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'Pity the Antihero,' an essay by 'Shovel Ready' author Adam Sternbergh

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Adam Sternbergh is the culture editor of The New York Times Magazine. Formerly an editor-at-large for New York, his writing has been featured in several other publications including GQ, The Times of London, and on the radio program This American Life. He lives in Brooklyn. His first novel, Shovel Ready, will be published by Crown on January 14, 2014. He is at work on a second Spademan novel, Near Enemy, which is set to publish in 2015.

Pity the antihero. Amid his usual routine of skirting the law, living by a code, and implicitly calling into question the validity of our bourgeois social structures, he (or she!) must now contend with a new menace: Antihero fatigue.

This fatigue started, as with so many things, on our TV screens. No sooner had Breaking Bad, that brilliant showcase for the morally decaying American male, ended its series run then TV watchers publicly brushed their hands and announced they were done with the antihero. “Can We Make Walter White Our Last Antihero, Please?” read the straightforward headline of one typical essay. The Shield? Great. Mad Men? Of course. Breaking Bad? Huzzah! Antiheros sure had a good run, but now we’ve had our fill.

We’re talking here of a very specific kind of modern antihero, of course — Tony Soprano, not J. Alfred Prufrock. These are the antiheros who live on the wrong side of the law and who are willing to bend, or outright ignore, moral rules in order to achieve their ends. They are often killers, but typically killers with a code — even if it’s one that they themselves struggle to abide by.

And, yes, any argument that allows you to trot out a tired show like Low Winter Sun as Exhibit A is going to seem at least initially convincing. Yet this anti-antihero sentiment, it seems to me, is less anti-antihero than it is anti-bad-television show. And it’s worth noting that this brand of antihero existed long before Tony Soprano woke up one morning and got himself a gun. Broadcast TV has never been hospitable to antiheroes, for obvious reasons (mass audience appeal; network censorship), but the antihero in literature and film has a long and storied history, and stands as one of the great, singular American contributions to pop culture, along with jazz, the Western, and boy bands. (Actually, I’m not sure about boy bands. We can probably blame those on the British.)

America invented film noir, for example, even if we needed the French to let us know we’d invented it. The American metropolis at mid-century, with its asphalt streets and shadowed alleyways, became a cultural incubator for moral ambiguity that reflected larger anxieties. Where morality withers, the heroic falter, and the antihero rose up to step into the breach.

Not surprisingly, some of the first, and most enduring, anti-heroes showed up in the pulp racks, such as Dashiell Hammett’s private detective Sam Spade. Raymond Chandler presented this now-famous formulation for a hero: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” Yet his character, Philip Marlowe, while a man of honor, was not a man of unwavering lawfulness — there was more than a dash of anti- in his hero.

As the hardboiled tradition matured, it skewed ever more toward the antiheroic, running the gamut from flawed cops to the out-and-out psychopaths of Jim Thompson’s pulp classics. Sure, the results can be dark, but the allure of noir has always been its darkness. That’s why we don’t call it blanc. In fact, you could argue that it’s now essentially impossible to write a true hardboiled story without an antihero—I personally would definitely argue that, given my own first novel, Shovel Ready, features a hit man as the main character and ostensible hero. (He’s a nice hit man. Well, kind of nice.)

This infatuation with the antihero naturally bled into television — not coincidentally at just about the time television became more receptive to the depiction of a more nuanced moral landscape. In fact, what main character on TV right now, save perhaps for whoever Mark Harmon is currently playing, couldn’t qualify as an antihero? Isn’t Carrie on Homeland an antihero? Or Game of Thrones’ Tyrion Lannister? Or Scandal’s Olivia Pope? Show me the character who doesn’t occasionally struggle with moral choices, flout the rules, or do the wrong thing, and I’ll show you reruns of Touched By An Angel.

The great leap forward of high-gloss cable was not introducing (or overusing) the antihero, so well-established elsewhere — it was introducing a level of complexity and sophistication to televised storytelling. The popularity of antiheroes is simply a by-product of that increased complexity. It may well be that the next Breaking Bad — i.e., the next show that surprises us, enthralls us, and keeps us on edge — does so by throwing the curveball of featuring a hero with no taint of anti- in him or her whatsoever. If so, that’s a show that I’d love to watch. In the interim, though, I’ll happily stick with the damaged, the conflicted, and the compromised. A lot of bad shows will get that formula wrong, but then, bad shows get a lot of things wrong. And the best shows still make us see anything — yes, even antiheroes — with fresh eyes, all over again.