Why has American society responded so well to the television anti-hero? Shows like Breaking Bad, Hannibal, The Sopranos, Bates Motel, and Dexter, have dominated our screens and have catapulted their major characters, who often engage in activities that bring into question their hero status, into household names. In this day and age, everyone now knows the names and stories of characters like Walter White, Tony Soprano, Norman Bates, Nancy Botwin, and Patty Hewes, even if they aren’t necessarily fans of the shows these characters originate from. So what about these characters is so interesting? The television anti-hero is a compelling figure in American society because the anti-hero embodies the morally ambiguous direction and lifestyle that we as Americans have adopted.
Our society has become one that seems to glorify taking extreme action that may or may not be wrong, like beating up or shooting criminals who may deserve their chance at a trial, or threatening your daughter’s boyfriend, which is considered intimidation, and then bragging about it later to your buddies at the bar. Some of the choices we make may be considered wrong, but we still try and make those choices to benefit ourselves. According to author Stephen Garrett who wrote the essay “Why We Love TV’s Anti-heroes” in Signs of Life in the USA, “…we (Americans) were unequivocally the good guys. But now we are fighting wars- Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine, the War on Terror- where it’s far less clear who the enemy is, indeed whether there is an enemy at all, or even that we are the good guys” (Garrett 319). Is it right to bomb a city full of innocent people in order to kill a group of dangerous terrorists?
We have become a paranoid and dangerous society, one that relies on drones to carry out assassinations, takes people aside and searches them in an airport, tortures suspects to gain information for the “good of many” and carries around powerful and deadly weapons. Garrett goes on to say that it’s no wonder that we are confused, and that it has become harder and harder to distinguish what is right and what is wrong, and that our idea of a hero has significantly changed from the ideas of heroes in even as early as the 1960s.
It’s hard not to forget the heroes from the “golden age of television” who provided endless hours of entertainment and escape to those who tuned in to watch their many adventures; Andy Griffith from the Andy Griffith Show, Samantha Stephens from Bewitched, and of course, the caped crusader of Gotham City, Batman. All of these people were indeed heroes, plain and simple, like Batman. In the classic and campy 1960s television series, Batman follows the rules, never kills or steals, and never leaves the audience questioning whether or not he is good guy or the bad guy. He fit into what the rules and expectations of society were and represented a more seemingly innocent culture, where people had the quaint houses, picket fences, perfect families, and where villains always paid the price for their evil doings.
But times began to change, and thus the representation of Batman began to change in pop culture as well. We entered an era where the spotlight was thrown on the wars that were constantly being fought, where mass shootings seemed to occur more often than not, and where we regularly reading stories about people who were murdered or missing. We became an era where news was instant and accessible to all, thus creating a society where wrongdoings were regularly brought to light. To many observers, it seemed that society was becoming darker, or perhaps it was that the darkness had always been there, and it was just recently that people began to acknowledge that darkness. People seem today more willing to discuss some of the more violent and scary aspects of society than they were several years ago. Whatever it was, television seemed to be reflecting the changing times and was starting to become a darker and scarier medium as well.
Batman was no longer the same hero he once was. In the 1960s television series, he would never dream of purposefully killing a man. The Batman of the classic 1960s television series would have the man thrown in prison. He would never carry a gun meant to kill, and he would never beat a man to a bloody pulp. While the Batman we now know is also not a cold blooded killer, he stilled allowed some evil doers to fall to their deaths instead of doing what he could to save them. In scenes from some of the newer films, going as far back as to Tim Burton’s 1989 take on the caped crusader, Batman shoots a man with rocket, runs over another man with the Batmobile, and even goes as far as to blow up a building full of henchmen, actions that the original Batman, played with zany comic glee by Adam West, would never do.
This raises the question: with Batman resorting to killing his foes, did that not separate him from the people he was fighting? Would he still be considered a “hero” if he was killing, or to put it bluntly, murdering people? While some might consider it heroic, putting on a costume and taking the law into your own hands is a crime. With that in mind, we can acknowledge the fact that Batman is, and really always has been, a lawbreaker, but now he is a killer as well. Breaking in to people’s houses, even if they are villains, is illegal without a warrant. Interfering with police investigation is a crime. The killing and the law-breaking that Batman engages in can certainly dump him in the category of “anti-hero”. He is fighting for the good of Gotham City, but he is doing it in ways that are against the law and certainly in ways that are dark and frightening.
