Exaltations of goodness and celebrations of growth are welcome and necessary additions to this era of Peak TV.
The Golden Age of Television was dutifully ushered in by antiheroes—lots of them. They were profoundly flawed, struggling with internal conflicts and contending with their inner darkness. In the process, they did pretty bad things. They made drugs, killed people, and committed adultery, and they rarely sought redemption, let alone found it. But, God help us, we watched them anyway.
Our fascination with television antiheroes is hard to trace neatly. Perhaps it’s tied to the complication and disintegration of the American dream; when in the late 2000s and early 2010s many of us realized hard work no longer guaranteed opportunity and stability, we desired to watch the dream reclaimed and reimagined in shadier, dirtier hues. Walter White gets screwed by the flawed American health care system? He’ll make his fortune building a meth empire — how’s that for an American dream?
Or maybe antiheroes’ moral ambiguity reflects a larger sense of societal uncertainty that arose within the last two decades. Our nation suddenly became vulnerable, and our financial institutions untrustworthy. In an increasingly complex world, simplified depictions of clear-cut good and bad rang untrue and inauthentic. Don Draper drinks too much and cheats on his wife regularly to cope with his abusive childhood and fraudulent identity? That’s a man who is as uncertain and flawed as we all feel.
For some, watching antiheroes’ illicit antics can be a satisfying, vicarious experience. The frustrations we feel, the things we wish we could do can all play out on screen before our eyes. Like voyeurs, we can enjoy the fruits of their immorality unjudged, or judge their indiscretions without looking inward. Watching Tony Soprano whack a snitch, sleep with a stripper, and then come home to a warm plate of spaghetti is an exercise in masculinity that is surely appealing to a sizeable audience.
Our fascination with antiheroes is most likely the result of a combination of the three. And the proliferation of minimally censored cable networks has allowed us to feast on murderous, lustful, drug-peddling antiheroes in excess.
But recently, antiheroes’ dominance of the television landscape has noticeably diminished. Some of the most critically acclaimed – and popular – prestige dramas center on fairly traditional heroes. Whereas we may question our principles when we root for Dexter or Ray Donovan, these protagonists earn our support. Shows like Stranger Things, The Crown, The Leftovers, and This Is Us give us characters who grow with us, suffer with us, and hope with us. While they are still flawed, they are easy to love and often aspirational. The boys of Hawkins and the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth find themselves thrown into daunting situations; the Garveys and the Pearsons work through immense familial grief. Our support is always with them, and their triumphs feel like ours; their goodness (or their attempts at goodness) in the face of fear and pain is at the heart of their characters. Ultimately, these shows valorize inclusion, courage, and compassion, which is immensely refreshing amidst the depictions of moral decay that crowd our televisions.
Surprisingly, many of TV’s antiheroes can now be found not on prestige dramas but on comedies, which focus on the protagonist’s growth and self-improvement, rather than their moral turpitude. Television comedies like The Good Place, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Bojack Horseman follow flawed and unlikeable characters as they make mistakes and try to learn from them to become better people (or better horses). On The Good Place, Eleanor—who, now in the afterlife, has been deemed categorically and irremediably bad by the powers that be—studies ethics and discovers the power of friendship as she attempts to compensate for her bad behavior back when she was alive. The protagonists of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Bojack Horseman struggle with mental illness, and though their healing process never follows a consistent, upward trajectory, they are actively facing and reckoning with their destructive behaviors and their consequences on their relationships. Whereas many antiheroes experience a moral decline over the course of a series, these antiheroic protagonists are actively seeking some moral improvement.
So is this move away from dramatic antiheroes towards narratives of decency and personal growth a sign of a larger cultural shift, or simply the natural swing of the artistic pendulum? It’s both.
In our antihero frenzy, we may have gotten too much of a good thing. Many of these characters continue to stand among the best in television history, but antihero-fronted dramas can quickly become formulaic. Introducing more traditional heroes back into the television landscape is a natural response to counteract the antiheroic oversaturation.
But it may also reflect larger sociopolitical anxieties. Whereas we once wanted to see our post 9/11 anxieties or mid-Recession frustrations play out on screen, for many of us today the very structural integrity of our society feels more threatened than ever, and it’s left viewers feeling unmoored and unfaithful in humanity. We don’t want to see morally dubious characters in our television shows when they’re already dominating the news. More of us are seeking hope and comfort from our television shows, as well as societal critiques.
Antiheroic characters also can glamorize toxic masculinity, and in our current sociopolitical context, this set of harmful patriarchal norms is more closely critiqued. Prestige dramas like Mindhunter and The Handmaid’s Tale deconstruct and challenge the tradition of toxic masculinity, serving as cautionary tales about the dangers of pervasive misogyny. The former’s protagonist succumbs to the allure of toxic masculinity and the latter’s protagonist rages against the violence that results from it; both serve to dismantle the patterns of sexism and gendered violence that have permeated prestige TV since its inception.
We as an audience have changed since we first met and fell for Tony Soprano in 1999. We’re older, wiser, and more accustomed televisual displays of sex, drugs, and violence. And we’ve gleaned much of what we can from nearly two decades’ worth of antiheroes; we’ve learned about the pitfalls of self-deception, emotional unavailability, hunger for power. We’ve explored the hollowness of success and the indifference of capitalism, and we’ve borne witness to some pretty fantastic monologues.
But all good things come to an end, and the quiet dissolution of antiheroes’ stronghold will clear the way for new stories and conventions to reshape the television landscape. Exaltations of goodness and celebrations of growth are welcome and necessary additions to this era of Peak TV.