A couple of years ago, friends gave my husband and me an unexpected Christmas present -- the first season of Mad Men, the Emmy-award winning television series about postwar Madison Avenue advertising executives. Mad Men's protagonist, Don Draper, attains success in this flashy, often sleezy world that has a knack for making consumers lust for products they don't need. Don is unfaithful to his wife, who is unaware of a dark secret that shadows his professional success. The first season, and the many others that have followed, charts the fits and starts of his moral descent. The first season makes this point clear when the credits roll out, showing the figure of a man falling into the abyss.
Like the show's many fans, my husband and I were transfixed by the quality of the production--the smart dialogue and the striking period-perfect props and wardrobe. During four days of the holiday season, we watched almost the whole first season. But toward the end of our marathon viewing sessions, we realized that we had maxed out on Don's issues and stopped watching the show
Last week, the same thing happened after we watched a couple of shows from Revenge, which friends had recommended. Revenge is about a young women who has returned to the summer community she knew as a child to avenge the betrayal of her father, who was set up by his friends and business associates. Once again, the show focused on the protagonist's downward spiral, as she mercilessly executes her plan to destroy the lives of everyone involved in her father's betrayal. In the middle of the third show, we shut off the television.
There are lots of open-ended serialized shows like Mad Men and Revenge: The Sopranos, the series about a mob family, The Wire, and Breaking Bad, the series that follows Walter White, a high-school science teacher who learns he has terminal cancer and decides to get into the meth business to leave his family a nest egg. The Sopranos has ended, after multiple seasons and Emmy awards. All these shows, reported Michiko Kakutani, in her recent review of Brett Martin's Difficult Men, were part of hugely successful television trend that began around 2000.
Conventional wisdom, Mr. Martin writes, “had once insisted Americans would never allow” such antiheroes into their living rooms — they belonged on the big screen, in the communal dark of a movie theater. But that all began to change with tectonic shifts in the media landscape around the turn of the millennium.
It is one thing to watch a film like The Godfather, which followed a wartime hero's transformation into a ruthless mobster. But would you want to watch Michael's moral collapse every week, episode by episode, from one season to the next? The success of shows like The Sopranos suggests that we are deveoping an appetitute for watching people do bad things. And as reported in an excerpt from Brett Martin's Difficult Men, the character of Walter White has taken things to yet another level
whereas the antiheroes of those earlier series were at least arguably the victims of their circumstances—family, society, addiction, and so on— Walter White was insistently, unambiguously, an agent with free will. His journey became a grotesque magnification of the American ethos of self-actualization, Oprah Winfrey’s exhortation that all must find and “live your best life.” What if, Breaking Bad asked, one’s best life happened to be as a ruthless drug lord?
Breaking Bad is in its final season, and a New York Daily News television critic explains it, the plot "ratchets up pressure in Walter White's march toward purtagory." Sounds pretty appealing, huh?
But in the New York Times this past weekend, A.O. Scott echoed my own thoughts about these shows. The essay observed that audiences have a soft spot for antiheroes like Breaking Bad's Walter White. Fans empathize with his Everyman qualities and struggles, while losing track of the larger moral context.
Walter, a sad-sack high school chemistry teacher who found a vocation cooking the finest methamphetamine money could buy, was always adept at shifting his appearance depending on who was watching.
In truth, though, his development over five seasons has been less a shocking transformation than a series of confirmations. Mr. Gilligan’s busy and inventive narrative machinery has provided plenty of cleverly executed surprises, but these have all served to reveal the Walter White who was there all along. The sides of his personality — sociopath and family man, scientist and killer, rational being and creature of impulse, entrepreneur and loser — are not necessarily as contradictory as we might have supposed.
Or rather, if we insist on supposing that they are, it may be for our own sentimental reasons. We love our television antiheroes, sometimes blindly. When James Gandolfini’s death last month revived our affection for Tony Soprano, New York magazine reposted “The Long Con,” Emily Nussbaum’s insightful 2007 post-mortem on “The Sopranos.” In it, Ms. Nussbaum argued that at a certain point, Mr. Gandolfini and the show’s creator, David Chase, fully acknowledged Tony’s monstrosity, and that viewers’ decision to empathize or identify with him was their own guilty choice. The key message to the audience — one many of us elected to ignore — was a line delivered by a psychologist to Tony’s denial-prone wife, Carmela: “One thing you can never say, that you haven’t been told.”
Why are these shows successful? Maybe it is because the most talented writers and producers are drawn to edgy material. Or maybe it is because the obsession with antiheroes suits our culture's present state of mind: They don't hold us to a high standard -- we can feel morally superior while getting our entertainment from watching a sick character make bad choices over and over and over again.
A friend's son recently called him up to say he had just finished watching a Breaking Bad episode and wanted to thank his father for raising him right. My friend was happy to get the call, but he said he would feel even better if his son switched off the show and looked for true heroes to inspire his progress.