Entertainment Geekly: The myth of Antihero Fatigue and the revisionist/reductionist history of TV's golden age

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Image Credit: HBO;AMC

Entertainment Geekly is a weekly column that examines contemporary pop culture through a geek lens and simultaneously examines contemporary geek culture through a pop lens. So many lenses!

Five important events occurred in the last few months that have radically altered the history of TV’s so-called Golden Age. Going backwards chronologically: Last Sunday, Breaking Bad ended its five-and-a-half-season run with a generally-beloved finale; the Sunday previous, Dexter ended its million-season run with a generally-loathed finale; on Aug. 11, AMC debuted its terrible new show Low Winter Sun and gave everyone the funniest running joke of the year; on June 30, Showtime debuted its terrible new show Ray Donovan and gave everyone fresh opportunity to ponder Jon Voight’s forehead; and on June 25, Brett Martin’s book Difficult Men hit stores, presenting a behind-the-scenes view of the era that transformed television and in some ways providing the blueprint for the conversation taking place now about the overabundance of Antiheroes on television today.

Difficult Men was not the first history of 21st century television nor the best — both those honors belong to Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised — but it had much savvier packaging. Whereas Sepinwall’s book presented a panoramic portrait of the last two decades of TV drama through the prism of a wide-ranging assortment of shows, Difficult Men zeroes in on a hyper-specific subset of TV drama. Mainly, it’s a portrait of the era of the HBO Davids — Chase, Milch, and Simon. More generally, it’s a portrait of the rise of dramas focused on men who have more problems than old-fashioned TV protagonists.

Martin stretches to include Mad Men‘s Don Draper, and it’s only in the last chapter that he starts talking about Breaking Bad. But Walter White is on the book’s cover — again, savvy packaging! — right above Tony Soprano. There are a wealth of arguments raised by the book, and the catchiest ideas are:

1. That the shows covered by the book were not just the best shows, but the most defining and influential shows of the decade.
2. That the shows covered by the book are unified by the fact that all of their protagonists were “antiheroes.”
3. And therefore, the notion of the “antihero” is the defining thing about television in the first decade of the 21st century.

The problem with this reductive thinking is it attempts to graft a clear-cut narrative onto an era that was defined by rampant and diverse experimentation. (The obvious antecedent is Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, another Hollywood biopic focused on the myth of the rebel badass.) The SopranosDeadwood, and The Shield are radically different shows. Linking them all together because they star “antiheroes” was always a tenuous idea, but it was easier to do seven or eight years ago, when it was possible to consider yourself an expert on “good TV” if you only watched cable shows.

And yet, the central idea of Difficult Men — it’s right there in the title — has caught on in a big way. There is a general sense that Breaking Bad represents (or should represent) the end of an entire “antihero” genre — and that the simultaneous disappointment of Dexter’s home stretch and the non-starting new series Low Winter Sun and Ray Donovan are further expressions of just how boring “antiheroes” are now. A wide variety of essays has generally declared the end of the Era of the Antihero. At the same time, it’s become weirdly common to refer to almost every show from the last decade that was just a little dark as being an “antihero” show. As Laura Bennett pointed out in the New Republic, the term “antihero” is essentially meaningless now, a catch-all term for Protagonist Who Isn’t As Purely Heroic As Sam Waterston on Law & Order.

There’s a slight reductionist logic to all the writers calling for an end to antiheroes. Ray Donovan and Low Winter Sun are bad; hence, it’s time to move on. But those shows are not bad because of their lead characters’ moral ambiguity. As my colleague Mark Harris said in an essay appearing in this week’s magazine: “What great shows understand is that being an outie [Orifice Utilized to Issue Excrement] is not in itself an interesting quality, and bad shows aren’t going to convince us otherwise simply by having every supporting character gaze at the hero in head-shaking wonderment about how one-of-a-kind he is.”

There’s also some revisionism at work here. Tony Soprano is not Walter White. The rough outline of the two characters has a lot in common — suburban dads who are also criminals — but practically everything about their background, their emotional makeup, and their perspective on the world around them is different. (To say nothing about their creators’ perspective on them: Breaking Bad liked Walter White much more than The Sopranos liked Tony Soprano.) The link gets even more tenuous when you throw in Al Swearengen from Deadwood or Jimmy McNulty from The Wire. What really links these characters together is complexity. Al Swearengen is a monster who speaks in prose-poetry and does terrible things for the greater good of the community; McNulty is a vain alcoholic, workaholic, and possible sex addict whose sole redemptive trait is that he loves Baltimore too much.

These characters paved the way for a whole wave of complex TV figures, in the same way that Spider-Man paved the way for superheroes with problems. (ASIDE: They also paved the way for a new renaissance in TV comedy, which nobody has written about yet because writing about comedy is intrinsically unfunny. END OF ASIDE.) But referring to them all as “antiheroes” — indeed, acting like “antihero” is a genre instead of an incredibly vague descriptive term — reduces an exciting TV era into a binary hero/antihero equation. It also ignores how several TV creators took the opportunity for new complexity and ran in all kinds of directions. Olivia Pope on Scandal is an awful person in nearly every way, and yet you root for her. Raylan Givens on Justified is a flat-out hero — he does “bad things” in the ethical sense, but his morals are always in the right place except w/r/t the women in his life — but the show has given him the kind of psychological shading that’s usually reserved for law-enforcement officials with British accents.

And shows all across the spectrum of popularity and goodness — Game of ThronesOrange is the New BlackTremeThe Walking DeadBoardwalk Empire — regularly subvert the whole idea of “heroism,” presenting worlds where any idea of morality is a disputed territory. (From one perspective, everyone on Treme is an awful human being; from another simultaneous perspective, they’re all victims engaged in a daily triumph of the human spirit.)

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Breaking Bad is over, and Low Winter Sun is bad: These two things together do not mean that the idea of the antihero is fundamentally finished. It also does not mean that we have learned everything we can ever learn from the turn-of-the-millennium TV renaissance. The SopranosThe Wire, DeadwoodMad Men, and Breaking Bad were shows filled with stylistic innovation and narrative exploration and thematic interpretation. We miss the point when we reduce them to difficult men.

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