Our TV protagonists used to at least be sympathetic enough that we could understand their moral intricacies, but in recent years the tides have turned and left us with a whole new crop of deeply damaged, barely-even-likable-on-a-good-day psychopaths. The allure of the so-called anti-hero has been an interesting one to watch and it now appears to be gaining momentum on the small screen.
This is definitely something that we’re pretty happy about, too; wouldn’t entertainment be dull if it was filled with do-gooding characters devoid of an exciting evil streak or a hint of flawed humanity? In order for good drama to really unfold, there needs to be a clash between protagonist and antagonist. A Lisa Simpson vs. Mr. Burns. A Sherlock vs. Moriarty. A Cersei Lannister vs… Well, everybody.
But, for all the Don Drapers and the Walter Whites and the Tony Sopranos out there, the antagonist has now well and truly taken over: Love for the anti-hero has become the norm.
The anti-hero that garnered the most attention from American viewers this week, however, as people sat in front of their TV screens watching the drama unfold, wasn’t the star of an acclaimed TV drama. No, it was former star of The Apprentice – Donald Trump, the pussy-grabbing GOP candidate who’s now in charge of the world’s unchallenged superpower.
In U.S. politics, the opinion polls were stacked against Trump. On the morning of the election, Hillary Clinton held the edge over her Republican counterpart. The majority of U.S. mainstream media rallied against him, too. Yet, almost every poll turned out to be incorrect and we’re now left with a seemingly prototypical anti-hero who’s almost less human than any TV antagonist.
Yet, Trump’s victory is both very real and very, very scary. The inescapable fact is that most of the mainstream media got it wrong because they simply couldn’t believe that Americans would elect someone like Donald Trump. Denial can be a powerful drug… Trump’s victory is also largely incomprehensible, at least to the disillusioned masses who did everything they did to keep this man – whose policy proposals include the proposed tracking of Muslims, making abortion illegal and, of course, building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico – out of power.
So, how did it all happen? Is it possible that the popularity of our favorite TV anti-heroes can help explain Trump’s win? Does America’s love of small screen anti-heroes translate to support for the morally complex or just plain corrupt political actions of a leader like Trump? Like any art form, perhaps TV is as much a reflection of the culture as it is a mover.
Before Tony Soprano, American TV audiences had never been so consistently exposed to a lovable psychopath, one who so expertly evoked dread and dismay, sympathy and compassion, disgust and objection. The degree to which The Sopranos was a shock for entertainment is pretty remarkable, and – apparently – we’re still in the grasp of that phenomenon.
The sprawling story of mobster Tony and his family blended unprecedented realism with an equally unusual surrealism. More than anything else, it spawned a hunger for the likes of Breaking Bad, Dexter, Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy, House of Cards, The Americans, Game of Thrones and many more TV series that have since come to the fore. Each of these shows is fully stocked with characters that range from the mildly sinister to unquestioningly sociopathic. And anyone sympathetic in these imagined worlds is always the unsuspecting victim of evil, the idiot pawn who elicits contempt from the audience.
One of the most important and formative examples of the TV anti-hero, Tony Soprano was a flawed family man, who attempted to balance life inside and outside of the mob. David Chase, who created the character, very artfully walked his audience up through The Sopranos’ final season, in which he unmasked his anti-hero as a fully-fledged, unbridled psychopath. In doing so, Chase forced his audience to confront why we continued to overlook and excuse Tony’s most reprehensible actions, and what that says about our own attraction to power and charm…
Any similarities here with current U.S. politics – whether or not the electorate continues to “overlook” and “excuse” Trump’s immoral actions – are yours to recognize and yours to analyze. Go forth.
Game of Thrones’ Ramsay Bolton – perhaps one of the most hated men on TV (and for good reason) – is a character whom we loved to hate. Brutal at best, Ramsay stands out in the HBO show partly because he’s entirely lacking in ambiguity. Game of Thrones’ protagonists commit horrific misdeeds, but its villains are usually given real depth in their moral complexity, too. Not this one.
Apparently, we love people who challenge authority and convention and get away with it – especially if that’s done in an entertaining way. Ramsay’s preferred methods included castration, releasing the hounds on unsuspecting villagers, and casual rape. Equally shocking, given the real-life political context, Trump’s methods include blowing raspberries at political opponents, bragging about his penis size, and spouting third-grade insults such as “loser,” “total loser,” and “dummy.”
Trump really has the most in common with Walter White, however, who’s a prime example of the kind of economic individualism that’s alive and well in modern, “the only thing holding you back from Hollywood stardom is yourself” America. Both men venerate material success, are driven by their furious egos and are seemingly incapable of self-reflection.
They’re also both proponents for freedom from government in the pursuit of economic goals. Walter White won hearts by going into the meth trade after the American dream let him down. Fans of Breaking Bad – no matter how abhorrent some of Walter’s became – never forgot why he was in this position in the first place. And that helped justify his miserable actions to the AMC masses. Similarly, Trump has made it to Presidency like he’s getting away with something. He’s spouting whatever trash comes into his mind and refusing to play by “the rules” because he’s sick of the injustices of his country and he’s going to make America great again, through whatever means necessary.
In essence, each of these TV anti-heroes that we love – and often even idolize – are lowlifes who move through the world with a certain amount of swagger. And if there’s one thing that we love, it’s a lowlife with swagger. Perhaps these few comparisons can help in explaining – at least in some way – why Trump has some segments of American society so excited and so hysterical.
Our viewing tastes are now officially cynical and we’re hungry for TV show outrage. But, perhaps our tastes are also cyclical. Maybe, two years or so from now, when we’re nearly at political breaking point thanks to the oppressive rule of an idiotic, orange fascist – who knows? We might start asking ourselves, “Hey, d’you remember when everybody used to like anti-heroes?”
And, if Trump really does have something in common with Walter White, then perhaps he’ll one day be exposed as a grotesque fraud, shunned by society and undone by the same qualities his fans once revered. Our disillusionment with corrupt politics might soon have people rooting for the admirable, honorable, just TV protagonists again. We can only live in hope.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
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