Some aspects of Batman have changed, like him killing people and becoming a dark and troubled individual instead of a cheerful wise cracking hero who is only in the pursuit of justice for all. His change mirrors the change that society seems to have undergone, and without a doubt would he ever be considered the campy hero he once was. In his chapter, Stephen Garret mentions that “the heroes of today are radically different from those of two or three decades ago. They have evolved to represent a radically changed world” (319). No longer do heroes represent the black and white society that they once did, where the ideal citizen conformed to the thoughts and laws of the time. Today, the heroes we love to watch lie, cheat, steal, even kill, and yet we still root them on.
We root on Dexter Morgan from the popular Showtime series Dexter. He is a serial killer who knowingly and cruelly murders other serial killers, and sometimes even people who come close to learning his secret or who get in his way. Yet he is the show’s protagonist, the one that we as viewers are supposed to sympathize with and spend countless of hours with. The same can be said for Patty Hewes from the Emmy award winning legal drama, Damages. She is a ruthless lawyer who often bends the law to get to the truth, and even at one point, arranges for the death of one of her co-workers who comes close to exposing her misdeeds. Here is a woman who knowingly breaks the law in pursuit of the truth, yet here is that same woman who loves her family and would do whatever it takes to protect them, and that her love for her family is something that we can relate to. Here is a woman who will defend her clients with every ounce of her being, and so we cheer her on. We forget, or forgive, the fact that she is a lawbreaker, the same way we forget or forgive the fact that Dexter Morgan is serial killer. Comparing society to television, it would almost seem that in a way, we forget and forgive our own behavior that might be considered wrong, the same way we do for the characters we love.
The following question can now be addressed. What about the anti-hero is so compelling for us as Americans? The answer: relatability. We can relate to the anti-heroes because they struggle with the same things that we as people struggle with. They struggle with what is right and wrong. They are faced with issues, like the loss of a loved one, or the loss of personal finances, like the kinds of issues that we in society are faced with every day.
In the olden days of television, the hero was perfect. They had everything that a typical American should have, the house, the car, the family. Normal human beings could not come close to achieve that same level of perfection, and that’s what put the heroes of the olden days so out of reach of society. The heroes of today, however, screw up on a regular basis. Some of them don’t even drive fancy cars, or live in enormous mansions. They are not superheroes, they are teachers, lawyers, doctors, and police officers. They are more like the typical American citizen of today than they ever have been in the past. That is what makes us want to cheer the heroes on. We want to see them fail, and to see them face the same issues that we as viewers face. Tuning in week after week and watching a perfect human being “save the day yet again” no longer quenches the thirst for entertainment or escape that we as Americans hold dear. Stephen Garrett says in his article:
“There’s no going back. I believe that the classic heroes of old are no longer fit for purpose and never will be again. As the Wire’s creator David Simon wrote recently, ‘We are bored with good and evil. We renounce the theme. With the exceptions of saints and sociopaths, few in this world are anything but a confused and corrupted combination of personal motivations…” (321).
Some may claim that the anti-hero exists purely for entertainment value, and that they have not in any way gained influence from the direction that society is moving in. But one must look no further than their television screens. Shows are now depicting lying cheating politicians, murdering scumbags, and corrupt cops who will go as far as to murder someone to protect their own careers, secrets, or even their families from harm, and will often do so without a second thought. Television is no longer the landscape that it once was, the same way that society is no longer the seemingly innocent society that it once.
Garrett concludes his article by stating that every day, we read about politicians, business leaders, sports stars, and tabloid darlings who often bend or even break the rules to fit their own agendas. “There are no more heroes, only- at best- anti-heroes. That is the way of the world” (321). The anti-hero has become an interesting phenomenon in American society. They are loved and worshipped, and have built up impressive fan bases the same way heroes from the older age of television did. This makes one wonder: If the American hero, who once was a pioneer in landscape of TV, can become boring and fade into nothingness, what will eventually happen to the anti-hero? As our society progresses, and the landscape of television continues to change, what kind of characters will be offered to us next? Will shows focus on villains who have no redeeming qualities to them at all? As we sit back in our chairs and turn on our TV’s, let us wonder together what kind of future the American anti-hero has, and what kinds of new and exciting adventures the future of television will offer us.