Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Where the Cool Kids Are: The New Breed of TV Anti-Heroes

"We had a name for people like you in prison.  We called you the mean clique."
Community, "Competitive Ecology"
The era of the anti-hero is over, so says everyone.  In TV reviews and discussion boards, there is a growing consensus that shows about white middle class men behaving badly (and often illegally) and taunting the audience with how outrageous, destructive, and toxic their behavior is have become passé, and that when Breaking Bad wraps up its story in less than a week, it'll be time for TV to come up with a new shtick (never mind that Mad Men, to my mind the most innovative twist on the anti-hero concept, still has two seasons left to run).  You could see this most clearly this summer, in the genuine contempt that seemed to waft off reviews of latter-day anti-hero wannabes like Ray Donovan or Low Winter Sun.  These shows, reviewers agreed, desperately wanted to snag the coolness points of departing series like Breaking Bad (or, hell, even Dexter, which surrendered what little coolness it still had left years ago and ended its run earlier this week with one of the most dispiriting whimpers ever heard).  With no idea how to replicate that kind of achievement, these shows plumped for tone-deaf mimicry, and so their sad-sack protagonists commit murder, beat people, abuse their families, and in general behave like awful human beings without giving the audience any reason not to change the channel in disgust.  After a whole summer of this, everyone seems to agree that it's time to move on.

In general, that everyone includes me (though as I've written in the past, before the death knell is rung on this genre I would have liked at least one of its canonical iterations to have featured an anti-hero who was not a man, or not white, or--heavens forfend!--not either one).  But at the end of a summer in which so many TV reviewers have found themselves losing their last shred of patience with anti-hero shows, I've started to notice their tropes infecting shows that should seemingly want nothing to do with Sopranos-style moral murkiness.  It's not that anti-heroes are going anywhere, but that they've evolved into something new, and along the way injected a welcome cynicism into some of the most cherished, valorized tropes of American TV.

Somewhat to my surprise, the trailblazer here is Breaking Bad.  Excellent though it is, Breaking Bad is, on the whole, a show that perfects the anti-hero concept, rather than one that innovates within it.  It's a fantastic story, extremely well told and performed, but it doesn't usually tell us anything new (for a more critical restatement of this observation, see this excellent post, which quite correctly points out how little Breaking Bad has to say on the subject of the drug trade).  The one exception is the increasingly toxic mentoring relationships between Walter White and his assistant, Jesse Pinkman.  Other anti-heroes have had mentees--Tony had Christopher, and Don has Peggy--but the relationship between Walt and Jesse is unique for being so all-consuming, in ways that are both good and bad.  Walt is, at one and the same time, the only truly nurturing presence in Jesse's life, and the worst thing that has ever happened to him.  When the two first meet, Jesse is a dropout and layabout, estranged from his parents, cooking bad meth for small-time crooks, with some combination of prison, serious drug addiction, and an early death in his future.  Walt gives him a purpose and boundaries, teaches him discipline, and trains him in the same problem-solving techniques that have made Walt so respected, in his legitimate and illegal activities.  Through knowing Walt, Jesse becomes more confident and better able to use his intelligence.

But of course, what Walt is teaching Jesse to be is a more effective purveyor of addictive poison, and as the two climb the ranks of the Albequerque drug trade Jesse becomes involved in a level of criminality that he never would have aspired to, much less reached, on his own, finally culminating in his murder of Walt's one-time assistant Gale.  At the same time, Walt systematically isolates Jesse from anyone who might represent an alternative influence--most notably, when he stands by and watches as Jesse's girlfriend Jane, who had encouraged Jesse to rebel against Walt, chokes to death on her own vomit.  Walt also undermines Jesse's faith in his own judgment and perceptions, breaking down his identity and encouraging a dependence that leaves Jesse a psychological wreck, wracked with guilt over what he and Walt have done but incapable of making a break with his mentor--until he discovers a sufficiently great violation of their trust which finally cuts through Walt's conditioning.

