By this time next year, Walter White, Don Draper and Dexter Morgan will be out of our lives. (Well, Dexter’s been out of mine for a while now, but still.) A second generation of television’s purported “golden age,” initially ushered in by The Sopranos and The Wire, is coming to an end. In the grand scheme of things, though, nothing is really ending with Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Dexter all coming to a head. (Well, with Dexter, it’s more of a mercy killing. Sorry, I digress.) With the current crop of shows already bounding up to replace them, it’s clear we have not seen the last of the Antihero Era. Or, as it would be called in a more honest culture, the Age of the Unlikables.
When America first met Tony Soprano, arguably the standard-bearer for all male protagonists on TV to follow, the most striking thing about him was that he was a seemingly bad person we were being asked to like. This made him appear more complex than just about any other lead character on television. Somewhere along the line in this cable renaissance, though, writers decided to forgo the second part of that characterization, the part about asking us to like their protagonists.
Everyone since has more or less been a total prick.
Don Draper’s been a scaly douche from Season 1, and only gotten worse. The entire point of Breaking Bad is the transformation of Walter White from mild-mannered cancer patient taking desperate measures to provide for his family into a reprehensible scumbag that makes us cringe every time he’s on screen. Dexter is actually the easiest to root for, despite having a body count bigger than either. At least, he was, until the show took such a nosedive you just want to see everyone in Miami nuked off the planet. Sorry, again I digress.
All those characters, of course, are awesome. Formed from great writing and superb acting, they’re among the best in the history of televised drama. But as their arcs run their course, you have to wonder where the tipping point of unlikability lies. Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood has redefined loathsome on House of Cards: He’s a power-mad political schemer who visibly delights in ruining lives; and what’s worse, he speaks directly to the camera. The terribleness of the people on House of Lies is printed right into the title. (And what’s up with TV houses these days, anyway? They’re filled with worse examples of humanity than those on The Real World.) And don’t even get me started on The Newsroom. Everyone on that show deserves a kidney punch, though that’s mostly because they all speak like Aaron Sorkin.
The difference with this new crop of cretins is that, unlike their predecessors, they seem to revel in their own vileness. The key to White, Draper and Dexter is that they’re all deluded enough to believe they’re doing no wrong. They’re operating by misguided codes, but the determination that their actions are justifiable is what makes us stick with them. Two weeks ago, AMC premiered Low Winter Sun, its latest attempt to salvage its brand for the rapidly approaching post-Breaking Bad/Mad Men era. Thus far, it’s a mostly forgettable police drama about a cop with, naturally, a dark secret: “I’m not a bad person,” he says. That’s the first mistake: If you have to convince yourself you’re not an asshole, it probably means you’re the biggest asshole of them all.
I Need Media is a biweekly media column by Matthew Singer. Follow him on Twitter@mpsinger.