POP FILTER EDITORIAL
In which we step from behind the curtain to spout opinions.
Holding Out For A Hero*
“Folks talk about morality like it’s black and white. Or maybe they think they’re smart and when they’re at a cocktail party acting pretentious they say it’s grey. But you know what it really is? A damn strobe, flashing back and forth, back and forth all the time, so all we can do is try to figure out how to see straight enough to keep from getting our heads bashed in.â€- Low Winter Sun
Walter White is dead. Spoiler alert. Dexter is living in the mountains for some reason. Spoiler alert. Low Winter Sun is an awful show…shit, let me start over.
I’m sick to death of the anti-hero, and television’s obsession with them. The anti-hero is a trope that’s far older than cable television; we can trace it back at leastas far back as literature in the beginning of the 20th century, but there’s a good chance there were versions of it long before that. Examples of the antihero that are familiar nowadays include the aforementioned Walter White and Dexter from Breaking Bad and Dexter(guess who’s in which show), Jack Bauer from 24, Jimmy Mcnulty from the Wire, Don Draper from Mad Men, House from House, Vic Mackey from the Shield, and Ray Donovan from Ray Donovan. Even Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother could fit into the mold. Notice the trend in these characters? They’re all pretty much pieces of shit. Sure, they do good things sometimes, but usually due to some selfish motives. This list just represents some the more well-known names, there’s countless others from the last 15 years, which is really when the trend took hold in television. There’ve been obvious anti-heroes in other mediums before (Travis Bickle from Taxidriver, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights or the comic strip Heathcliff), but television is where trends thrive, flourish, spread, and get beaten into the fucking ground.
Depending on how savvy you are to premium television (read: if you also value TV over real life interactions like your humble writer), you’ve probably noticed a name not on that list. There’s no way I got all of the popular ones, but most importantly I left out the godfather of the current trend and type of antihero. Who do I blame for the current state of TV protagonist bastards? The late, great James Gandolfini aka Tony Soprano.
Before The Sopranos took off on HBO, TV protagonists were mostly Dudley Do-rights. Classic good guys, trying to do the right thing at all times. It as a more innocent time in television, when cops were good people, criminals were scum, and happy endings weren’t just expected–they were required. Tony Soprano and his family changed that forever. They showed us we could care about the criminals, and even more so, that criminals aren’t necessarily bad people, at least not entirely bad. Tony could break some mook’s legs, then give his kid a gift, and we loved him for it. We fucking loved the violence, and wanted more. But we also wanted the softer side. He wasn’t just a thug, he was a family man in therapy with mommy issues. Tony Soprano showed viewers you could be shady and fucked up, but that doesn’t make you a monster. Instead of giving audiences a reflection of themselves to replace the white knights that came before, The Sopranos went even further, delivering a distorted morality and situations that let people think, “Maybe my shit isn’t so bad. All I did was get Kevin fired, Tony capped a motherfucker and everyone still loves him!â€
And away we went, hungry for more monsters with hearts of gold to show us how not bad we all are. Antiheroes twist the widely accepted social mentality; we don’t want Dexter to stop killing people or get caught– let him do what he’s good at (especially since he mostly kills other bad guys), and we’ll cheer him on with every narrow escape. Walter White needs to sell more meth, and build a drug empire, and his wife Skylar is a bitch for thinking otherwise. All of that is fine. I have zero problem with cheering on fictitious mass murderers or drug lords. This isn’t a moral issue at all; though the people who hate Skylar White really seem like they’re just letting off some sexist steam by screaming “bitch!â€ at their TV when she reacts like anyone would in her situation. What I’m railing against has nothing to do with the ethics of the antihero, that’d be overly puritanical, and a waste of time. I’m railing against the fucking laziness it’s since inspired.
Not only do these characters we spend time with every week (or more) give us a positive comparison towards our own actions, there’s an inherent complication added to their character. We don’t know what their every move is going to be, each situation has potential for a new, unexpected path. I get that, I do. It’s one of the reasons people like Batman better than Superman–Batman will break the rules to get what he wants, and his pain makes him interesting. Superman is just a goddamn cub scout who selfishly lets people die every time he tries to have a life outside of being Superman. Just giving your main character a dark side doesn’t inherently make your show better. Shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad do new and interesting things with their amoral characters. Don Draper isn’t fascinating simply because he has a secret past and cheats on his wife, it’s the way the character is written to react to situations given those facets (having the incredibly charming and hansome John Ham doesn’t hurt either). But more and more often, shows don’t understand that. Low Winter Sun knows bad police are on good TV shows, so they give us a couple of murdering, alcoholic cops. But it’s not backed by any substance, except overly verbose and melodramatic lines, morality isn’t grey, it’s a strobe light?! Fuck you. Attempting to be deep by just being convoluted doesn’t make smart TV, it means you see the shows that do well and are aping them without truly understanding what makes them great.
I don’t expect this trend to go away; there’s no real reason for it to. But I do hope it dies a little. I want a variety of characters to watch, and maybe, just maybe, sometimes I want a straight-up hero. A hero who’s strong, fast, and yes, larger than life. Everything doesn’t need to be gritty and dark all of the time, nor does grittiness mean something is better. It’s time for some good men and women to come back on TV and give viewers something to strive for, or at least just to break up the monotony.-MG
*The suggested playlist for this piece begins with the original, “Holding out for a Heroâ€(4:49) obviously. Bonnie Taylor maybe cheesy as shit, but it’s the only version that fully incorporates a whip into the instrumentation of the song. So, still pretty cool despite the inescapable eighties-ness of it all. That should be followed with the cover by the post-hardcore band Emery (4:19). They cut some extraneous fat, and give the song a much-needed kick in the teeth. Unfortunately, they keep much of the eighties tics, even as a joke, it’s just too synth-y. Ending the playlist is the version by electronica-pop duo Frou Frou (3:27). First off, they shaved a minute and a half from the original–great move. They also keep the song light and fun, while grounding the emotions conveyed better than other versions do. Play on repeat until you’re done.