The rise of the TV anti-hero – why do we love them so?

After the ground-breaking success of The Sopranos, TV series gradually taken a turn to the dark side with their questionable morals and pervasive brutality.

After the ground-breaking success of The Sopranos, TV series gradually taken a turn to the dark side with their questionable morals and pervasive brutality. Why rather than condemn their crimes, are we lured in and we left wanting more?

The successful TV shows that we have seen in the last decade, started to differ from the cliché Hollywood scenario and instead portray the main character as the antagonist of the story. Take Walter White, Tony Soprano or Dexter Morgan for instance. Definitely, they are not meant to be the sympathetic or aspiring ones. Yet due to the complex (and certainly deliberate) character development, we cannot help but care for them. In reality, none (or at least most) of us would side with a mobster, serial killer or a meth cook. But does anyone watch The Sopranos, Breaking Bad or Dexter hoping that the characters get punished for their crimes, in jail or killed? Looking at the popularity of these shows – I don’t think so.

Breaking Bad, in all five seasons established the reputation of a twisted saga exploring the idea of an American dream turning into a nightmare. But if a film gets an 18 rating for somebody smoking a joint, then how does a show portraying methamphetamine production even exist – and most of all why is it so popular?

The themes behind Breaking Bad, “growth, decay. Transformation.” apply to chemistry; they apply to cancer; and finally to Walter’s metamorphosis from an underrated school teacher to a cold-blooded drug master with no morals, no ethics and no hesitation. The show explores how far a character has to go before you lose all sympathy for them. At the start you meet a nice, ordinary high-school teacher with a pregnant wife and disabled son who is diagnosed with cancer and will soon die, leaving no support to the beloved family. The audience feels sorry for him, wants him to beat the disease, provide for the family…we all want the happy ending for poor Walt. Already we are so captivated and attached to the character that his goal to produce the purest form of meth to get money for treatment, seems justified and almost noble. With each bad decision and its consequences, Walter White changes. He does not feel the need to excuse his actions any more – the power and the adrenaline are the only things keeping him alive. As audience, we might not share his vices, but we share his virtues and sympathise with him because he is still the character we fell for in the beginning.

The success of Breaking Bad, Dexter and Weeds just to name a few is strongly influenced by the audiences’ demands in this bizarre time of TV entertainment. It is the culmination era for ambitious TV series, after the triumph of The Sopranos which created the audience for the genre. Just as we thought that we have seen it all, the producers managed to exceed our expectations once more. The drama of a man trying to be the Man, questioning his priorities and obsessing over the work – solving the problems by demonstrating his manhood, only to discover that it makes the situation even worse.

All these shows gain the popularity, with producers taking the advantage of a vulnerable part of you, wanting to be the Man, fantasising about being born under different circumstances, in different place and time – being a badass like Tony Soprano. Sometimes we are just not that much into our nine-to-five routine and we want to escape. With these TV series giving us the perfect opportunity to experience the thrill of a crime in the comfort of our own living room.

There are different kinds of evil. Even if you appear to be rotten to the core – there must be someone or something you care about. Where is the line of “evil” and how far does a character have to go to cross it. If they do, will you still root for them in some way? After all, it is all part of the entertainment. The fictional series will not convince a sane person that it is acceptable to cook meth or kill people. Even if, it made me regret not paying attention in a chemistry class.