Saturday, June 9, 2012

TV Antiheroes: Gregory House and The End of an Era

2012 may be the end of an era for fans of the antihero, at least on television.  I recently watched the series finales of two successful TV procedurals featuring remarkably flawed and unlikeable protagonists.  One of them took the antihero to a hight never before seen on TV, at least, not by me.  With the demise of several other antihero-centric programs in recent years I suspect we will never see such an extreme collection of protagonists on the small screen again.

In the comic book world, giving heroes serious personal problems was pioneered by Marvel in the 1960's, giving us the self-pitying Thing and sometimes unemployed Spider-Man.  This certainly made fantastic characters easier to relate to but it was usually just a heroic Achilles' heel with a humanizing twist.  As the 21st Century got going television moved beyond standard heroic protagonists with charming or dramatic flaws to full antiheroes, some of whom were not even likable.

The golden age of the TV antihero started at least a decade ago.  On shows like Numb3rs, The Wire, The Shield and NCIS we began to see law enforcement protagonists who not only bent the rules but mistreated their families, lied, were vengeful and in some cases blatantly corrupt, including torturing suspects.  Shows like Dead Like Me, Crossing Jordan, Lie To Me and Grey's Anatomy began to feature central characters who not only make mistakes but treat each other horribly and commit tremendous ethical lapses on the job.  Of course, many of these things have been going on in daytime dramas for decades, where they were part of the rolling, ongoing relational melodrama.  Now we saw it becoming central to the identity of protagonists and plots of prime time procedurals that needed to tie up the crisis of the week in 44 minutes.

The two finales I just watched, In Plain Sight and House, featured very different antiheros but were both part of this trend, which I believe has now peaked.  Mary Shannon of In Plain Sight is a fairly typical TV cop who is also very defensive, critical, cynical and sarcastic.  She's funny, but so chronically negative that the viewer wouldn't want to work with her or have her as a friend.  Gregory House of House is all of these things, but also endlessly cruel and manipulative toward everyone who enters his orbit.  Hough Laurie, as well as House's writers and producers, say Gregory House is inspired by classic antihero Sherlock Holmes.  Holmes was an arrogant genius with a drug problem while House is actively, truly, cruel.

With 24's Jack Bower, Lie To Me's Cal Lightman and Lost's Sawyer, Locke and Jarrah also gone, Dexter Morgan of Dexter may be the last of the early 2000's extreme antiheros still making new episodes.

If you compare these characters to those at the center of earlier dramas like ER, any Star Trek or Law & Order series, Thirtysomething or The X-Files it is clear that something changed.  X-Files' Fox Moulder is flawed and hard to get along with but he isn't cruel and rarely hurts anybody when it's avoidable.  Gregory House is so consistently nasty his fellow characters frequently discuss why they put up with him.

My personal theory is that these trends in television are directly related to the US going to war in 2001.  The myth of the good war is dead.  We all know, whether we openly acknowledge it or not, that war involves doing bad things.  To process this, we need protagonists who are not only flawed, but maybe not even good people.  Through Gregory House being horrible to everyone he meets while saving lives, we try to work out age old questions about ends justifying the means, but with an added urgency and extremity.  War hightens everything.

As the US wars in Iraq and Afganistan slowly burn themselves out we are starting to put these extreme antiheroes aside in favor of less challenging characters.  The CSI franchise continues much as it has, and Weeds still explores what a mother will do to take care of her family.  Protagonists that you would really never want to meet are on their way out.

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