than once — and that was even before the recently completed sixth season, when he ran through the entire cycle again.
Admittedly, showrunner Matthew Weiner’s implicit insistence that a downward spiral is just that — a cascading corkscrew, circling back over the same ground again — tested the patience of some viewers. But with Weiner’s approach came a story that was not going to give an easy, dead cat’s bounce of recovery to its lead character. Hamm’s achievement was to keep us finding hope in Draper, no matter how bleak things became.
At the end of the season, Draper takes his children on a journey to his childhood home, and when he stands before it and says, “This is where I grew up,” it isn’t just a line. It’s a life, one that Hamm, against all odds, has kept alive.
That’s not to say that Cranston or several other nominees don’t have their work cut out for them in retaining the audience’s faith.
It’s easy to say that Walter White would remain fascinating to us, no matter how unredeemable he became. But that’s probably not true. There are too many instances in TV history of comicbook villainy undermining a show. Vince Gilligan’s writing brings depth and complexity to Walter, but Cranston’s performance installs an unmistakable integrity that few could pull off. It’s the character’s own brand of integrity, to be sure, but it’s what turns the antihero back into something heroic.
When White said, “I am the one who knocks” back in 2011 and the line went viral, it was not just because it was a great piece of script. It’s because in uttering those words, Cranston manages to make the viewer’s spirit soar even as the text, subtext and, hell, sub-subtext are a slap to the face.
And so it went with the other drama nominees. Defending Emmy winner Damian Lewis spends much of the first two seasons of “Homeland” a proven liar and a potential terrorist, but through his performance, you are drawn to sympathize with him, at times side with him. Kevin Spacey drips antipathy in “House of Cards,” practically goading you into contempt of his character as he talks straight to the camera — that’s the fun, meaty part — yet keeps you wrapped up in his fate. Jeff Daniels is proudly insufferable on “The Newsroom,” but when he swings around and makes an important point, you buy in (assuming your politics so allow).
Only Hugh Bonneville of “Downton Abbey” breaks the contemporary mold of antihero first, hero second, but it’s a tribute to him that when Lord Grantham does go dark — with myopic business skills, caveman parenting or intra-kingdom bigotry — it’s with a level of charm that is winning, even when he’s a loser.
The antihero-to-hero phenomenon is less, well, dramatic in comedy, but it’s definitely a factor, considering that none of the nominees can be defined as prototypical good guys. Even Jason Bateman, whose Michael Bluth was the moral center in Era One of “Arrested Development,” took a rather sharp descent in Netflix’s revival of the series, with bigger blind spots and more selfish behavior, yet retained his everyman likability all the while.
Alec Baldwin has been as much fun as any actor on TV during the seven years of “30 Rock,” despite Jack Donaghy being a rascal in the professional world, a quality that also describes the Showtime pair of Don Cheadle in “House of Lies” and Matt LeBlanc in “Episodes.” Jim Parsons is a hoot on “The Big Bang Theory” despite only occasionally cracking so much as a “Bazinga” as he goes on his arrogant, dismissive, insensitive and occasionally racist and sexist ways.
Of all the drama and comedy lead actor nominees, the one that stays the farthest from any box is Louis C.K., playing the faux version of himself on “Louie.” Neither particularly evil nor particularly heroic (outside of his adoration of his daughters), Louis keeps us guessing as much as he keeps us laughing. What can you say about a man who takes a determined stand against reciprocating oral sex out of guilt — and then caves in a moment later? Thanks to C.K., a sadsack with a heart of fool’s gold, you can say he’s fascinating and hilarious.