From Homer Simpson to Gregory House, Profit to Rake, Lie To Me to Gracepoint, the Fox Broadcasting Company has a history of trying to amuse Americans with protagonists who act like total dicks—to varying degrees of prickishness, and with varying degrees of success. They aren’t alone in this, of course. In fact, television has turned the total dick into such a thing that Fox can market Backstrom, the network’s latest offering in the genre, with the line “Brilliant Detective, Total Dick“—at least in Los Angeles. Other cities get “Brilliant Detective, Total Jerk.” Appreciate that Fox thinks only Angelenos can handle dick humor.
That television can now present the anti-hero archetype as something of a knowing cultural joke on a billboard is another literal sign that the whole anti-hero craze of the early 21st century has lost its punch. A potent expression of any number of things—a critique of masculinity, a response to the political climate, a comment on justice after 9/11—has become a hollow gesture. Yet one of the problems with this dreary dramedy is that it can’t decide if it wants to make us laugh at the trope or move us with it.
Played by Rainn Wilson, who also played caustic Dwight on The Office—and whose sarcastic comedic persona makes the matter of appreciating the show’s tone more difficult—Portland police detective Everett Backstrom is a stogie-smoking slob fully engorged with alienating egregiousness, or the appearance thereof. Dude says the damndest things, some of which he might actually believe—like his insistence that all human beings are fundamentally corrupt, including himself, a worldview that serves him well in his crime-fighting. He’s got a gut for rot—and a gut.
Maybe there’s an origin story for Backstrom’s spiritual canker, an unhealed wound that can be mended or at least assuaged. But the pilot suggests another way to explain its ugly anti-hero: psychographics. When investigating the death of a senator’s son, Backstrom’s younger female partner, Det. Nicole Gravely (Genevieve Angelson), challenges him on one of his more cynical perspectives: his contention that most murder victims bring their murders on themselves. “Maybe I’m just an optimistic Millennial and you’re pessimistic Gen X,” she says, “but I still believe in innocent victims.”
“Gen X?” Now that’s a #TBT for you. I don’t think even Gen Xers use the term “Gen X” anymore. Still, Gravely’s view of Backstrom captured my imagination for a critique of his archetype: Has the anti-hero been a response to the times, or just one generation’s solipsism sold back to them?
After all, the geyser of total jerk crude that fueled the so-called golden age of drama—from The Sopranos to Dexter to Mad Men—erupted just as Gen X moved completely into the so-called “key demographic” for television. Psychoanalyzing a generation is risky business—but while it’s reductive, tagging Gen X as “pessimistic” doesn’t feel wrong, either.
If you believe pop culture shapes worldview, and if you believe that the cool pop culture of your youth informs your taste in pop culture as an adult, then pessimism makes total sense to a generation obsessed with keeping-it-real authenticity and deconstruction—a generation that rocked to grunge, connected with Reality Bites, turned Watchmen into a holy text, thrilled to Pulp Fiction, barfed at Forrest Gump, and was entertained by irreverent, ironic, near-nihilistic or totally nihilistic proto-jerks. These figures modeled the textbook qualities of the anti-hero: selfishness over selflessness, the lack of innate virtue, the idea that the ends justify the means. Han Solo, John McLane, Crockett and Tubbs, Marvel’s Wolverine, Frank Miller’s Batman, and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, most every Michael Douglas movie made from Fatal Attraction to Basic Instinct, Seinfeld, yadda yadda yadda. (This is to say nothing of the generation’s romance with bad guys, from Gordon Gekko to Hannibal to Goodfellas.)
Backstrom is cut from Gen X’s grim and gritty swaddling cloth. He’s Alice In Chains’ “Man In The Box,” a man buried in his shit. Won’t you come and save him? Or just watch?
My answer is “No.” Backstrom just isn’t all that fun: The mysteries don’t pop, and the tone’s too wonky. Though the show may be saying that anti-hero shtick is “all wet” and played out, it’s still presenting more anti-hero shtick. Detective Gravely’s framing of her conflict with Backstrom—Millennial vs. Gen X—points to what could be the show’s fatal flaw: It doesn’t know which audience to please.
