Television and Our Connection to the Anti-Hero

A couple weeks ago, NPR released a great piece about the rise in popularity of TV’s anti-heroes.  While short, it identified an interesting trend in how we’re gravitating toward stories with darker, less morally-defined characters.  The topic itself is extremely interesting as it can be examined through so many different cultural lenses.

From award-winning shows like Mad Men and it’s famously self-indulged Don Draper to Dexter with it’s lead serial killer bearing the same name, to shows like Boardwalk Empire with Nucky Thompson, Breaking Bad with Walter White and so many more, you can’t help but notice that the recipe for success for the modern-day drama is a morally-ambiguous anti-hero.

But, let’s take a look at why this recipe is delivering in spades.

The anti-hero is not a new type of character.  They’ve been popularized since spaghetti westerns like the “Man With No Name” or even “Dirty Harry” (Eastwood seems to have had the role locked down), as well as classic comic book characters like Punisher and the Hulk.  The anti-hero has a long history in modern literature as being somehow damaged, and searching for redemption by any means necessary.

Historically, there’s quite a bit we can draw from as evidence for our connection to these morally complex protagonists.  Simply put, there’s a lot of evil in the world.  We’ve seen depressions, two World Wars a Nuclear stand-off, struggles over basic civil rights.  While many of these events have a pretty clear delineation between good and bad, right and wrong, many of the modern day conflicts we face today, do not.

Simply put, modern day society, characterized by more and more divergent beliefs, norms, interests, systems and powerful countries has naturally lead to societal problems of increasing complexity.  We strive to cope with this complexity through simplification, none more clear than through our current political discourse, which is routinely boiled down to it’s most basic and often inaccurate components.  The point being, complexity, which extends into issues of morality (right vs. wrong), as these shows and their characters address, creates a tension for viewers.

But, we can’t address the anti-hero, without first looking at it’s polar opposite, the hero.  And no one has done a better job throughout history of shedding light on this subject than Joseph Campbell.  In his monumental work, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Campbell uses a staggering body of research into comparative mythology to identify the commonalities that exist across all cultures that are used to describe the hero’s journey.  Pulling from every major religion and figures like Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha as well works of literature that span centuries and continents he discovered a recipe that all works of fiction and non-fiction follow on some level.

The term, borrowed from James Joyce, that he used to describe this central journey is known as the monomyth.  Simply stated, it involves a call to adventure, where the hero must decide whether he is to take on the journey presented to him, venture into the unknown where he or she will face numerous trials and obstacles that may result in his destruction.  Eventually, the hero, often with the help of mentors and supernatural forces, experiences a sort of transformation or death and rebirth, only to to return to society with new powers, often in the form of knowledge.  The Buddha’s return following his enlightenment is a good example.

Getting back to the anti-hero in modern day television, I think what we may be seeing is not necessarily that different than this classic monomyth.  However, instead of a clear cut path through conflict and darkness, the journey, and it’s central figures, meander and stray from the path to greater degrees.  The anti-hero’s, beloved in these shows, are permanently damaged, still seeking transformation or peace, but seem far more hopeless with less chance of atonement and return.  Perhaps this allows us to connect with them on a deeper, more personal level.  Perhaps it’s a form of commentary on our irreparably broken and increasingly unequal society.

A more straight-forward explanation could be found in the fact that, it takes a lot these days to keep an audience entertained.  Shock and awe has been taken to extreme levels in the most recent decades (the Saw series of films being top of mind).  With each passing decade, writers are challenged to find a new lens with which to address a limited number of classic story arcs. The anti-hero provides writers with additional flexibility in terms of the thoughts, actions and dilemmas that they can realistically create for the characters and by extension, the viewers.

Also worth noting, is the rise of post-modernism.  With it comes the foundation of an overall questioning of authority and rejection of absolute truths and classifications of right vs. wrong, male vs. female, gay vs. straight, etc.  The conflicts we face in daily life, both externally and internally are frequently without a clearly defined path of action.  Why should the characters that we use as a form of entertainment be any less forgiving to our conscious?  Anything less would risk appearing unrealistic or downright trite.

We also can’t ignore the current state and overall psyche of American culture, as it impacts what viewers are most likely to be receptive to.  Barack Obama, a man literally immortalized, before ever being elected President is perhaps the most significant example of how starved our society is for someone capable of rising above these undoubtedly dark times to remain morally centered when faced with the complexity of modern day problems.  Most will agree that since he has taken office, that “hope” has grown even dimmer than it once was.

Perhaps, a disenfranchised America, rife with the great economic and social inequalities, can no longer realistically hope for the hero in his traditionally perfect and polished existence.  Instead, we connect with the imperfections and fatal flaws of the modern day villain, a much more believable portrait of our eventual savior.

Regardless of the reasoning, all of the fictional characters mentioned above, have been somehow damaged, seemingly beyond repair at some point in their lives.  Draper, as the son of a whore, impoverished and savagely beaten throughout his youth.  Dexter, who watched his mother murdered with a chainsaw, only to sit in her bloody remains for days before his eventual rescue.  All characters, left seemingly without hope at some point.  It is this damage that, in part, creates a point of sympathy for the viewer, giving us reason to grant them with greater moral leniency.  They have been wronged so greatly, that their path towards redemption or transformation is free to use whatever means necessary.  The classic adage, “the ends justify the means,” is, in a sense, completely reversed.

I think these stories are, no doubt, expressly written to connect with the collective mindset of our society, while serving as a sort of commentary on it.  Are we, too, headed down a path so dark that our conventional systems and basic moral goodness will not suffice to evoke the transformation necessary to restore the balance of right and wrong?  Only time will tell.  In the meantime, we’re pacified by fantastically-rich and believable stories of individuals, who have no problem making uncomfortable choices in order to shape a more perfect world (at least in their eyes).



  1. [“Simply put, modern day society, characterized by more and more divergent beliefs, norms, interests, systems and powerful countries has naturally lead to societal problems of increasing complexity.”]

    Complex societal problems have been around for centuries. It’s nothing new. What’s new is that we’re finally starting to acknowledge this and stop viewing our society in a black-and-white manner.

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