Saturday, April 11, 2009

Why Do We Love the Bad Boys of TV?

It occurred to me the other day that many of the most popular male characters on television today are so relentlessly unlikeable, they never would have had a chance in a prime time show 20 or 30 years ago. They are bad to the bone, and yet we love them; just look at all the Emmy awards, critical acclaim and sky high ratings these guys deliver.

In fact, our love affair with the bad guys is so prevalent on TV today, it's difficult to find a central character in a series who isn't terrible, or at the very least hopelessly flawed and unforgiven.

Ground zero for popular evil-doers is Tony Soprano, loving mafia patriarch and homicidal maniac. Poor Tony is now floating around a diner in New Jersey forever, but we have many naughty spawns to keep us entertained. The Nose bloggers have made no secret of their love for Showtime's Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), a serial killer who carves up his victims with no more thought than what you would give to buttering a slice of toast for breakfast. Then we have AMC's Walter White (Bryan Cranston) on Breaking Bad. Every one's favorite high school chemistry teacher is secretly cooking crank in a Winnebago, and urging one of his former students to murder the drug thugs who get in his way.

Less murderous, but just as mean in his own anhedonic way is Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) on Fox. This pill popping Vicodin addict never met a patient or co-worker that he liked, but we tolerate his inhumane behavior because of his brilliant diagnostic talents. He has the bedside manner of Godzilla. I just hate him. I'd rather see Dr. Mengele if I woke up in the emergency room, but I'll never miss an episode.

Now we also have the very troubled Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) on fX, returning for a fifth season of Rescue Me. He's usually drunk or high, he cheats on wives and girl friends and he hates his dead father with a passion. He is the embodiment of anger (I think that's why we love him, everybody is so angry these days) and when he isn't boiling over with existential rage, he's jumping into flaming buildings to save complete strangers.

Is there any main male character out there who isn't bad? Don Draper on Mad Men (adulterer), Homer Simpson (donut glutton and screw-up), Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock (selfish TV Titan without a soul).

I remember hearing once that the original pilot for All in the Family had one of the lowest research testing scores in the history of television. People just couldn't believe that Archie Bunker could say such awful things. But good old Archie was really a marshmallow, underneath his bigoted barbs. Today's bad boys would eat him alive!


Dean Treadway said...

Great article. You mentioned many of my favorite bad men of TV. I think this is a relatively new phenom, especially in the groundbreaking wake of THE SOPRANOS, which proved conclusively that villainy could be more fascinating, even over the long run of a TV series, than heroism.

With movies, we've always known this (where would STAR WARS or DRACULA, just to keep it down to two, be without its villains?). But will anyone be more layered, more likable and hatable than Tony Soprano? I doubt it, but I'd like to see 'em try. As much as I like MAD MEN, in some ways, I see Don Draper as being even more villainous than Tony. But no where near as complex, I must say. Tony has a wild stream of love that's deep and flows strongly through him; Don is a dry riverbed of emotion, and it makes him more dangerous (and one could argue, maybe more interesting, since he seems to me like a geyser of negativity who could blow at any minute; I AM interested in seeing where Weiner and Co. go with him).

I agree with the "marshmallow" assessment of Archie Bunker. But the lovely thing is we got to see Bunker's complete transformation over 8 seasons (12, if you count ARCHIE BUNKER'S PLACE). It's interesting: my three favorite shows of all time are THE SOPRANOS, ALL IN THE FAMILY and SCTV (the show that trades in comedy from dumb or mean people almost exclusively). In all of these, the camera is trained on nasty or ignorant individuals who show, to varying degrees, their lovable humanity underneath the scum. I don't know what that says about me, and I don't WANT to know.

Again, great article, Jane!

Jane said...

Thanks so much for the nice comment, Dean! I have been pondering this phenomenon for a long time. I agree with you totally about Don Draper. He might be a sociopath. He is one of the most emotionally blocked characters on television. When he rejected the brother who then killed himself, it was one of the cruelest small screen moments I can recall. But he is also capable of great warmth. When he gave his ad pitch soliloquy about the Kodak Carousel and the meaning of photographic memories, I actually cried.

Long live the bad guys! When they are allowed to grow and evolve, it makes watching so worthwhile!

Dean Treadway said...

I LOVED IT when that troubled ad exec flew out of the room in tears over the Carousel pitch. An amazing TV moment. Still, Draper is going to explode, I guarantee it.