How TV’s Bad Boys Reap Emmy Awards

Television Bad Guys Emmys

Rascals are in vogue these days. Just ask Emmy.

Last year’s lead actor in a drama slate featured Walter White of “Breaking Bad,” Don Draper of “Mad Men,” Frank Underwood of “House of Cards” and Damian Lewis of “Homeland.” Connivers and cheaters all; many of them killers, too.

All remain eligible this year. And if 2013’s good fellas (“Downton Abbey” patriarch Lord Grantham, and “The Newsroom” award-copping lead Will McAvoy) get snubbed, plenty of GoodFellas wait in the wings to steal their slots, from Red Reddington of “The Blacklist” and Nucky Thompson of “Boardwalk Empire,” to Rustin Cohle on “True Detective” and the psycho to top all psychos, “Hannibal.”

What is it about all these bastards? Is there something in the zeitgeist that’s being reflected here? Let’s back up a little.
Still reeling from JFK’s murder, 1964 America looked to perpetuate New Frontier idealism. So while LBJ passed progressive social legislation, the nominees included a tough but sensitive high school principal (“Mr. Novak”); a tough but sensitive social worker (“East Side, West Side”); and a tough but sensitive pediatrician solving problems while chasing a killer (“The Fugitive”).

Richard Boone toplined TV’s most democratic series idea, a rep company of 11 thesps rotating roles and billing. And in a year fusing comedy and drama, winner Dick Van Dyke was as witty and vibrant as the late president himself. (If a Kennedy became a comedy writer, he’d be Rob Petrie.) Any of these guys would make a fine son-in-law.

Fast-forward a quarter century, to the can-do spirit permeating Bush 41’s first year during the ongoing Reagan boom. The Berlin Wall fell; Solidarity triumphed in Poland; and Intel’s 486 microprocessor series and Microsoft’s Office Suite ushered in the next-gen of personal-computer power.

Emmy’s 1989 contenders were equally can-do. Crimefighters from “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Equalizer,” “Wiseguy” and (the winner) “In the Heat of the Night” went up against unprepossessing but tough tax attorney Stuart Markowitz on “L.A. Law.” None was much to look at, maybe, but if your daughter brought one home he’d be a good provider and skillful fixer.

Nominated thesp Michael Tucker remembers “L.A. Law” as “quite in touch with the world around us. … We very much reflected an era when people were hung up on money. It was a boom period and ours was a very rich show.”

Along comes 2014, marked by a pervasive sense that the center isn’t holding. People doubt we’re getting decisive, effective leadership from either the executive or legislative branches. Left and right alike complain, “Nothing’s getting done.” Could somebody trickier and more self-willed work the magic?

Richard III, perhaps? Nobody approves of Crookback Dick, of course, but he’s charming as well as despicable, undeniably entertaining while getting the job done. (Under Frank Underwood, legislation gets passed and Nucky keeps the bootlegger trucks running on time.)

Meanwhile, we look askance but possibly with envy across at Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, beloved of his people. He doesn’t doff his shirt to take the air, any more than Walter White strides the desert in tighty whities just to work on his tan.
Putin is the thing itself, power incarnate, and though we deplore his up-yours attitude to critics and the rest of the world, we can’t take our eyes off him. After Tucker and wife Jill Eikenberry got hooked watching “House of Cards,” they’d ask, “Want to watch the bad people tonight?”

Of course they did. We all do. Perhaps TV’s rogues gallery is full-to-bursting because it provides what we as a nation secretly crave: results by any means necessary.

With any of these guys as a son-in-law, you might sleep with one eye open. But at least he’d take no crap from the neighbors.

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