January 19, 2022

Matter and antimatter, hero and antihero

As I believe I've mentioned before, I don't watch a lot of contemporary television. There are a few shows I make a point of checking out—well, one, at least—but aside from sports and the odd special, I mostly stick to my streaming and DVD favorites. I've wondered about this, more than once. Last week I offered one possible reason for it; today, I'm back with another. 

There seems to be little doubt, based on what I've read anyway, that the family in the HBO series Succession is one of the most disagreeable, disgusting, dysfunctional, and loathsome families seen on television this side of Helter Skelter. It's also one of the most popular on prestige cable, at least when it comes to critical acclaim and social media conversation. And it isn't just me who thinks this; at The Ringer, Andrew Gruttadaro describes one member of the family thusly: "Josh is just like the rest of the far-too-wealthy assholes in this craven world, treating humans like toys and turning into a playground bully at the faintest sniff of power."

As you know, I like watching television—probably more than I should. But a steady diet of this? Seriously, why would anyone get any pleasure out of watching a bunch of clowns like these, especially when the only people who appear capable of taking them down are other clowns who are just as bad, just as selfish and greedy, just as opportunistic and exploitative? I mean, can you actually enjoy something like this? 

What we witness in these programs is the rise of the antihero, the central character you love to hate.* If you were paying attention in your high school science class (or to any science fiction movie or series), you know that matter and antimatter particles are always produced as a pair, and if they come into contact, they annihilate one another, leaving behind pure energy. Now, producing pure energy is, or should be, the ultimate goal of the creative process; how many times have we approvingly noted that a show has such energy that it jumps off the screen? But just as matter requires antimatter to produce energy, I contend that an antihero requires a hero in order to produce the energy that is required for entertainment. Take The Fugitive, for example; its paring of Richard Kimble and Philip Gerard is essential to creating the dynamic, the energy, that keeps the show going. Try to imagine The Fugitive without Gerard; Kimble might still be on the run from the cop du jour, but it's nowhere near as enthralling a chase as it is with Gerard as an adversary. (Even though Gerard is only in less than a fourth of the episodes, he hovers over all the rest like the sword of Damocles.)  And a diet consisting only of antiheroes, just like a diet exclusively of desserts, is eventually going to make you sick, no matter how appealing it might seem at first.

*Said to have started with Tony Soprano, the head of the crime family featured in The Sopranos. 

When I think back to my own viewing habits, the closest proximity I can come up with to a show like Succession is the original House of Cards, the brilliant British black comedy (not the American version!*) on corrupt politics and politicians, and its two sequels. There, too, the focus of the story is an antihero—Francis Urquhart, the scheming MP who becomes prime minister utilizing a backstage campaign of blackmail and murder—and the unfortunates who oppose him, most of whom have their own feet embedded in clay. A neutral observer might despair at watching such a cesspool of unlikable characters.

*Which I haven't seen and wouldn't comment on.

There's a difference, though, I think. In the hands of the great Ian Richardson, Urquhart has a certain irresistible charm; his constant breaking of the fourth wall draws us in, makes us co-conspirators in his nefarious plots. We start out in each series rooting against him, but find ourselves drawn into his orbit, in spite of ourselves, hoping that he might get away with it one more time. We never lose sight of his misdeeds, which are grave indeed, but Richardson's performance makes Urquhart a human being, an insecure man despite all his outward confidence, a weak man who turns to evil in an effort to draw strength. One can look at him and see the kernel of a decent man down there, deep inside him, buried under layers and layers of corruption over years and years of working in a dirty, cynical business. It's no stretch to compare him to Willie Stark, the antihero of All the King's Men, to imagine Urquhart as a man who got into politics with (at least partially) noble ideas, only to have them slowly erased as he learns how the political game is played. And when Urquhart, at the end of the final chapter (The Final Cut) does, in fact, meet his comeuppance, it carries little of the satisfaction that we might have hoped for at the beginning.

I don't know if it's fair to compare House of Cards to Succession, partly because we don't know how the latter will end, and partly because of the difference between American and British television, which is profound. Perhaps somewhere within the Roy family, there is a character with a spark of human decency and ethics, someone who can draw the viewer in without making us feel as if we need a bath afterward. What we do know, however, is that the antihero has become a staple of storytelling today. Look at Tony Soprano and his cohorts in The Sopranos; look at Breaking Bad's Walter White, or Dexter's eponymous serial killer. We may sympathize with each of them at one time or another, but ultimately they cross a line that makes it impossible for us to follow them.  

There's a point I've made many times before, an observation from the dramatist Dorothy L. Sayers, that the central theme of a murder mystery is the restoration of the world to truth through the equilibrium of justice; if justice is not dispensed, the equilibrium does not exist, and the mystery fails. We all know that life is the greatest drama of all, as well as the greatest mystery, and that the equilibrium of justice, in the form of the battle between good and evil—between matter and antimatter, hero and antihero—is one of the existential foundations of life. 

What I'm getting at here is that one of the things classic television has going for it is that, many times, it is simply more enjoyable to watch than what one sees on screen today. In our age, "wholesome" has become a synonym for bland, unrealistic, old-fashioned; and this can be true, especially if the result puts the viewer into a diabetic coma, or when the purpose is to preach, to proselytize, to make storytelling secondary to speechifying. That's not to say that the story must be brainless, its themes witless; rather, it's that you're never going to get your point across if you're not good at telling a story. Those programs that make antiheroes the heart of their storytelling may well be great storytellers as well as talented artists, but the portraits they present are ugly, dark, dehumanizing ones. When we are fed a constant menu of antiheroes, missing the subtext of that struggle, or lacking the hope of redemption, should it be any surprise that we've become a culture of self-involved, narcissistic individuals, brooding and depressed, without much hope or much to strive for? Is it a coincidence that, to me at least, the rise of the antihero coincides with the fall of contemporary television?

And so we come back around to the beginning, and if the primary purpose of television is to entertain, then close behind it is the need to strike the sympathetic chord, to get the viewer to identify with what he or she sees on screen. I don't know about you, but I face enough darkness in real life, and when I turn on the television, when I stream the latest hit drama or comedy, I don't want to be surrounded by people I don't like, people I'm not meant to like. I don't want to identify with the Tony Sopranos, the Walter Whites, the Logan Roys of the world. It all reminds me of something the late Peter Bogdanovich once said to writer Peter Tonguette, speaking of directors like John Boorman, William Friedkin, and Martin Scorsese: "They all deal with stereotypes or gangster figures who are sort of stereotypical or aberrations of human behavior, like Raging Bull, but not real human beings. They’re sort of monsters." These characters may be realistic, but are they real?

Not every story has a happy ending (especially true ones), but often the unhappiness comes from falling short, from striving and failing to attain a higher end, whether it be romance, victory, or justice. The story doesn't necessarily have to be uplifting: but a little decency wouldn't hurt. TV  


  1. Great post. I've watched a few of these type of shows (Mad Men is my second favorite TV show of all-time, behind The Dick Van Dyke Show), you're right, a steady diet of them would eventually exhaust me, and I hate how critics are always trying to push them on me because edginess and grit and cynicism are somehow more "real" and make for a more a "quality" TV show.

  2. I've rarely seen & never subscribed to HBO, so I have very little familiarity w/ most of its trashy programming. I do think the popularity of folks like Tony Soprano & Walter White are a sign of societal decline. I also despise "edgy" programming. After all, what's "edgy" when all the edges are gone. That's probably why I spend the majority of my tv-watching time on FETV & MeTV.

  3. I find one common denominator in such shows - they inhabit worlds in which God does not exist. Thank you for another excellent piece.


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