Saturday, April 26, 2014

"And then a hero comes along...." - Or maybe not

Last year's post, Thoughts on Crime and Morality, touched on something that has continued to tease my ponderings, especially while watching DVDs of two seasons of Showtime's TV series Homeland. This is another acclaimed and award-winning series without the traditional "hero" figure at its core. A cluster of such series has emerged during the last several years, some I've watched in full, or in part, others I've only read about. Critics and reviewers tend to group these series together as shows with an "anti-hero" figure as lead character. Breaking Bad's Walter White was a classic example, as was Tony of The Sopranos. I understand the lead character of Dexter was another, and the same goes for the lead in Wired. Mad Men's Don Draper character kind of fits, but without quite as much murder, mayhem and bloodshed. There are others too.

Homeland has as its anti-hero a mentally scarred, damaged and conflicted marine sergeant and former prisoner of war in the Middle East, Nicholas Brody. Also in the photograph below, the bi-polar but brilliantly talented and insightful CIA agent Carrie Mathieson. Damian Lewis and Clare Danes play those parts superbly.

I wonder whether the cluster of these 'em "anti-hero series" for want of a more accurate term, came about due to writers copy-catting, keeping up with another channels' award-winners? Or was it simply a communal need by writers and audiences to get away from old well-worn patterns of white hat/black hat, good/bad, hero/heroine syndromes ? Or... was it perhaps something even deeper, affected by events in the real world?

Anti-heroes have, of course, been around since early man first told stories to listeners sitting around fires under the moon. Anti-heroes have popped up here and there in literature throughout the centuries, as well as in film and TV nearer to our own time: think of, for instance, Rhett Butler and/or Scarlett O'Hara (Gone with the Wind), Captain Ahab (Moby Dick), Paul Kersey, the vigilante in the Death Wish film series, "V"in V for Vendetta. However, the current crop, or indeed glut, of anti-hero series, has been a definite, noticeable trend.

In past decades, movies and TV had been honour-bound to follow a code of conduct aimed at protecting the morality of audiences. The first ‘General Principle’ of the Code was :
No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
Could the recent widespread popularity of anti-hero tales be a reflection of life as she is currently lived, or at least perceived, by the masses? After World War 2, in mid-20th century there was a definite moral tone around, a clear difference between right and wrong was easy to discern. The ultimate evil of Nazi atrocities was still fresh in memory; returning soldiers, airmen and sailors were templates for heroes, families were re-united, better ways of life were envisioned. During the ensuing Cold War there were tales told of spies and counter spies, with a passing anti-hero involved here and there, but as the exception rather than the norm.

From the late 20th century to today, things have not been clear-cut. We've seen undeclared wars, conflicts and occupations, with no well-defined enemy. Without much imagination, the US and the UK could even have been seen as anti-heroic nations: think Vietnam, Korea, Northern Ireland, Falklands, constant mixes and matches in the Middle East (too many to list), coming right up to Afghanistan and Iraq. There was moral ambiguity aplenty, in those conflicts, not to mention on the home front where lies and manipulations from high places came thick and fast. Sex scandals wall-to-wall, Watergate, surveillance, drone strikes, the rot and corruption at the heart of things was becoming clearer as time passed. The scales have fallen from our collective eyes...or should have! The world isn't a chummy-scrummy ol' place where Pollyanna would feel at home, with police wearing white hats, and criminals decked in black, wrongdoers, especially those in high places, always getting their just deserts. We know this, because we've seen it - not on TV or on the silver screen - but in real life.

Is there really any wonder then, that TV shows such as Breaking Bad and Homeland resonate so well for so many?

I was fascinated by both the Walter White and Nicholas Brody characters, thanks in no small part to the talent of actors Bryan Cranston and Damian Lewis.

In Breaking Bad Walter White's first steps on his "road to Hell" were taken due to his terminal cancer diagnosis, and the need to spend most of his savings to obtain the best possible treatment, meaning there'd be nothing to leave for his wife and his two children's education and welfare. Root cause: shitty US corporate healthcare system. His first steps to cooking meth, though misguided, were capable of eliciting audience sympathy due to his motive. Once elicited, that sympathy was quite hard to let go!

In Homeland's story, the audience had to feel sympathy for marine Brody, a returning POW, after 8 years of imprisonment and torture in the Middle East. We initially resented the idea that he had been "turned" - broken - by long-term tortures inflicted upon him. Through plot twists and turns our loyalties wavered a wee bit, but once some details of his captivity came to light, I for one was rooting for him all the way to the end (which we haven't actually seen, as season 3 isn't available on DVD yet, but I've read spoilers). A secret US drone attack which killed 80 children was involved in what made Brody into the damaged and conflicted man he was to become.

