by Matt McGuire (WG’16)
Congratulations – you live in the “Golden Age of Television”. Top-tier TV programming now is of a quality rivaling great film, and the longer duration of a multi-season show allows for more complex storylines and in-depth exploration of the human experience than either cinema or theater can provide. This era began when HBO proved quality television could be profitable with The Sopranos, creating imitators and spawning a renaissance yielding the plethora of artistic achievements that are either still running or available for binge-watching online. However, some TV reviewers and culture writers seek to caveat this era with a handwringing critique of its core values. Specifically, these critics assert ad nauseam that the ubiquity of unethical protagonists reflect poorly on the creators and consumers of Golden Age TV.
Before I get into why this notion is absurd, I will concede that it is peculiar that so many main characters are “difficult” (Brett Martin’s descriptor) individuals. From murderers like Tony Soprano and Walter White, to narcissists like Don Draper and Hannah Horvath, “bad” lead characters do awful things. But to extrapolate, as the handwringers do, that these characters represent the values (or lack-thereof) of their creators defies logic. Sara Benincasa of Jezebel says it best: “… here is a fun thing that is true: depiction of bad behavior does not constitute endorsement of said bad behavior.” Lena Dunham is not advocating for sociopath-level self-absorption by writing and playing Hannah as a self-absorbed sociopath. This should be obvious.
The more nuanced handwringer argues that it is OK to portray deviant and anti-social characters, but they must be shown suffering for their nefarious deeds. The nuance of this position does not make it any less preposterous. This standard would reduce every plotline to either moral parable or Tarantino-style revenge porn. Art can reflect any aspect of reality, and it’s a bizarrely Calvinist worldview to think that the quality of one’s life is directly proportional to the content of one’s character. Clichés like “nice guys finish last” and “only cream and bastards rise” exist for a reason. A body of work that neglected circumstances in which unethical people live good lives would neglect important and interesting aspects of the human experience.
Other critics concede this much, fretting instead over the audience. This whining is as old as the Golden Age itself, beginning with concern over fan sympathy for Tony. It reached deafening volumes as Walter White broke Bad and viewers continued to play for “Team Walt”, and will most likely characterize the cultural conversation once Mad Men’s final half season begins on April 13. Complaints from the usual circles get more vocal as a series nears an end and the audience expresses the desire that their flawed protagonist come out on top – or if not that, at least dodge the tragic ending that ought to come in a perfect moral universe.
The naysayers maintain that when a fan feels an affinity towards a bad main character, they expose themselves as possessing the same character flaws as the fictional beings with whom they empathize – i.e., fans who felt a connection to Tony or Walt revealed their inner bloodlust. There is a certain logic to this, but it is in fact exactly backwards.
Our affinity for these malevolent protagonists does not expose an innate darkness; it reveals something laudable about us as human beings. Empathy is the key value that holds society together. People empathize with who they know. This knowledge comes from proximity, and viewers feel closer to the protagonist of a show because that character gets the most screen time (the exception to this rule? Underwood in House of Cards). Sopranos fans watched Tony raise a family; it is an affirmation of a better part of our human nature that we did not want to see him slaughtered, even though we knew of his horrible crimes. The feeling of not wanting to see someone you know suffer, even if he or she deserves it, is healthy. So go ahead- root for the bad guy. Empathy is better than sadism, and when you root for any Golden Age transgressive you express your preference for the former over the latter.