Backstrom might speak to the experience of Millennials sick and tired of suffering the doom and gloom of their elders. But as long as Everett Backstrom remains at the center, it’ll always skew toward the psychographic who can appreciate him best—a tribe whose days in the “key demo” are numbered. Don’t worry, kids. Those nasty Gen Xers will all burn off soon. And then you can amuse yourself to irrelevancy with your solipsism. Did that sound pessimistic? Sorry. That’s just total dick talkin’.
Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys is another Gen X touchstone, though one that’s shared with the generation that followed. It was released in 1995, as the first Millennials were hitting puberty and their geekier members were discovering Monty Python and auteur theory; I could easily see them thinking it the Coolest Thing Ever.
Still, arriving amid the alt culture boom, Gilliam’s grungy, culty mindf–k might be the most deliriously dismal Gen X thing ever. It told the story of James Cole (Bruce Willis), a ruffian from a dystopian future on a futile redemption quest: He tries to earn pardon for his past by toggling back and forth in time to stop the apocalyptic movement that will turn the world into a toxic wasteland. The more he leaps, the more he questions his sanity, and his yo-yo hero-tripping culminates with noodle-cooking paradox: His work produces the very trauma that scars his psyche and sets in motion his anti-heroic life. Smashing Pumpkins, yielding Zeroes. It’s all quite melancholy and infinitely sad.
12 Monkeys arrived at the tail end of a rash of loopy time travel pop produced by baby boomers and encoded with their anxieties, guilt, nostalgia and “issues,” most of which can be summed up thusly: The world sucks because the sixties screwed us, or we screwed up the sixties, or both. To be a teenager and to get pounded repeatedly with this worldview peddled by dead-inside adults grieving their big chill was a bit like being Rick in The Walking Dead, waking up to a world full of zombies: The apocalypse already happened, kid. Welcome to dystopia.
The Back To The Future trilogy and Terminator 2: Judgment Day are both about tasking teenage Gen Xers with correcting the historical narratives gone wrong. Marty McFly is his parents’ redeemer; John Connor is the future savior of a world hurtling toward doom because of wrongheaded adult stewardship. No pressure or anything. 12 Monkeys is (among many things) about that pressure: It’s the portrait of a generation going crackers from being guilt-tripped into a hero complex. What James Cole says in the movie: “I am insane. And you are my insanity.”
In 1995, Gilliam’s gloss on this warping expressed something real and relevant for its (young adult) audience, like a Nirvana song. But in 2015, it’s just another way to kill time. My biggest objection to SyFy’s 12 Monkeys is that, at present, it completely misses the thing that made the movie special, which was that it was the work of a singular artist. And because the series is devoid of original voice, it misses the personal auteurism that has helped to make television so special over the past 15 years. Moreover, I’m so exhausted by everything it represents—specifically its bleak worldview—that I can’t be entertained by what it is.
Which, to be honest, is a very well-produced sci-fi serial. Aaron Stanford is effective in the Cole part, pinging across decades to collaborate with a scientist specializing in viruses (Amanda Schull, also very solid) to prevent a mysterious terrorist group called The Army of Twelve Monkeys from unleashing a pandemic that will lay waste to civilization. This week’s episode introduces a compelling bogeyman played by Tom Noonan, who has always been quite compelling playing boogeymen. I admire the character-oriented storytelling of next week’s episode, as well as a small but impactful shocker that proves the show’s writers can work its premise to produce complex drama.
Perhaps, with more time, 12 Monkeys will mature into something that can move me. Or perhaps I will grow into it. I’m taken by the possibility that it might mean something to a post-anti-hero audience, and that it’s actually sympathetic to my weariness with penny dreadful dystopia. Pulling out my Backstrom decoder kit for interpreting television, I could see Cole’s mission to stop the viral apocalypse—and to negate his fallen character out of existence—as a metaphor for a new generation’s desire to hazmat our pop culture of toxic anti-heroes and fatalism, to be rid of those responsible for its insanity. The Army of the 12 Monkeys is just a bunch of total dicks. They’re all of us who love them.