Those two anti-heroes were the kind of anti-heroes I prefer.

I didn't warm at all to Tony and The Sopranos, that series didn't impress me one bit. We watched most of 3 seasons, had no wish to see more. Mad Men and Don Draper were interesting for the first 4 seasons, but it since has lost its sheen and novelty. There was no initial moral motive present in either of those series, just selfish greed for satisfaction, revenge or power. For my taste, without some semblance of a motive for which I could find sympathy, those two anti-hero stories failed. It's understandable why Mad Men has been successful, but for reasons unrelated to its anti-hero figure(s). It still remains a mystery to me why The Sopranos was such a huge hit for so long though.


mike said...

Well, I have to take a "pass" for the series that you discuss today, as I don't have cable and haven't seen any of them. My mind is a bit blank today, but "Robin Hood & His Merry Men", "Frankenstein" and "Sherlock Holmes" comes to mind and I'm sure there are countless others. I suppose Charlotte of "Charlotte's Web" could be, too. Real-life James Dean.

More along the lines of made-for-cable programming, is PBS' Masterpiece Theater's "Sherlock Holmes" series, with Benedict Cumberbatch as the 21st century Sherlock, is replete with the anti-hero theme. Modern Sherlock is presented as an asexual or sexually confused, verging toward psychopath with questionable morals and ethics, occasionally drug using, individual possibly with Asperger's syndrome. Can't help but admire the guy...LOL.

Wiki list of fictional anti-heroes:

♥ Sonny ♥ said...

Loved the Sopranos.. watch it in real time on hbo and then twice more on netflix..

I was born in NY and raised several years on long island- lots of family in NJ:) my godfathers name was Joe Socco - short for Joseph Soccirino.
To me he was wonderful and always a Hero. To people who owed him money,not so wonderful:):)
I do understand the lifestyle well and appreciate it in many ways, but not all and in these times much of the honor is gone, sorry to say.

Twilight said...

mike ~ I understand - and wouldn't have seen any of these myself were it not for the wonder of DVDs! :-) I still cannot stand to watch any in real time -complete with commercial breaks every 7 minutes or so.

Robin Hood? Hmm - I'd put him in the hero pile myself; but the modern depiction of Sherlock Holmes (TV series) you describe sounds like another for the 21st century pile of anti-hero characters. Charlotte ? Another hero! :-)

Thanks for the Wiki list - yes they've been around forever, these anti-heroes, though TV has spawned its own up-to-date versions, and found a very ready and appreciative audience.

Twilight said...

Sonny ~ "Sopranos" has retained such a strong following - it must have much to recommend it - yet I just couldn't warm to it at all, I feel the same about the 3 "Godfather" movies. I must have a blind spot.

I suppose it must be that, for me the "mob" connection to Italy is the very opposite of all that I admire about that country myself - its art, its style, its creativity. :-)

Vanilla Rose said...

Yes, there's a cartoon going round where Walter White lives in Canada, doesn't have to go broke paying for cancer treatment and carries on with his previous life much as before. Certainly without selling meth.

Twilight said...

Vanilla Rose ~ Yes, I've seen that one - LOL! And numerous other characters wouldn't have met their untimely ends.
But we'd have missed some superb acting.

Anonymous said...

Twilight, I'm with you. I never liked the Sopranos and found the series boring. I guess if you lived far removed from that type of person you might be intrigued but I grew up in a city (not NY) where the mob was part of the culture:they were someone you discussed like a relative.They were okay because they only killed each other. My husband is from the area in North Jersey where the series takes place...he watched every week and the re-runs.
I'm still hooked on Mad Men only because I watched from the beginning and want to see how it comes down. I was losing interest last season but with the bi-coastal aspect this year, my interest has perked up. Plus, it is now 1969 and that was a very volitile year and Mad Men is expert at combining the plot with real life events.

Twilight said...

Anonymous ~ Oh: "they only kill each other".... in real life. I guess that's something to be thankful for! :-)

I shall await the final Mad Men season's release on DVD I think. I too would like to see how each character turns out finally. I used to find the series quite addictive early on, as we binge-watched the early seasons on DVD.
Once we had to watch in real time, on TV, the wait between episodes became a frustration. Same thing might have happened with Boston Legal, West Wing, and others if we hadn't been such latecomers to the feast and so could view the whole caboodle via DVD.

We did watch the last season of Breaking Bad in real time, and managed to see it through though.