Where I see the influence of the anti-hero shows on television as a whole is in the increasing depiction of toxic mentor-mentee relationships that have more than a little bit of Walt and Jesse in them.  American TV, it has been said many times, is obsessed with the workplace.  It has a tendency to treat workplace relationships, and the loyalty between colleagues (and especially between superiors and underlings), as somehow sacrosanct--more worthy than the bonds of family or love, more important than laws or ideals.  This is a TV landscape, after all, which has given us The West Wing, a show in which, as I've written, the characters evince a loyalty to their workplace and their superiors that is almost feudal, and in which the courtly love between a president and his advisers trumps any personal relationship (or indeed the desire for personal relationships).

Up until a few years ago, perhaps the most trenchant deconstruction of this attitude was the American version of The Office.  Steve Carell's inept manager Michael Scott clearly thought of himself as a sort of Jed Bartlett, inspiring undying loyalty in his "troops."  As the show repeatedly pointed out, he believed that being someone's boss was a good way to become their friend (or rather, to make them your friend), but in the reality the show presented, Michael's employees were working for the same reason that most of us do, and eager to end the workday so that they could leave to be the with the people they really liked and do the things they really cared about.  In the last few months, however, I've watched three different shows that seem to be doing something even more revolutionary.  They present a character who is Jed Bartlett-ish in their charisma and in the loyalty they command in the workplace, and then slowly suggest that this character is actually a sort of Walter White, and that the loyalty they inspire in their underlings is actually the result of manipulation and gaslighting.

The first of these shows is Scandal, which is in many ways a sort of dark, perverted mirror of The West Wing.  As I wrote in my post about the show last month, Scandal initially presents its heroine, Olivia Pope, as a champion of the downtrodden (she is repeatedly referred to, with an increasing degree of irony, as a "white hat").  Her employees' fanatical loyalty to her is rooted, as we discover, in the fact that she has saved each of them, from prison, abuse, or simply from their own self-loathing.  It is also, however, rooted in the fact that they derive much of their self-worth from working for Olivia, which makes them, as one of them memorably announces in the series pilot and then wastes no opportunity to remind us thereafter, "gladiators in suits."  As the series draws on, and as we discover more details about Olivia's past that make her claim on the white hat increasingly tenuous, that confusion of workplace and personal identity comes to seem less and less healthy--and more like something that Olivia has encouraged in order to keep her people in line.  Like Walter White, she isolates her people--sometimes inadvertently, and sometimes deliberately--from any outside influence that might cast her behavior in a different, less positive light, and encourages them to view anyone who comes at her as a communal enemy.  She creates a bunker mentality that leaves her people incapable of questioning her choices, even as they puff themselves up at the thought of the power that being associated with Olivia Pope has conferred upon them.

A less imaginative spin on this story comes from USA's summer series Graceland, which was inspired by the suggestive true story of a group of undercover agents living together in a repossessed beach house in Southern California.  The series begins with newly-minted FBI agent Mike Warren (Aaron Tveit) being assigned to the titular mansion, where he finds a motley crew of FBI, DEA, and customs agents, presided over by the charismatic but secretive Paul Briggs (Daniel Sunjata).  Mike is soon informed that his real assignment is to spy on Briggs, who is suspected of stealing seized drugs, even as the older, more seasoned agent trains him and teaches him the skills that Mike will use against him.  It's a premise that sets the stage for some interesting questions about trust and false identity, especially when it's revealed that while Briggs is indeed stealing drugs, he's doing so as part of an unsanctioned undercover operation.  Posing as a new drug supplier (whom the other agents at Graceland repeatedly try to capture), Briggs hopes to flush out the cartel assassin who kidnapped him, forced him to become addicted to drugs, and then pumped him for information that led to the deaths of Briggs's own training agent and his girlfriend.

