Cultivating sympathy for the devil has been the hallmark of good television for a while now. The best TV dramas of the 21st century revel in interrogating the worlds of fundamentally flawed and, in some cases, thoroughly evil characters. The most interesting, well-known, and avidly followed programs on TV today are obsessed with showcasing the world as a fundamentally damaged place, where the chance for redemption and goodness is often overshadowed by a landscape that values power over justice. We see this on shows like “Mad Men” and “House of Cards,” where wealthy, powerful men run around in fancy suits treating everyone like dirt, just as we see it in more bloody shows like “Breaking Bad,” where power comes at the very cost of goodness. We see it also in fantasy-centered dramas like “American Horror Story” and “Game of Thrones,” worlds of bloody vengeance, where kindness is often portrayed as weakness.
The antihero is no longer a counter culture mainstay, but something that is very pervasive and mainstream. Many TV dramas today assume that goodness is not all that interesting; that goodness is something that should be relegated to the world of humorous sitcoms, the amusing, yet not-very-serious worlds of “How I Met Your Mother,” “The New Girl,” “30 Rock” and “Parks and Recreation.” It’s no surprise that the comedy shows that have garnered the most attention this year were “Louie” and “Girls,” both programs with antihero leads who are often absentmindedly obnoxious and cruel.
A common idea today is that “good” characters are flat, predictable and uncomplicated. This is especially true when we talk about female characters. We fear that women who are good will be soft and weak and bland and boring. A lot of this fear comes from the fact that many of the mainstream female characters we see in Hollywood films are boring as hell—wives and girlfriends and daughters who are as pretty as they are interchangeable. At least the complex Professor Annalise Keating in “How to Get Away with Murder” has swagger in her step. After winning a case for a defendant she knows did the deed Professor Keating takes questions from a reporter, while one of her impressionable law students looks on in awe and admiration. “I want to be her.” she says.
While I love the rich, varied female characters we see coming out of shows like this, it’s a myth that complex, interesting characters cannot be anything other than ruthless. In fact, the characters in all these dramas that are the most engaging have been the ones who have been shown to be vulnerable, and who actively, eagerly want to be good. I love watching Sally on “Mad Men,” a character who is genuinely devastated every time she sees evidence that the world around her is cold and cruel. And my favorite characters in “Breaking Bad” were always Walt Jr. and Jesse, both fragile male figures striving to survive in a world where toughness and swagger will always win over kindness and sensitivity.
Jesse is a particularly rich example of how a character that has a drive to be good doesn’t have to be presented as a “goody-two-shoes”. Throughout the series, Jess is a criminal drug dealer with considerable blood on his hands. But Jesse’s quest to be better, his arc to try and free himself from a life of crime and establish himself as a good man, is infinitely more interesting to me than Walt’s hard boiled descent into evil. My favorite moments in “Breaking Bad” all focus on instances of tenderness rather than brutality: when Jesse and Jane sit on separate chairs watching TV, for example, and slowly reach out to each other to gently touch hands.
As usual, male characters that strive to be good are still seen as inherently more morally complex than female ones. In both “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” as well as the more contemporary “The Hunger Games,” it is the female lead who is the take no prisoners rock ‘em sock ‘em warrior and the male romantic interest—Spike in the case of “Buffy” and Peta in the case of “The Hunger Games”—who is, at a core level, more vulnerable, tender and gentle than the female lead. Goodness in women isn’t presented as morally interesting in the slightest. The trope of the good woman is about as bland as it gets. These are the women who stand by their men, and cry when they are hurt or victimized, but rarely make any choices for themselves. The arc of the strong, female character is always one of toughening up, rather than getting more in touch with her emotions.
One of the reasons I’ve been a fan of Lars Von Trier’s “Golden Hearts Trilogy” is that he allows his vulnerable female protagonists the right to a quest, an existential journey, even if that journey is about self-abnegation or self-sacrifice. Bess’s (Emily Watson) heartbreaking story in “Breaking the Waves,” for example, centers on her desire to be a good wife to her husband, Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), who has been paralyzed in an accident. Bess and Jan’s playful, exuberant and life-affirming sex life fades away completely with his condition, and Jan, drugged up on various pain meds, asks Bess to take on other lovers and tell him about it instead. Bess, a gentle and simple-minded woman, comes to view these requests as an ordainment from God to heal her husband, rather than a fantasy from a deeply injured man.
While some feminists find Bess’s journey deeply misogynistic, I actually think Bess’s strange interpretation is a deeply interesting aspect of her character. Bess is shown to be a woman that is not particularly bright, but who has deep moral convictions that actually run counter to the conservative, male-dominated community in which she lives. Those final moments when church bells ring over Scotland, while her husband Jan heals, seem to confirm and validate Bess’s Christ-like sacrifice.
“Breaking the Waves” is a painful film that forces the viewer to ask a lot of uncomfortable questions about love, faith and sacrifice. All of my favorite films do this in some capacity, oftentimes with a female protagonist at the helm. In “Blue Is The Warmest Color,” Adele and Emma have a passionate physical connection that Adele tries to recapture with Emma after their breakup, but to no avail. Though Adele cheats on Emma she is not shown to be cold and bloodless, the kind of antihero sociopath who fucks with wild abandon, but lacks the ability to connect. Adele’s guilt at the way she betrayed her lover is palpable: fleshy and full, earnest and sorrowful. I was similarly moved when watching “Frances Ha,” Noah Baumbach’s gentle take on Millennial girlhood. How refreshing to see a portrait of a young woman that was complex, without being biting, with Frances, played by the brilliant and talented Greta Gerwig, consistently striving and failing and trying again. Frances’s desire to actually grow up and become a better person, demonstrates a much less cruel and clichéd experience of girlhood, but a no less moving and authentic one.
In fact, one of the films that I found to be the most morally complex and interesting in the past few years was “Her,” Spike Jonze’s brilliant and tender look at what it means to be human in a world of rapidly changing technology. The affectionate exchanges between Samantha and Theodore reflect a world that is complex, changing, but also brimming with the need and desire for human connection. This is also true in the pastel hued world of Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel,” where characters are hilariously flawed, yet still strive for honor, for dignity, for duty and love.
TV’s obsession with the antihero encourages us to overlook and under appreciate moments of tenderness, fragility and honor, moments that are no less important or morally significant than confrontations with cruelty and terror. In a world where epic TV dramas are swaddled in blood money, I’d be excited to see a sophisticated drama that isn’t obsessed with wallowing in shame and showcasing the baser human instincts. In fact, I’d love to see a new show that instead excitedly considers other aspects of the human experience—wonder, awe, joy, a range of different types and kinds of human connections, an acknowledgement that the quest for goodness can be just as interesting and morally complex as the descent into being bad.