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Attack of the TV Antiheroes

Series increasingly revolve around morally corrupt characters

Lately on TV, bad guys appear to be having all the fun, with a wave of programs romanticizing — if not quite glorifying — those who do terrible things.

Some of TV’s most compelling characters of the current generation have been antiheroes, from Tony Soprano to “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White. Yet the appeal of the dark side looks to be growing, branching beyond the permissive confines of cable to major networks as well.

Television often gets an unfair rap regarding violence, with academics and pundits overreaching to make the case for a correlation. That said, there is something unsettling — or just plain icky — about the media and public fascination with figures like real-life cop-turned-killer Christopher Dorner, who upstaged President Obama’s State of the Union address on cable news.

In the wake of the Newtown school shooting, critic Roger Ebert quoted from his review of “Elephant,” which placed any media blame for inspiring such mass shootings on news, not drama.

All that seems true. Yet there is something distasteful, at the very least, about dramatic programming making killers the cool kids, having the hottest sex and driving the nicest cars.

A brief sampling of the coming weeks finds audiences being asked to hang around with a young Norman Bates (A&E’s “Bates Motel”) and Hannibal Lecter (NBC’s upcoming “Hannibal”). They join the suave serial killer at the heart of Fox’s “The Following,” who always seems to be several steps ahead of the bedraggled FBI agent on his trail; and the handsome mob boss who steals scenes, among other things, in ABC’s “Red Widow.” Heck, even the evil side of NBC’s short-lived Jekyll-and-Hyde knockoff “Do No Harm” was far more interesting than his good side.

To be fair, pity the poor broadcast networks. Put on procedurals where the good guys where white hats, and they’re accused of boring cookie-cutter development. Try breaking (or at least stretching) the mode, and people wonder if they’re not helping breed sociopaths.

It’s simplistic to say that focusing on antiheroes glorifies violence. After all, the willingness to explore moral ambiguity has yielded some of the best and most provocative shows on TV, from “Dexter” to “Homeland,” “Breaking Bad” to DirecTV’s “Hit & Miss,” a pleasant surprise that unearthed unexpected depth from a transgender hitwoman.

Where such portrayals cross into unsavory territory is a matter of context, and highly subjective. Still, if a show is defined by a disreputable protagonist who faces opposing forces more depraved and odious than he or she is, you might be skating on thin ice.

For a cinematic example of this, think back to “Hannibal,” Thomas Harris’ sequel to “The Silence of the Lambs.” The novel and subsequent movie’s underlying notion was to take the monstrous title character and essentially promote him to hero, albeit by introducing a hideous adversary.

It’s also worth noting that TV operates somewhat differently than movies. On the bigscreen, spending time with a morally flawed character is a one-and-done experience. By contrast, series demand an ongoing relationship, and while that doesn’t require liking the characters, viewers do have to care about what happens to them.

That’s one reason why something like FX’s “American Horror Story” — which revels in nastiness for its own sake, offering few redeeming qualities among its assorted characters — is such a grim, nasty exercise. Rebooting the show for a second season only exacerbated this fundamental flaw.

As noted, the preoccupation with criminals — the more outlandish the better — is hardly confined to drama (Investigation Discovery has built a profitable niche around it), and time will determine whether the audience’s appetite is expansive enough to support this latest wave of scripted fare.

Nevertheless, casting more evildoers in starring roles does hand ammunition to TV’s cultural critics. Because while it’s easy to say this is nothing new, the sensation is different when TV goes from a couple of empathetic bad guys to one on every channel.

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