Unfortunately, after a few promising and well-paced early episodes, Graceland devolves into a dull slog.  Mike and Briggs never develop much in the way of personalities, and the bond between them, which should have given the show its backbone and its themes of trust and deception their bite, is never palpable.  Nevertheless, it is possible to perceive an echo of the way that Scandal makes Olivia Pope simultaneously cool and pathetic in the show's construction of Briggs and his relationships with Mike and the other agents at Graceland.  Throughout the first (and, in all likelihood, only) season, Briggs acts as a father figure to the other agents, settling their disputes with clear authority and a dose of sardonic wit, and protecting the community they've formed, a safe haven of sanity from a life spent among criminals and thugs.  His belief in his own authority clearly extends to his criminal activities--he behaves as if he has an airtight master plan, and as if his desire for revenge justifies lying to his friends (not to mention flooding the streets with drugs that would otherwise have been destroyed).  But in reality, Briggs spends much of the season flying by the seat of his pants, and his crimes reverberate on his friends and on the house in ways that he can neither predict nor control.  By the end of the season, even the purity of Briggs's motives is in doubt--his quest for revenge seems less righteous than like a way of avoiding his own guilt.  What makes Briggs a Walter White-ish, Olivia Pope-ish figure is that neither he, nor the agents he's mentored and trained to look up to him, see this.  In the season's final episode, the agent who has suffered the most because of Briggs's scheme--she has lost a friend, was forced to use drugs in order to maintain her cover, and came close to being viciously murdered--breaks down in tears and apologizes for ever doubting him, and when a completely unrepentant Briggs calls Mike to ask for his help in another harebrained scheme, all Mike can think of is how much he enjoyed being Briggs's sidekick.  Despite its lackluster execution, Graceland is intriguing as a portrait of a man who has gotten everyone around him, including himself, to buy into the myth of his own awesomeness.

A much better variation on this character type can be found in another USA show, Suits.  Now on break from its third season, this lawyer show has been slowly gaining momentum among TV critics, who have pronounced it more than just "good for USA" (see Carrie Reisler at the AV Club, and Matt Zoller Seitz at The Vulture).  Personally, I think the praise is exaggerated--almost everything that Suits does well is done better by The Good Wife, which also doesn't suffer from the show's flaws of soporific, barely comprehensible legal plots and a dearth of interesting female characters (not to mention ones whose lives don't revolve around men--though 50% of Suits's main cast are women, the show seldom passes the Bechdel test).  Nevertheless, Suits is a sharp, well-made and acted, often quite funny show, and if it outdoes The Good Wife in any respect it is in the viciousness with which it skewers the world of corporate law.  The pilot sees Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams), a genius whose academic career was derailed when he sold a test and who now makes a living taking law school entrance exams for other people, crossing the path of superstar attorney Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht).  Bored, and impressed despite himself with Mike's ability to absorb and comprehend any information laid before him, Harvey agrees to hire Mike as his new associate and to help him pretend to be a lawyer in the corridors of his cutthroat law firm, Pearson Hardman.

It is, quite frankly, a ridiculous premise, and one that the show seems less and less invested in (even as it remains essentially inescapable, unless Mike himself leaves the series).  Though season finales and premieres frequently revolve around someone at the firm discovering or almost discovering Mike's secret, for the most part what drives Suits is the politics at Pearson Hardman, the frequent back-stabbings and shady deals through which the various associates, partners, and senior partners at the firm buck for power (which, among other things, has led to the firm's name having changed several times already).  At the top of this pyramid stands managing partner Jessica Pearson (Gina Torres), who plucked Harvey out of the firm's mail room and groomed him into the James Bond-ish shark he currently is.  Though the relationship between Harvey and Mike--in which Harvey mentors Mike in everything from practicing the law to dressing sharply, and Mike challenges Harvey's callous detachment from the cases he argues and his no strings attached lifestyle--is how Suits sells itself, the real power in the show comes from the mentorship relationship between Jessica and Harvey, and the permutations it goes through, from Harvey acting as Jessica's white knight, to her blackmailing him with Mike's secret, to him scheming to unseat her as managing partner.

