Think about your favorite television shows. Think about your favorite character. Is he a power-hungry politician? Is he maybe a motorcycle gang member, or is he a narcissistic philanderer in ad sales? Do you root for the man cooking the meth or the DEA agent trying to stop him? Do you root for the savior or the criminal?
Our generation has entered into a new era, which many are deeming “The Golden Age” or “The Dawn” of television. And with this Golden Age comes a new type of character — a new leading role — that’s been the staple piece of almost every Emmy-nominated program. It’s the man who lies and cheats. It’s the woman who trades sex for favors, deals weed in gated communities and sleeps with married men. It is the anti-hero.
The anti-hero is the protagonist who does not have the traditional qualities of the admirable leading man or woman. He or she lacks courage, kindness and nobility, but most notably, moral goodness. It’s a character wrought with flaws and demons, disregarding the normal societal processes for his or her own agenda. It’s become a compelling phenomenon based on the concept that we are rooting for someone who is violating everything we’ve ever known as right.
The best example of the anti-hero archetype is “Breaking Bad.” The AMC series was the first national celebration of the anti-hero since “The Sopranos.” An entire nation was found rooting for a meth lord who turned to murder and betrayal to keep his empire functioning. We watch the dissolution of his marriage, friendships and career in an attempt to gain power and wealth.
We watched him turn from an acquiescent chemistry teacher to a power-hungry drug dealer and still never faltered in our allegiance and devotion to him. It’s a strange thing when you step away from the man you’ve been idolizing and look at him as who he really is: a criminal, a madman and villain.
As a whole, we have come to celebrate the reign of the flawed men and women who stand in the spotlight. From “Breaking Bad,” “American Horror Story,” “The Sopranos,” “Girls,” “Boardwalk Empire,” almost every show we love is led by a flawed character — a man or woman with questionable actions and motives — always self-serving and determined to succeed at any cost.
We follow these characters throughout their journeys: their quests for redemption, fame, fortune and love — the same common goals we find ourselves longing after. And like ourselves, we see the selfishness that comes with attaining goals and dreams. We watch other people commit betrayal and wrongdoing that comes with human nature.
Unlike the shows of our parents’ generation, when the main characters were examples of the ideal American citizen, housewife, husband or child, these main characters are the undesirables, the flawed and the evil that encompasses the true American culture, not just projections of what we want it to be.
But why do we love them? Why do we find ourselves rooting for the ones who steal, lie and cheat? Why do we support the ones who sell meth and murder innocents? The ones who betray their lovers, alienate their friends and get even at any cost. What does this say about us?
It says we’re realistic; we understand the true fabric of what makes this country great, the flaws of the people and their selfish motives. We live in an age of divorce, corruption and celebrity meltdowns, realizing at a young age that no one is perfect and watching someone perfect isn’t what we want to see. We want to see the people like us, the people with flaws and mixed morals. We want to watch the people who don’t know how to behave correctly all the time and don’t always make the morally correct decision.
We love them because it’s cathartic to love them. They make us feel better about those lies we told and those acts of betrayal. We don’t feel so bad about our own mistakes and flaws when we see others doing the same.
Here’s why the anti-hero is the most relateable character on TV today:
They’re Flawed Like We Are
One of the main things that attracts us so much to the anti-hero is the relatability. Since there is no such thing as a perfect person, why would we want to watch one on screen? Empathy is one of the strongest emotions we have and being able to understand a character, even when he is murdering innocents and betraying loved ones, has a very profound effect.
Life isn’t simple and neither are we. We are all racked with insecurities, demons and regrets. We like to watch people with emotions and hardships like ours. We expect the characters that we’ve invested so much time in to have the same complex emotions as ourselves. A housewife who is always chipper and happy isn’t realistic; we can’t relate to her.
Like the hero, the anti-hero is also strong, even if he doesn’t have the same moral grounding. He is determined, not letting anything get in his way, which usually is what leads him to take the immoral path. We respect the anti-hero because he demands respect. He is a force to be reckoned with.
Their Intentions Are Admirable
While their actions may be questionable, their motives are always pure. In the case of Walter White, the chemistry teacher only took to meth dealing to provide for his family in a time of need. Though his actions were corrupt, his motives were pure. As Machiavelli pointed out, the ends justify the means, right?
Photo credit: Batman
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