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Antiheroes at work

Dark characters skirt the law in ways viewers rarely do but secretly admire.

June 16, 2010|Christy Grosz

Although Tony Soprano can take most of the credit for easing shady characters into TV viewers' living rooms -- and hearts -- week after week, the prime-time antihero has become more prevalent and arguably more complicated since "The Sopranos" left the air in 2007. Judging from the serial killer with a demented code of ethics in "Dexter," the meth-making suburban teacher in "Breaking Bad," the duplicitous professionals in "Nurse Jackie," "Damages" and "Mad Men," devious methods and questionable motives are the new prime-time heroes.

Although film has savored the antihero for close to a century, only recently has TV embraced these contradictory and complex protagonists. It remains the almost-exclusive domain of cable, with a few notable exceptions, such as "Lost" and "Heroes," both of which celebrated characters with dark sides and both of which recently ended their network runs.

"There's no one who's all good and no one who's all bad," says "Damages" executive producer Glenn Kessler. "And now, with the proliferation of cable, we're accepting stories that don't just wrap things up and present us with an ordered world where good triumphs."

Rather than seeking comfort from prime time, viewers are looking for something they recognize and a point of view that's decidedly less sheltered than they've sought in the past. And perhaps an outlet for their own baser impulses as well.

"I've always felt that we all have a bit of the dark passenger in us. Most of us have it firmly in check, and it's just that extra piece of fudge that we can't control. But the notion of the dark passenger has a resonance," says "Dexter" executive producer Sara Colleton.

And that notion of grappling with right and wrong, as well as where the antihero draws the line between the two, keeps a character grounded, no matter how morally objectionable their actions might be.

"A lot of it has to do with our respect for systems and need for structure," says "Mad Men's" Matthew Weiner. "Maybe culturally right now we're at a point where we are realizing -- not that it's new -- that the systems are phony and the law is filled with holes."

Many of prime-time's antiheroes devise a code for circumventing the flaws that they perceive in the system, even if it means being dishonest with themselves. For example, "Breaking Bad's" central character justifies all of the harm he's causing by telling himself it's all for the financial security of his family should he succumb to the cancer he's been treated for.

"We all know people who lie to themselves, and we also know if we're very honest with ourselves that we all do rationalize things in our own lives," says executive producer Vince Gilligan.

Rationalization also keeps Jackie Peyton going on "Nurse Jackie," though executive producer Liz Brixius sees the pill-popping Jackie as a flawed protagonist more than antihero, per se.

"I said last year she's like Dirty Harry, if Dirty Harry were a woman in her 40s," Brixius says. "She operates outside of convention. She operates outside of the system -- inside a huge system."

Yet, the escape of allowing a TV character to toy with the gray areas and go to unfathomable extremes represents a much safer way to explore the dark side.

"The antiheroes have stepped away from the norm and have cut their own cord," Colleton says. They "allow us, in the safety of our room, to explore moral boundaries that we probably wouldn't ever explore in our real life. We find it inspiring because most of us don't ever step out of the norm."

Consequences usually keep us from veering too far from acceptable actions, yet the prime-time antihero is almost unaware of the concept. "Mad Men's" Don Draper seems to take getting caught cheating on his wife in stride; Nurse Jackie believes that taking prescription drugs is enabling her to juggle work and family better; and the manipulative Patty Hewes in "Damages" is merely striving to remain at the top of her field.

"It was absolutely my intention to show that Walt's actions have consequences but actually not in any kind of didactic way," "Breaking Bad's" Gilligan says. "It just simply mirrors life as I know it to be. The tiny lies we tell often can come back to haunt us."

The audience's acute awareness of how those tiny lies -- that so often escalate -- fit into everyday life is probably what makes the untarnished hero so suspect and what makes the antihero feel more realistic.

"A hero is never as exciting as when he's reckless and flawed," Brixius says. "Maybe we're post-heroic rather than antiheroic."

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