It is through the relationship between Harvey and Jessica that we initially glimpse the questions that make Suits more interesting than the sharply made legal procedural it mostly is.  When we first meet Harvey, he is casually but cruelly belittling a colleague in front of Jessica.  Well, OK, we might think.  Supremely talented assholes are in right now, and maybe the show will be about the character learning to behave with some basic civility.  What the show reveals as we continue to watch it, however, is that the higher up the corporate ladder you go, the less the characters we encounter feel bound by any norms of human decency.  Pearson Hardman is literally the sort of workplace where, if you're not a big enough deal, people will gather in corners to snigger over how upset you are at your cat's death.  In a second season episode, Jessica is discriminated against by a judge who bears a grudge over a prank Jessica played on her when they were in law school together, in which Jessica got the other woman drunk and then left her to be found naked by their professor.  For a while, it seems that the episode is expecting us to accept a little too much youthful indiscretion on Jessica's part (not least in continuing to describe as a prank something that sounds a lot more like sexual assault).  But the final scene between the women reveals a much more shocking truth--Jessica assaulted the judge not out of mean-girl-ish exuberance, but in order to scuttle her chances of getting a recommendation for a job they both wanted.  Jessica blithely admits this to the judge, and even announces that she has no regrets over what she did.  It's an episode that most clearly establishes what at other points in the series is only hinted at--that these people, who are funny and attractive and well-dressed, and whom the show expects us to root for and admire, are all terrible, terrible human beings. 

The character whom Harvey insults in the series pilot (who is also the person whose cat dies) is Louis Litt (Rick Hoffman), the most frequent lightning rod for Jessica and Harvey's mean-spirited disdain.  In fairness to the show, Louis is far from an innocent victim.  He's a bullying martinet who harangues and harasses the firm's junior associates and will stoop to spying on his colleagues to get ahead.  But he's also the only person at Pearson Hardman who suffers from the Michael Scott-like delusion that your work colleagues are your friends, and he has a loyalty to the firm and his superiors that is rarely reciprocated.  Though the show too often uses Louis as broad comic relief (a scene in the late third season has him blowing a crucial negotiation because the opposing counsel baits him with, yet again, his cat), it also repeatedly stresses that he is an excellent lawyer (this also goes some way towards justifying his treatment of the junior associates, since his brutal training gets results and holds them to a standard that he more than meets).  And yet Jessica and Harvey feel free to treat Louis with open contempt.  From the beginning of the series, Louis makes it clear that he wants to be a senior partner, and they agree that he has the skill, and brings in enough money, to justify that promotion.  But nevertheless they refuse it to him for no apparent reason.  In a second season arc that is the best story the show has done, ousted name partner Daniel Hardman (David Costabile) offers Louis a senior partnership in exchange for his vote stripping Jessica of power.  When Louis accepts, Jessica and Harvey have the gall to behave as if he has betrayed them, instead of simply acting to further a career that they seemingly had no interest in advancing.  What's even worse, though, is that Louis eventually comes around to their way of seeing things, feeling terrible guilt for turning his back on a woman who has never shown any loyalty to him.

What I finally realized, after one too many scenes in which Jessica and Harvey behave horribly to Louis for no discernible reason and he tolerates such treatment with even less cause, is that the principle governing professional behavior at Pearson Hardman is essentially the same as the one you'd find at a high school--the cool kids can do whatever they like, and the nerds take what they can get and feel grateful.  Harvey and Jessica are suave, well-dressed, and confident, whereas Louis is bumbling, insecure, and not very attractive, and this justifies their treating him like crap, with the occasional scrap thrown in.  There's a little more to it than that--a lot could be said about Jessica's seesaw of trust and paranoia, the way she constantly gives people around her power so that they can support her position, and then immediately undermines them out of fear that they will use that power against her (which, in fairness, is often what they do, though at least some of the time it's Jessica's distrustful behavior that drives them to it)--but what it ultimately comes down to, on Scandal and Graceland as well as Suits, is coolness.  Olivia Pope, Paul Briggs, Harvey Specter, they're all the cool kids, and characters like Quinn Perkins, the new employee who joins Pope & Associates in Scandal's pilot, or the two Mikes, Warren and Ross, are the new kid in school who has been taken under the cool kid's wing.  That in itself isn't new--American TV is workplace TV, as we've said, and the guy in charge is, by definition, the coolest guy (Jed Bartlett may not have been cool in the strict sense of the word, but within the world of the show he redefined what coolness meant, and then embodied it).  But what I see as an influx of anti-hero show attitudes into all walks of TV is the fact that that coolness is being questioned--that it is frequently exposed, as it is on Suits, as assholish behavior.  Our mentee protagonists, then, find themselves playing the Lindsay Lohan role in Mean Girls--with the crucial difference that unlike Cady Heron, they may not come to their senses before they become just as shallow and immoral as their mentors.

