Death to the Anti-Hero

from Nick Suss

Dec. 18, 2013, 9:53 p.m.

I was devastated when Heroes ended. That’s just the way I am in life. Heroes don’t lose, so Heroes shouldn’t have lost. It’s the same reason why I root for Superman and love the fact that I was raised a New York Yankees fan. It’s comforting to see the good guy win over and over again. Even if I know the outcome before it happens, I’m pleased with it. Which in many ways was the appeal of Heroes from the beginning. The show was about fallible people with infallible traits, but they always seemed to win despite these fallibilities. And I’m fully aware that the show disintegrated around the seams until it collapsed inwards on its poorly fabricated and quickly dissolving universe and plotline, but at the beginning the show was king. Which is why I was so devastated. The Heroes lost.

And as I’ve said a hundred times since Heroes was cancelled, I haven’t watched a single television drama since the show reached its demise. In some ways, this has nothing to do with Heroes. I prefer laughter to crying or gasping. But in other ways this has everything to do with the experience I had with the show. I scheduled my whole life around the show. I catered conversations at school the next day around people who had seen it. To me, Tim Kring’s superhero masterpiece was the closest thing to must-see television I ever experienced. I bought – with my own money at I time when my only revenue stream was birthdays – the first season of the show on DVD just because I thought the extras were worth it. And when the show ended I took it personally. Unlike the premature ending of a comedy, there is no lampshading toward a finale. There is no ironic plea to keep the show afloat or backhanded jabs at the network. There is just the haphazard stringing together of plot resolution until something somewhat resembling the original plan has been achieved. Heroes didn’t do that. The show left on what some may consider a cliffhanger and some may consider the show coming full circle. (I won’t spoil the ending to the show; as a true fan, I am one of the few who stands by the fourth season. Watch it. But skip the third season if you can. It was dreadful.) But this isn’t a post mortem on the dearly departed shows I enjoyed too much. This is a plea for more shows to be like Heroes. (Not for more shows to taper off at the end you bunch of smart-alecks, let me finish.) This is a plea to end televisions silliest craze. This is a plea for the death of the anti-hero.

Recently Netflix tricked me into watching Orange is the New Black. Based on your interest for Arrested Development and Frasier, you might like Orange is the New Black. What a load of phooey. The only resemblance the show shares with Arrested Development is that it is a Netflix original. And the only thing it shares in common with Frasier from which I can discern is a weird connection with Kate Mulgrew. (Kate Mulgrew, “Red” in Orange is the New Black, appeared as a congresswoman and Sam Malone’s love interest in the three part finale to Season 4 of Cheers, the show from which Frasier spun off. That’s the closest connection I got.) But the thing that concerned me the most about the show wasn’t that fact that Netflix lied to me. The thing that concerned me most was that I enjoyed it.

Because I know that a large portion of you have yet to gorge yourselves on the televisual masterpiece that is the aforementioned Netflix original, I’ll spare the details. But let me just say that the series, or rather the available first season of the series, is phenomenal. Each of the show’s principle characters undergoes a transformation Mystique would envy. The narrative structure is both the shows greatest asset and biggest crutch, as the best episodes of the show all revolve more around the backstory than the main story and the weakest episodes revolve entirely around the show’s present chronology. What I initially anticipated to be a dark comedy about the intricacies of prison life turned into an intense character study of deeply flawed individuals all driven to where they were by external factors and internal quirks. In a macrocosm, the show is the definitive analysis of the nature versus nurture debate. Though the show never quite takes a side, each character’s decisions come down to the question of whether their physiology or psychology drove them to commit the crime. Nowhere is this more evident than in the shows third episode, which was really a swing episode for me. It was both the season’s funniest and most compelling episode, but also the last episode before everyone undergoes their transformations. (Though no transformation was as dramatic as Sophia’s was in the third episode.) After that episode, I realized I wasn’t dealing with a comedy. Even though veterans from American Pie and That 70’s Show occupied the cast, this was an entirely different animal.

Through the two weeks it took me to finish the show, (don’t get me started on why I chose not to do a true binge of the show) I thought it would be my launching board. I had missed out on the silver era of dramatic television because of my mental bugaboo against non-sitcoms and this would prove to me why I was wrong. Then the show ended. I figured that there would be a quick descent, but the levels of sanity on the show dropped quicker and more often than Dan Uggla in an All-Star Game. I went from enjoying the show because of how identifiable the characters were to loathing nearly every single character, and the show as a result. Don’t get me wrong, I think the show was excellently made, I just dislike the characters so strongly that it’s hard to look back fondly on the series. After all, all good television is rooted in the relationship between the viewers and the characters. That’s why Seinfeld worked so well despite the fact that it was devoid of plot from day one. That’s why predictable “Will-They-Won’t-They” relationships like Ross and Rachel, Sam and Diane, Jim and Pam and Leonard and Penny work so well even though they are as commonplace as kitten videos on YouTube. That’s why the best plot-driven dramas of all time never had the same mass-appeal and will never be looked on as fondly as sitcoms or character-driven dramas. And that’s why I couldn’t in good faith enjoy Orange is the New Black.

