Are you sick of TV antiheroes?
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“Breaking Bad” returned for its fourth season July 17, continuing the story of Walter White, possibly the worst person currently the main subject of a television series. (Not counting reality TV — there is a lot of competition from that quarter.)
For those who have not been following along — and more of you are, with the fourth-season premiere up 30% from last year’s — White, played by Bryan Cranston, is a former chemistry teacher impelled by a diagnosis of cancer, a desire to provide for his family and a series of fortuitous/ruinous coincidences into the manufacturing of methamphetamine. He beats the cancer but continues the drug-making, growing into a murderously empowered version of his needy, sad-sack self.
It is a smartly made show, with a great cast, on AMC. (Cranston has won three Emmys; Aaron Paul, who plays Jesse, his former student and current partner, has won one.) And yet, the growing crowd notwithstanding, I find it dreadful, in the strict sense of the word; it is a bad trip. Walt has long since crossed the line in which it is possible for me to feel for him, and while this appears to be what creator Vince Gilligan, who has spoken of “comeuppance” in the series’ future, had in mind from the first, it is nevertheless a funny sort of fun.
There has been a lot of that lately in the world of prestige drama, of course. We are not yet out of the age of “The Sopranos,” which, when it muscled in on the cultural conversation back at the end of the 20th century, made darkness and dysfunction the norm, first for premium cable, then basic cable and broadcast TV: “Nip/Tuck,” “Rescue Me,” “Deadwood,” “The Shield,” “The Tudors,” “The Borgias,” “Damages,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Weeds,” “Dexter,” “Californication,” “Mad Men,” “Boardwalk Empire” and “House” are, to varying degrees, its progeny. Many have been among the best things on television. But as much as I love Hugh Laurie, I am over the hopeless Gregory House; his ups and inevitable season-ending downs feel more contrived with every passing year, tricks to make a static character look dynamic.
In the same way, though Tony Soprano began as a person in apparent flux, long before the tardy end of “Sopranos” it was clear that the character was fatally fixed. Because it’s habitual to root for the person at the center of a story — and in stories like these there is usually someone worse around to make the antihero comparatively palatable — every so often David Chase would have Tony kill someone, as if to remind you that he was, in fact, a bad guy, and that a love of classic rock did not make him a better one.
Tony himself figured he’d likely wind up killed or in jail, and by the time he went, wherever he went, I was not sad to see him go. No better end seems possible for Walter White; the character is for all intents and purposes already dead. Gilligan has smartly declared next season the last for “Breaking Bad,” but part of me — the part invested in the narrative, not quite paradoxically — wants Walt stopped now, not so much for the payback but to stop the insanity. No one he knows is better off for knowing him. The show belongs to Jesse now, who, though he has much to answer for himself, remains redeemable; he is quietly haunted where Walt is loudly self-justifying. Jesse is an antihero, too, but one with room to grow. I don’t mean to suggest that TV should avoid the dark places it waited long enough to explore. Literature is full of dangerous heroes: Hamlet killed a lot of people, or got them killed, before he managed to knock off the one person his ghost-father asked him to. Raskolnikov went crazy with an ax before he got the girl. Jay Gatsby was no model citizen.
But even with the procrastinating, Hamlet gets his business done in a couple of hours. He is not the subject of a weekly television show, and, though exasperating, he does not wear out his welcome; he dies, still the most attractive man on stage. Stretch that to five or six TV seasons, on the other hand, and you might be tempted to grab a bare bodkin and make his quietus yourself.
Above all, there is nothing provocative or daring in the antiheroic attitude right now; we are up to our necks in it, and to create more series in that image is no longer to fly in the face of convention but to coast along in its wake. It seems to me that the more radical choice at the moment is to look carefully at the ordinary lives of basically decent people and to tell those stories with the depth and art that animate a show like “Breaking Bad.” It’s not necessarily a recipe for success — Ray Romano’s wonderful “Men of a Certain Age,” about three normal guys at midlife, was recently canceled by TNT, but HBO’s “Treme” and underrated “How to Make It in America” are holding on. I have some hope.
Are you tired of antiheroes? Let us know what you think in the comments, some of which will be included in next Sunday’s LA Times.