What's not clear to me is whether this shift is deliberate.  As I wrote in my post about Scandal, I couldn't entirely swear to the fact that the show means for me to see Olivia's relationship with her team as abusive and manipulative, and it's equally unclear to me whether Suits intends for me to see Harvey and Jessica as off-putting and self-satisfied rather than cool (on the latter show, it doesn't help that Mike and Harvey often seem to be in different stories, so that while an important theme of the show is how working for Harvey is making Mike more ruthless, for the most part when the show wants to discuss how working at Pearson Hardman wears away at norms of human decency, it centers that story on Harvey and Jessica's relationship and their increasingly fraught power struggles).  It's possible that something else entirely is going on--that writers have become so emboldened by the popularity of anti-hero shows that they inject that kind of behavior into characters whom the audience is nevertheless expected to root for wholeheartedly.  In which case, I agree with the critics I quoted at the beginning of this article--it's time for the anti-hero story to go.  But I'd like to believe that I'm right, and that what anti-hero shows have taught television is to be more willing to puncture the myth of unquestioning loyalty to your boss and workplace, and to look more closely at what it means to be the coolest guy in the room.


Anonymous said...

The comparison between The West Wing and Suits is interesting, because I happily watched the entire run of former but gave up on the latter within a season. I understand the critique of personal loyalty, and that having people swear personal oaths of fealty to the President is problematic. But I just find the fantasy of heroism more enjoyable to watch than than fantasy of anti-heroism. It's not as if Jessica is any more realistic than Jed Bartlett. I didn't get to the prank episode, but the prank and its outcome sound just as contrived as the sillier parts of the West Wing. In the real world, Jessica could never actually predict what would happen as a result, and probably wouldn't be dumb enough to try it. As you say, it's sexual assault that could easily land her in prison. I have to give credit to the pilot of Suits, where Harvey fools a client with a fake document and looks like the smartest guy in the room - and then is almost immediately found out and punished. But they don't keep up that kind of realism.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


I've actually reached a point where I find it difficult to tolerate The West Wing any more. This is partly because Sorkin's later series and his publicly expressed views have thrown into sharper relief the beginning of those flaws in this earlier show. But it's also because the show's underlying assumption, that every question in life should be left to some paternal, all-knowing white man, has become increasingly untenable. So I do appreciate a show like Suits that dismantles such figures (intentionally or no), though I agree that that cynicism can also be taken too far.

The second season, by the way, is quite different, and much sharper, than the first. The focus moves away from Mike and onto the relationship between Harvey and Jessica, and the season's first storyline is the best the show has done (nothing that comes afterward, when the show starts to consign too many characters to its comedy storylines, is as powerful). It may not be any more realistic than The West Wing, but I think that the statement it makes about the seductiveness of power, and the way that our society tolerates amoral behavior from people who are rich and powerful, is worth hearing.

Anonymous said...

You're overthinking Suits - it is indeed a USA show, which means its tailored around being cool and suave and very, very formulaic. "My name is Michael Weston", anyone? That's basically the same show except in this case, Michael Weston is Harvey, Fiona is Mike and Sam Axe is Lewis.

Its incredibly high IMDB rating seems unearned and unsurprising to me. Unearned because it's neither as funny and witty as Boston Legal, nor as dramatic and realistic as Damages. Not to mention Gabriel Macht and Gina Torres don't have near the gravitas and acting ability of James Spader and Glenn Close. Unsurprising becaue American audiences love these kinds of dramedies with sharp, slick characters. They're guilty pleasures, but in a smart enough way so that you don't have to apologize to your intellectual friends for watching them.

Suits fails in not knowing what it wants to be - a formulaic lawyer dramedy with lots of comic relief fun like Boston Legal, or a serious legal drama with greater story arcs like Damages. Trying to cram both shows into one and spackling the cracks with good-looking, sharply dressed actors isn't enough to fool me into convincing that it warrants the accolades its getting.

