At one point in the hilarious 2005 comedy “Wedding Crashers,” Jeremy Grey, played by Vince Vaughn, tells a woman, “I’m not perfect, but who are we kidding? Neither are you.” And you know what? He’s right.
We human beings are imperfect by our very nature. All of us make mistakes, and some of us are genuinely bad people. For all I know, you’re one of them — for all you know, I am too — so it makes perfect sense that when it comes to entertainment today, we live in the age of the antihero.
Let’s delve into exactly what this new era in the film and television arts looks like. Take a second and come up with a couple of your favorite TV dramas from the past ten years or so — I’ll wait.
Here are five of mine, in no particular order:
The shows I chose all have two important characteristics in common: they are (or were) huge hits with both critics and audiences alike, and each one of their worlds revolves around an antihero all-star. In my eyes, Walter White from “Breaking Bad,” Don Draper from “Mad Men,” Francis “Frank” Underwood from “House of Cards,” Omar Little from “The Wire” and Tony Soprano from “The Sopranos” are some of the most noteworthy characters in television history. Their faces are carved into my antiheroic Mount Rushmore; they are the immoral elite.
Mild-mannered chemistry teacher Walter White transforms into a monstrous meth kingpin. Don Draper is an unbridled alcoholic, identity thief, serial adulterer, shameless womanizer and worst of all, advertising executive. Smooth-talking politician Frank Underwood deceives and manipulates people for a living, which is not a statement of hyperbole. Omar Little stands out from a massive and colorful cast of characters as a career criminal, thief and murderer, albeit one with his own certain code of ethics. Finally, the immortal mafioso Tony Soprano, TV’s first and finest true antihero, played unforgettably by the late, great James Gandolfini, is a flat-out gangster.
So the question looms: why on earth do we root for these guys? Why do we invest our emotions in their stories and care about their fates? Why have we made their respective shows some of the most popular television ever produced?
Above all, I believe it’s because today’s antiheroes don’t conform to tired ideas about what a protagonist is supposed to be. They aren’t white hat heroes who always arrive just in time to save the day and get the girl. The new breed of antihero is representative of our place on the entertainment timeline, where we have moved past the flat, lifeless dichotomy between “good guys“ and “bad guys.” We, the audience, have come to prefer our stories with intellectual depth and a million different shades of moral complexity.
Antiheroes are dynamic, exciting and bold. These people live outside the rules, the way so many of us yearn to. They flaunt the many conventions of society that we as standard issue human beings are inclined to conform to. Their exploits free our minds from civilized captivity.
We may even go so far as to admire antiheroes because they have the guts to ignore the pull to do what is polite or moral and the drive to do whatever they feel is necessary. They’re unafraid to do wrong so long as they feel there is some kind of right to be achieved by it. Antiheroes satisfy our most visceral desires as viewers: they fight tooth and nail to protect what is theirs, take revenge on their enemies and plunge forward when we would shy away. Antiheroes are willing to become demons to battle even darker evils.
Ultimately, TV’s elite antiheroes are complicated, imperfect and human characters. They are not generic avatars serving as blank canvases for us to project ourselves upon. They are three-dimensional beings who make choices that we likely wouldn’t but for reasons that we can observe and often understand. Antiheroes are real and today, they reign supreme.