Essay: TV's new antiheroes are anti-entertaining
How strange, and yet right, that the defining event of week 1 of the network-TV season happened on cable. Last Sunday, we bid Breaking Bad farewell after six years and 62 episodes of some of the best television ever made. Like The Sopranos, Mad Men, and other cable series that have defined the new golden age of TV drama, Breaking Bad distinguished itself with a large, grand arc of moral complexity and a protagonist inside of whom a man and a monster were at war. We were riveted, and so were the people who program network shows. They were also annoyed (about the media attention), envious (of the awards), and curious (about how to get in on the action).
You can’t blame them for trying. But judging by the new crop of fall series, the networks have decided to imitate the single most easily pilfered aspect of cable dramas. Not their quality, their depth, or their ambition. Something else — something about their main characters. In short, everyone on a new show this fall seems to be an… Oh, dear. How can I describe them without using a seven-letter physiological vulgarism that has no place in a classy entertainment magazine? Let’s try this: Everyone on TV seems to be an OUTIE (Orifice Utilized to Issue Excrement). Practically every time I watched a new series last week, I found myself saying, “Wow, what an outie!” and “Could that guy be a bigger outie?” and “I don’t understand why you’d put up with someone who’s such an unbearable outie!” One of the few moderately well-socialized characters to carry a new series is Dylan McDermott on CBS’ Hostages, and he’s a terrorist. Something has gone wrong.
The network version of cable TV involves appropriating “dark” story lines, “outrageous” comedy, and the era of the presumably charismatic outie, and then PG-13’ing them, sanding their edges, and dumbing them down, ostensibly so they’ll appeal to a larger audience (which is, however, getting smaller every year; so much for that brilliant plan). In network comedy the outie tends to get prettified into the lovable-but-not-really curmudgeon (James Caan as a rancid manly man on Back in the Game), the yeller (lower your TV volume before The Goldbergs starts), or the impossible-but-irresistible genius: I don’t know how The Crazy Ones is going to develop, but I hope they’ve got more in mind than having adman Robin Williams use his rule-busting imagination to pull a great idea out of thin air every week while his by-the-book daughter (Sarah Michelle Gellar) gives him tolerant but amazed oh-you looks. (Women don’t get to be outies on TV this season, because Whitney failed and women only get one chance, ever.)
In network drama the outie is usually transformed into the tough professional who’s always in a bad mood (every single character on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), the maverick who knows he’s better than everyone else but still has something to prove (Ironside), or, most often, the misanthropic omniscient mastermind. I’ll keep watching The Blacklist for a while because James Spader can do 50 shades of menace and droll disdain better than almost anyone (I’d love to see him and Kevin Spacey in a sneer-off). But the pilot didn’t offer a credible reason for him to treat everyone around him with contempt other than the fact that it’s what Hugh Laurie used to do on House and that worked for eight years.
What great shows understand is that being an outie 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 (cable shows aren’t immune to this either — see: Ray Donovan). We didn’t stick with Walter White and Don Draper and Tony Soprano for all those years because they were guys who in real life we wouldn’t want to spend five minutes with; we were in it for their struggle. Even with outies, it’s what’s inside that counts. And yes, I know that anatomically speaking, that’s the worst possible metaphor. But you get the idea.
Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.