Anonymous said...

I actually found Suits to be a bit off-tone in what I expected from a USA show. The guys on Royal Pains never behaved like that... Maybe that was the problem, my expectations were wrong. The fake lawyer premise doesn't help, since it's exactly the kind of goofy thing you would expect from a USA pilot and it suggests the show itself will be the usual harmless fluff.

Anonymous said...

I think of Nancy Botwin in Weeds as being something of a female anti-hero. She, at least, started acting more and more poorly. I'm fairly sure that Piper in Orange Is The New Black is going to go the anti-hero route.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

As I say in the essay, Badmeister, there seems to be a consensus among reviewers that Suits aspires to something beyond the USA template. I don't watch Burn Notice so I can't compare the two shows, but I do think the handling of the firm's politics (especially in the later seasons) is more complex and multifaceted than you'd find on other USA shows. And Torres, in particular, is quite good as a character who starts out heroic and sympathetic and slowly undermines herself through paranoia and scheming.

Anonymous said...

American TV, it has been said many times, is obsessed with the workplace. It has a tendency to treat workplace relationships, and the loyalty between colleagues (and especially between superiors and underlings), as somehow sacrosanct--more worthy than the bonds of family or love, more important than laws or ideals.

While this is definitely true, US TV once was overwhelmingly focused on the nuclear family, and the shift to workplace shows happened relatively recently (certainly in my TV-watching lifetime), somewhere in the 1990s. And it can be traced quite directly to a) the corporations that own the studios taking a larger interest in content as they strove to maximize advertising sales, and b) growing expectations that USians work longer hours and spend more time at work.

Arguably many of the workplace dynamics you describe come from shows that are adapting that older family template to the workplace, and seeing bosses and colleagues as parents and family.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

US TV once was overwhelmingly focused on the nuclear family, and the shift to workplace shows happened relatively recently (certainly in my TV-watching lifetime), somewhere in the 1990s

That's a good point, though I would place the shift some time in the mid- to late 80s, when the ur-texts of modern cop, doctor, and lawyer shows (Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, and LA Law) come to prominence.

Anonymous said...

You mention "Mean Girls," but did you watch "30 Rock"? Even from the beginning (IMHO) it seemed likely that Liz Lemon's contempt for her capitalist boss wasn't going to last, and he'd turn into a normal mentor.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


Yes, the relationship between Liz and Jack in 30 Rock is quite special, and in some ways a send-up of the toxic mentor dynamic I talk about here. Jack changes Liz, but she changes him back, and for both of them those changes are both a good thing and horrifying, in that they challenge Liz and Jack's perceptions of themselves.

Dragonchild said...

"what I see as an influx of anti-hero show attitudes into all walks of TV is the fact that that coolness is being questioned--that it is frequently exposed, as it is on Suits, as assholish behavior"

I see it as the opposite; writers are in the business of making shows people want to watch, and the flavor du jour is sociopathy. I don't think these shows are going anywhere; I see them as a reflection of 21st century American disillusionment and moral relativism. They may not be overtly glorified, but they sure are in the spotlight. We may not like them, but we're fascinated by their behavior. We find true heros to be (ironically) both boring and unrealistic; when push comes to shove we prefer to see people manipulate the hell out of each other. Not to say it never happens, but we really don't expect poetic justice in our fiction anymore. That's for kids.

Second, it seems no writer these days can make an altruistic protagonist interesting without giving him/her (usually him) a "hard edge" of ruthless faux-pragmatism, enough emotional baggage to weigh down an 18-wheeler, or some unhealthy obsession or relationship -- OK, to cut the list short, the protagonist has to be somehow morally compromised or "broken". I mean, a well-adjusted protagonist. . . we can't have that! How could we possibly make such a character interesting??

Well, that would be harder, of course, but it's been done. Writing about characters with a bunch of self-made drama is comparatively easy. We all know at least one asshole and the injustice of real life is easy to relate to, so what we watch is really just an exaggerated reflection of our own dissatisfaction with society -- with maybe a number of creepy people who genuinely identify and root for the sociopaths without a hint of irony. It is, to me, in a sense, lazy writing.

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