The other day, I caught a very insightful and interesting PBS documentary series on Netflix Instant called America In Primetime . In the four episodes, different industry folk discussed ground breaking television moments, character archetypes and how society shaped TV trends (and vice versa). While many shows, trends, and topics are mulled over, one of the subjects touched on that fascinates me to no end is the rise in popularity of the TV Anti-Hero.
When you look at the evolution of television programming from the 50s to today, you may notice what would be considered the groundbreaking moments. Those moments that changed things. Television has been the vessel that helped break down walls. You’ve got your Mary Tyler Moore and Murphy Brown who helped change the dynamic of women characters on the small screen. You have your M.A.S.H. which still reigns as one of the most successful series of all time that put a magnifying glass on humanity during wartime. I suppose it’s also safe to say that Hawkeye Pierce was an “Anti Hero” in his own right.
That being said, it’s pretty safe to say we are experiencing the magnificence of a second Golden Age Of Television. Audiences are more mature and the long form narrative of TV story telling has helped to open doors to more engaging and compelling programming than ever before. And with the maturation of the TV show format has come the prevalence of the TV Anti-Hero.
We’ve come a long way since the days of Gun Smoke and Howdy Doody and honestly, given our current economic and societal landscape, there’s a pretty good chance these guys wouldn’t stand a ghost of a chance against the line-up below.
James Gandolfini, “The Sopranos”
He could be called “The Godfather” of anti-heroes. I mean, he did burst down the proverbial door, right? Mr. Soprano struggled to maintain his family unit, while taking apart that of other mob families. Not a very faithful husband, he also dealt with ongoing anxiety issues which helped create a multi layered main character that helped carry the award winning series through all six seasons.
Michael K Williams “The Wire”
What started off as a bit character, turned into one of the most beloved of HBO’s The Wire. Omar Little could easily be considered a rogue gunslinger, if we’re speaking in Old West lingo. As the ghetto version of Robin Hood, Little would spend his days robbing drug dealers and instilling fear into everyone on the block. Dressed in a long trench coat and carrying a sawed off shotgun, if you hear someone whistling The Farmer In The Dell, you best start running. Cuz Omar comin’!
Michael Chiklis, “The Shield”
There’s something about watching Chiklis’ portrayal of corrupt LAPD detective Vic Mackey that makes me want to lift weights, knock back three shots of whisky, and run shirtless through the busy streets of Downtown Los Angeles. But I’m also kinda nutty. Mackey and his Strike Team held their reign of terror by beating suspects, stealing money and drugs from criminals for their own personal gain and even committing murder in order to get the job done.
Mary-Louise Parker, “Weeds”
Nancy Botwin is a hot housewife who lives in suburbia. She also grows and sells marijuana, literally gets in bed with a Mexican drug cartel, beds everyone in her path and goes to jail all while raising three kids. Sexy.
Edie Falco, “Nurse Jackie”
Hmmm…here’s the concept of an unfaithful wife who is addicted to pain pills that works as a nurse in a hospital emergency room. I’ve been to my fair share of ERs in my life and this character seems way too believable to make me feel any sense of comfort. My idea of comfort aside, though, the character of Jackie Peyton does help make compelling TV.
Hugh Laurie, “House”
And speaking of compelling TV, Dr. Gregory House recently said goodbye to television audiences after eight seasons. Addicted to Vicodin, misanthropic, unorthodox in his methods while mostly successful in saving patients’ lives, Dr. House was to the serialized TV Medical Drama what Sherlock Holmes is to, well, everyone.
Enoch “Nucky” Thompson
Steve Buscemi, “Boardwalk Empire”
A newcomer to this list is also the only character here based on an actual historical figure. Enoch “Nucky” Thompson is the corrupt treasurer of Atlantic County who has shown throughout the three seasons of Boardwalk Empire that he is not opposed to getting in bed with bootleggers, fixing the mayoral vote, bribing judges and ultimately murdering the competition. Welcome to New Jersey!
Charlie Hunnam, “Sons Of Anarchy”
Who knew a show about a fictional motorcycle club would gain huge ratings and popularity from television audiences? While every member of SAMCRO are ruthless and will stop at nothing to get what they want, their leader Jax Teller is the all encompassing “bad boy” of the group. He’s easy on the eyes, he’s intelligent and won’t hesitate to murder anyone who gets in the way of him and his family. Fighting constantly with his own set of morals, he definitely has good intentions even if they are hiding behind his gun and fists.
Jon Hamm, “Mad Men”
Remember earlier when I mentioned the TV heroes of the 50s and 60s? Yeah, well here’s a guy who actually exists in a fictional version of that time. Mad Men’s Don Draper is a womanizer, an alcoholic (probably), an egomaniac and a lying identity thief. What a horrible person, yet oh so dapper and handsome that most men seem to want to be him. Kinda.
Michael C. Hall, “Dexter”
While I have lost a little bit of faith in the past few seasons of Dexter, I can still safely say that Dexter Morgan is one of my favorite television characters. He’s the one we root for. He’s the handsome hero (anti) of the show. And he’s also a serial killer who off’s people who fall under his “code”. Meaning, he only murders bad people deserving of death (most of the time anyway). I mean, how many times have you wanted to get away with killing some asshole who did some horrendous thing? Zero? Yeah…err….me neither.
Andrew Lincoln, “The Walking Dead”
Back in Season 1, of AMC’s The Walking Dead, Rick Grimes was quite the good boy hero. But throughout the trip that has landed us in the middle of Season 3, a lot has changed. He’s had to kill his best friend, deal with his wife’s demise, all while murdering hordes of zombies and trying to uphold the great responsibility of keeping his posse safe. In a world where the dead walk and society has crumbled, the law doesn’t mean much of anything anymore. And the difference between right and wrong is just grey area.
Kiefer Sutherland, “24”
What’s the difference between Rick Grimes and Jack Bauer? Well, Agent Bauer doesn’t need a world full of zombies to murder and torture people all in the name of “The Greater Good”. For eight seasons, Mr. Bauer was the biggest TV action hero. But given his methods in getting the job done (getting addicted to heroine, murdering a close friend, kidnapping a corrupt President) you can’t help but give him the “Anti Hero” title. I mean, while he did all this crazy shit, it was still in the vein of keeping America safe. Now, let’s waterboard the shit outta Fox and get this 24 movie finally made!
Bryan Cranston, “Breaking Bad”
A High school chemistry teacher gets diagnosed with Cancer and instead of giving up, decides he’ll cook meth so he can make a shit load of money to leave to his family once he dies. If only his hunger for power and ego didn’t get in the way! Walter White from Breaking Bad is one of the most interesting and complex characters that has ever graced television screens. We all agree, even with the good intentions he began with, that he’s quite deserving of whatever comeuppance he gets. And with the second half of Season 5 just months away, you best believe I’ll be rooting for Walt and Hank in equal measure.
Honorable mention goes to Homeland’s Sgt. Nicholas Brody, Hell On Wheels’ Cullen Bohannon and All In The Family’s Archie Bunker.
So, who are your favorite television Anti-Heroes? I’m dying to find out.
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