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RISE OF THE ANTI-HERO IN FILM & TV
Most of the cutting-edge shows of the past 15 years or so have come from cable TV. Shows like Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, and Dexter would never have been green-lighted by the networks, but seem to be the standard to which cable TV strives. Why can cable produce this superior level of programming? What is it that makes the shows so special? Let's take a look.
Network vs. Cable TV
Historically, the networks have played it safe when picking shows for their lineup. There are two reasons for this.
First, networks cater to a very large audience and try to avoid offending segments of it. This typically results in "vanilla" programming. Second, networks demand a huge profit margin from a show compared to cable.
Even a critically acclaimed show with a strong following may be dropped for no apparent reason after one or two seasons. This is usually done without warning or consideration to the loyal fans.
Heavily touted shows like V and The Event, disappeared without a trace, screwing the fans that invested many hours watching them. When this happens you can be sure that the bottom line was not fat enough.
For a show to survive on Network TV it must have a truly large following which results in the required profit margin. A good example is ABC's Lost, which ran for six seasons.
Cable, on the other hand, has been consistently aggressive when it comes programming. Four, five, six, seasons of great storytelling is the norm. You don't have to worry that your show will disappear without unresolved storylines.
What is it that makes a show "cutting edge?" Well the obvious aspects are subject matter and execution.
Whether it's a serial killer that kills serial killers (Dexter) or the brutality of sword fighting (Spartacus), network TV simply cannot air it for fear of offending some viewers. Cable has different standards because viewers actively seek out these shows and pay for certain channels.
Not so obvious in the making of a cutting-edge show is the characterizations. Because the shows are ongoing, different aspects of a character can be explored in-depth.
Unlike network dramas, the characters found on cable TV are not simply drawn in black and white, good and bad. Rather, the good and bad in each character are exposed. In fact, the true nature of many characters is a bit ambiguous because the good and bad offset each other.
Perhaps the most important aspect of a cutting-edge show is that the main character is usually an anti-hero. An anti-hero is a character that has overriding bad traits, but despite this, the audience identifies with him.
The identification can be based on the anti-hero's plight, a common trait with the viewer, or the fact that the character is just plain likeable. Sometimes it's simply because the character is exciting to watch (i.e., "the bad guy you love to hate").
Emergence of the Anti-Hero
The ant-hero was rarely seen in films made under the studio system. In old Hollywood, the good guy was "good" and the bad guy was "bad."
Things began to change in the 1970s, particularly with the movie Taxi Driver. The main character, Travis Bickle, was a sociopath, but audiences identified with him on some level. The same was true for Michael Corleone of Godfather fame.
The anti-hero began to appear on cable TV with shows like the Sopranos. Tony Soprano was a vicious killer but audiences took to him. Perhaps because they could see the vulnerability in certain aspects of his life. For example, the early seasons explored his anxiety attacks and unhappy childhood.
The important point here is that despite Tony's bad traits, the audience is able to relate to him strongly on some level. This is true for the great anti-heroes that have followed, including Walter White (Breaking Bad), Jax Teller (Sons of Anarchy), Nucky Thompson (Boardwalk Empire), etc.
In fairness to Hollywood, the anti-hero is a difficult character to portray in a 100-minute movie. The reason is that you simply need a lot of time to develop the many aspects of the character's personality.
To realistically convey both good and bad traits may take many scenes and situations, perhaps several storylines. Ditto for creating audience identification. Consequently, the anti-hero is the most complex of all film and TV characters.
The most difficult challenge is running the fine line between good and bad. If a character becomes too good, the story turns "soapish," if the character becomes too bad, audiences may no longer identify.
Toward the end The Sopranos, Tony was more bad than good, and audiences had a difficult time relating to him. Walter White, however, managed to stay the middle ground of a true anti-hero throughout the run of Breaking Bad. A difficult feat indeed. Hats off to the writers! -Lou LaVolpe
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