A friend of mine once explained to me the difficulties he had playing a certain video game and earning all of its achievements. In the game at hand, he had to play as both the good guy and the bad guy to fully complete the game’s arc. However, he felt guilty any time he did anything wrong, even in a virtual world, and as such couldn’t bring himself to finish the game in its entirety. Now I don’t play video games. I consume television. (And I’m so pretentious about it, I don’t even say “watch TV.”) But he and I aren’t all that different in that regard. I’ve never been able to root for a character that was altogether deplorable. There are characters like The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper, Seinfeld’s George Costanza and, more obscurely, Yes, Dear’s Greg Warner, who I love and count among my favorite characters in history even though they were bad people, yes. But even the meanest, most spiteful, twisted characters of sitcoms are humanized, something dramas don’t quite have to do. So what if Frank Barone was a slob and a horrible husband, at least he always said what was right when the situation was urgent. So what if Diane Chambers was a self-righteous, prissy, entitled, know-it-all, at least she deeply cared about everyone around her, even if they didn’t reciprocate the emotions. So what if Dennis Reynolds is a vain, spiteful, self-obsessed, maniacal lunatic, at least he – well, come to think of it, he has no redeeming qualities. He is just an awful person. But nevertheless, my point is that even the seemingly worst of sitcom characters are at their core likeable. The same can’t be said of modern dramatic protagonists.

Which brings me back to my original plea. I despise the anti-hero. And I don’t use that word lightly. There are very few things I despise. I despise the Boston Red Sox. I despise Styrofoam. I despise any string of parallel phrases which is not in a group of three, the third of which always considerably longer than the first two. But I do count the anti-hero in that list. For those unfamiliar with the term, the way I look at an anti-hero is a character, or real person, who despite always doing the wrong thing legally or morally is the person behind which viewers, or real people, rally. Think the protagonists of your classic mob movies. And it’s this sort of moral ambiguity I found deplorable. Even in a world where I know that these characters I see on my television are fabricated works of fiction, I can’t in good conscience root for them to succeed. The bad guy shouldn’t win. As I stated at the beginning, I missed out on the just departed age of great television. I’ve never seen an episode of Breaking Bad. I’ve only seen the first two episodes of Mad Men. Any other great television drama in history, I can guarantee you I’ve never seen. But I am familiar with them nonetheless, and I’ll go ahead and make a snap judgment: I don’t like them.

When I finished Orange is the New Black, do you know what the first thing I did was? I went back to Netflix queue and turned on a rerun of the Dick Van Dyke Show. And it was glorious. I don’t care if it was clichéd. I don’t care if it was utopian. I don’t care if it glanced over the darker nuances of life and replaced them with sunshine and happiness. What I care about is the fact that it was, and is, good. And I don’t mean good in the sense of quality. Don’t misread me to think I’m saying that a show like Breaking Bad is garbage. I mean good in the sense of Chicken Soup for the Soul kind of good. So the show glazed over the era it took place in, forgetting to mention that the social climate in 1961 was far from the climate depicted on the stage upon which the four cameras and live studio audience were fixed. I don’t care. I care that the show brings me enjoyment and makes me feel better. I think that’s a message from the sitcom world that the rest of the television industry should take a hint from. By and large, life is boring. Yeah, there are some pockets of good and some pockets of bad, but life kind of drags sometimes. And television is by it’s a nature a medium of escape, a cool medium into which full immersion is far from necessary. You can focus as much or as little as you want, but at the end, you’re actually escaping focus. And I understand. I understand that some people want to escape to worlds of horrific prison experiences and heartbreak and retribution. But at the end of the day, I just have to question why.

So maybe I misquoted myself when I said there should be a death to the anti-hero. Maybe death is a strong word. It will always be an unfathomable phenomenon to me, but that doesn’t mean it should be sentenced to death. There are plenty of things I don’t like, but I don’t want all of them to disappear. So maybe I should put it a different way. The anti-hero shouldn’t die. But the hero should rise again. And I don’t mean hero in an Agents of Shield kind of literal way. I just mean I want to watch shows about people doing good things. And even if the show is about a person doing a bad thing, make him pay. Don’t wait seven seasons for resolution. Make the bad guy pay the piper. For all the fantasy that exists on television, the bad guy escaping punishment for years and years is the most ludicrous to me. (Except for maybe the entire premise of Hawaii Five-O. There is no way that many people die in Hawaii every year.) Which is why I think I was instantly drawn to Showtime’s Masters of Sex. I gave it a try one night out of boredom when the Sunday Night Football game was irrelevant to both my Titans and my fantasy team and it was riveting. Not because of the subject matter or because of the action, but because the show had a logical string of cause and effect. The show seems to follow Newton’s Third Law to a tee. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Which is beautiful. When someone does something bad, bad things happen to them. When someone lies, they get caught. When something snowballs on top of a character for episodes at a time, the resulting avalanche is even bigger. That is what I’m looking for in a drama. Because as much as I love character development, I don’t root for characters, I root for justice.

I’m sorry. That last line has to be the cheesiest thing anyone has ever typed. I apologize thoroughly for that, but the sentiment remains.

So correct me if I’m wrong, fine readers of StoriesHouse. Tell me that the good guy always wins in these shows that I’ve missed out on. Tell me that Piper actually is just misunderstood and she really is a good person drove to madness in Orange is the New Black. Tell me that my reasoning is flawed and presumptuous. Because I am always open to criticism about my television habits. But I’ll tell you this. As I type this I’m staring right at that DVD box set of Season 1 of Heroes sitting on my desk. All seven of its discs are gazing at me. I know how everything happens. I know how everything plays out and I know who wins. Watching Heroes, and watching TV to me, was never about what happened on the screen. It’s about how it affected me. So you can take your meth lords and your tortured advertising executives and your zombies and your vampires and your whatever the hell is in Game of Throneses, I’ll take my superheroes. And not the flawed ones in the Avengers, I’ll take my perfect ones who always win and can’t be defeated. After all, why would I consume television if I was guaranteed to lose?


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