Once upon a time in Hollywood, antiheroes dominated television, but now more traditional heroes with well-defined moral compasses stand shoulder-to-shoulder with characters willing to be ruthless to meet their goals.
For years, characters including Tony Soprano, Walter White and Don Draper reigned supreme, helping their respective series rack up dozens of Emmy nominations. HBO’s “The Sopranos” received seven noms (two wins) in the drama series race alone between 1999 and 2007, while AMC’s “Breaking Bad” scored five drama series noms (two wins) between 2009 and 2014, and the same cabler’s “Mad Men” nabbed eight drama series noms (four wins) between 2008 and 2015. Morally ambiguous protagonists were all the rage and certainly had everyone talking.
Now, even though characters are never painted as perfect, dramas such as NBC’s “This Is Us” and FX’s “Pose” are leaning further into the aspirational.
“Just by definition, a hero is someone who folks admire,” says “Pose” co-creator and showrunner Steven Canals. “A hero is someone who is intrepid, someone who is noble. Those are the things that Blanca is.”
Played by MJ Rodriguez, the character of Blanca in the cable ballroom culture period piece is a transgender woman who experienced rejection both from her biological family and then by the ballroom house she joined. But rather than let that be a catalyst to break bad, no pun intended, she started her own house and set out to lift up the queer youth around her. Similarly, Billy Porter’s Pray Tell, an emcee in that world, is a role model for some of the younger gay and trans men who are coming up behind him in the scene.
Canals admits that “Pose” was written in direct response to the antihero trend that dominated the Emmys for years. “When I decided to sit down and write ‘Pose,’ one of the questions I was asking myself was, ‘Why can’t we have a clean hero that people can just look up to?’” he says. “Obviously [Blanca] is complicated because we are all complicated and have flaws, but [she] doesn’t have to make bad choices just for the sake of having conflict in the narrative.”
Likewise, the titular MI6 agent (played by Sandra Oh) in BBC America’s “Killing Eve” certainly walks the line of questionable behavior, despite being assumed to be the hero in a thriller about hunting down an assassin (played by Jodie Comer). But as executive producer Emerald Fennell puts it, the point of the show is to subvert tropes and assumptions about what makes a hero and a villain — and to blur that line continuously as each season progresses.
“I think the thing about their relationship is that the more they become entwined, the more ambiguous they become,” Fennell says. “Villanelle is soaking up some of Eve’s better qualities — empathy, love and all of those things — and Eve is starting to absorb some of Villanelle’s more extreme, sinister behaviors. It absolutely started with a hero and a villain, but we’re getting murkier as we go along.”
That murkiness has proved fertile ground in other Emmy contenders this year, including Netflix’s “Ozark,” which is centered on a family that grows increasingly involved in money laundering and the drug business, as well as Netflix’s “Bodyguard,” which follows the titular guard (played by Richard Madden) assigned to protect the home secretary but whose tumultuous past and current boundary-crossing feelings for his boss color his behaviors.
“The premise of the character through most of the show is that he may appear to be the hero, but he may also be the antagonist,” says “Bodyguard” executive producer Jed Mercurio. “He appears to be Julia Montague’s protector, but he may be her assassin.”
Since “Bodyguard” is classified as a thriller, just as “Killing Eve” is, such questioning of a character is “certainly very important as a way of propelling” the genre and action, Mercurio adds.
“The audience never knows whether David Budd is going to save Julia or conspire in her death. That creates much greater depth and complexity in the key relationships.”
These days, many audiences have all but come to expect that their protagonists will tread in gray areas that normal people would dare not traverse. But how best to build such characters?
“The antihero is someone who has to be defined by degree,” Mercurio says. “There are some antiheroes who really push the boundaries and often cross into carrying out acts the audience finds alienating and then they have to work their way back through other aspects of their character. There are some antiheroes who are fundamentally heroes, it’s just that they approach their objectives in an unconventional way.”
Both Fennell and Canals share similar sentiments, stating that antiheroes are often subversive characters that offer audiences an opportunity for wish fulfillment, but also push audiences to the limit of what they find acceptable.
“We talked a lot about ‘Paradise Lost,’” Fennell says of “Killing Eve.” “The thing with ‘Paradise Lost’ is the idea that when you read it, the person you’re most interested in and is the most compelling and sympathetic is the devil. In ‘Killing Eve,’ it’s the devil in both of these women that you can’t help but sympathize with. There’s a very deliberate choice in the first episode this season where [Villanelle] kills a child in the hospital — a sick child. She believes it is an act of empathy, but partly that is an exercise in asking, ‘How far will we as an audience go with her?’”
But for Canals, Blanca is meant to be the show’s guiding light of morality who wants to live life to the best of her ability.
“Everybody knows someone like Blanca in their life,” he says. “Everyone has that friend or family member that is just perfect, never does anything wrong, is always there to be the moral compass. When we meet Blanca early on in the pilot, she discovers that she’s HIV-positive and very quickly takes her diagnosis not as a death sentence but as the impetus to live a greater life.”