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A love-hate relationship: Television’s anti-hero archetype reflects society

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Walter White of "Breaking Bad." (Photo courtesy of AMC)

Walter White of “Breaking Bad.” (Photo courtesy of AMC)

As fall television season kicks into gear, viewers are dusting off their remotes and preparing for the return of their favorites. It’s time to say out with that Netflix documentary, and in with the likes of “Modern Family,” fresh after nabbing its fifth Emmy Award for Best Comedy Series in a row. Meanwhile, the Drama Series winner (“Breaking Bad”) ended anti-hero Walter White’s critically acclaimed story after five seasons.

But that doesn’t mean you should say farewell to the archetypal anti-hero on TV.

Of course, categorizing a character is subjective. An obligatory Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition said they’re “conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities,” and an even more obligatory Wikipedia search of “List of fictional antiheroes” illustrates the rich history of these characters — among them, Holden Caulfield, Batman and Scarlett O’Hara. Nowadays, Don Draper, Piper Chapman, Nick Brody, and, of course, Walter White have ushered in a new golden age.

In essence, they’re the characters we love, but should hate.

Then why does the anti-hero have such a strong grip on modern audiences? As cliche as it sounds, perhaps it’s society.

“Any time there is some sort of commonality across television, there’s a very good reason for it,” Paul Booth, a DePaul associate professor of Media and Cinema Studies in the College of Communication, said. “Especially in a post-9/11 world, the vast majority of people feel relatively powerless in their own lives.”

Don Draper of "Mad Men." (Photo courtesy of AMC)

Don Draper of “Mad Men.” (Photo courtesy of AMC)

Our societal distrust of leaders produces cynicism, so it only makes sense to gravitate toward entertainment equally as gritty. Why watch a TV show that glorifies drama when a show with an anti-hero protagonist will treat said drama honestly and, albeit, poorly? It’s the inner conflict that makes a character real; viewers want to see more of Walter White murdering for the protection of his family and less of inherently “good” Superman saving Metropolis.

“Watching someone (especially a father figure, as all these anti-heroes are) being able to ‘take matters into their own hands’ is quite appealing,” Booth said.

This quality has propelled the television anti-hero to both critical and commercial success. For his portrayal of Walter White, actor Bryan Cranston won four Emmys — more than any other dramatic actor in history. Similarly, a massive 10.3 million viewers viewed the drama’s series finale, far more than the 1.4 million who tuned in for its first episode. But this transcends “Breaking Bad.” Of the past 15 Emmy winners for Best Actor in a Drama Series, 13 were anti-heroes.

So it’s not just a minor fad, but a steady reaction to our culture.

Don Draper has become synonymous with the blatant sexism of the “Mad Men” era — a time when women were expected to only pursue motherhood. Working as a nurse, teacher and secretary were backups.

Contrast this with today. Women make up more than half the workforce, yet continue to face the gender pay gap. As viewers watch Don Draper dupe new women each episode, his attempts to skirt morality act as a reminder for not only how far the women’s rights movement has come, but perhaps more importantly how far it has yet to go.

Or look at “Orange is the New Black,” a show that’s been lauded for its groundbreaking casting, themes and impact on television. Piper Chapman “lacks heroic qualities” like the definition stated and proved the term “anti-hero” is not restricted to a lone gender. She and other inmates constantly scramble to survive prison through desperate actions, and barters under a modern social justice backdrop. Most viewers won’t relate to prison, but they will to the characters.

“There’s a type of release in watching them, a vicarious thrill of people doing illicit things that we aren’t allowed to do because of our repressive society,” Booth said. “The entertainment lies in the containment.”

Despite this, Booth said how people take in media varies for everyone.

“Some people may identify with the character; some may hate him and want to see his downfall; some people may want to find out what happens next; some people may love spoilers,” Booth said. “There’s no wrong way to enjoy media.”

2 Comments

2 Responses to “A love-hate relationship: Television’s anti-hero archetype reflects society”

  1. Blake Jeffries on October 13th, 2014 12:29 am

    Interesting take on how the anti-hero reflects society today. Great read!

    [Reply]

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