For years, the prevailing wisdom in television was that people’s ability to bond with a series depended on characters’ likability. Viewers enjoyed spending time with Andy Griffith or Dick Van Dyke. Even a curmudgeon like Archie Bunker had a cuddly side.
The programming guru of his generation, Brandon Tartikoff, made this point in an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times mere months before his death in 1997. “Don’t get hung up on the concept,” he wrote, counseling executives. “Viewers make friends with characters, not the concept. Not many folks come home from work muttering to themselves, ‘I wish somebody would put on a good fire-station comedy.’ ”
Flash forward to the current TV landscape, which asks viewers to “make friends” with a veritable rogue’s gallery: Hannibal Lecter, a young Norman Bates and a U.S. president whose resume includes acts of cold-blooded murder. Moreover, they will be joined by Charles Manson (“Aquarius”), the Devil’s son (“Damien”) and, not to be outdone, Satan himself (“Lucifer”).
HBO’s “The Sopranos” broke ground on this front as the century began, compelling its audience to become involved in the lives of vicious mobsters. Tony and company, however, could hardly imagine the deluge that they would unleash, filling primetime — and especially the ranks of prestige, premium shows — with some very bad boys, among them vigilante serial killer Dexter Morgan and corrupt detective Vic Mackey.
The rise of the antihero has been well documented, but it raises some intriguing issues — ranging from practical to sociological — in terms of the actors playing these roles, and the challenge of making people want to return to them again and again. And while a few women have joined their ranks — witness “The Lizzie Borden Chronicles” — the scales remain pretty heavily tipped toward men when it comes to lead characters that nobody will confuse with choirboys.
In awards circles, one has to wonder if wearing a white hat has become a liability. In the 1980s and ’90s, Emmy winners for lead actor in a drama were skewed toward doctors and detectives, in shows like “NYPD Blue,” “St. Elsewhere” and “Hill Street Blues.” Some, like “Blue’s” Andy Sipowicz, were clearly flawed, but did good things despite wrestling with inner demons.
By contrast, the ascent of cable ushered in a more complicated age, featuring characters who didn’t just visit the darkness but often resided there. These weren’t flawed heroes — the eponymous doctor in “House” — but the villains in series of yesteryear.
The result, of course, has been richer and more provocative programming. But it has also put the good guys in retreat, at least on awards nights. Emmy-winning characters graduated from terrorism-thwarting secret agents (“24”) and square-jawed high-school football coaches (“Friday Night Lights”) to terrorist-plotting soldiers (“Homeland”) and high-school chemistry teachers turned drug dealers (“Breaking Bad”). Small wonder a popular trope has become the lawman that gets so into the mind of a killer that he risks descending into madness and becoming one himself.
Perhaps no show forces the audience to grapple with a sense of conflict more than “The Americans,” a series told from the perspective of Russian spies hiding in plain sight during the Cold War. Boris and Natasha, meet Ozzie and Harriet. Then again, on its network, FX, conventional “heroes” are generally in short supply.
This trend has produced its share of handwringing, including the question of what it says if the bad guys appear to be having all the fun. For these purposes, though, the more germane dilemma is whether their popularity and prestige has made old-fashioned heroes relatively boring by comparison. And if being a bad boy really has become a “Winning” ticket, to quote a certain former sitcom star, whatcha gonna do?