If you’re feeling disenfranchised by politicians and institutions, you’re scarcely alone. An increasing number of TV characters, infuriated by what they perceive as a malignant neglect among the power elite, are fighting back -- and usually by bending or ignoring the rules.
From TNT series “Leverage’s” cheeky, high-tech con artists working on behalf of victims of wealthy wrongdoers to AMC’s “Breaking Bad’s” Walt White (Emmy winner Bryan Cranston), who exhibits some of pop-culture’s most transgressive behavior, TV characters are tapping into the zeitgeist’s exasperation over a broken structure apparently tilted against the little guy.
“Deep down, everyone wants to let it rip a little -- people are fed up,” says Linda Wallem, co-creator of Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie,” starring Edie Falco as a pill-popping ER nurse who tricks insurance companies into allowing treatment for patients they otherwise would have denied coverage.
Of “Breaking Bad’s” Walt, whose life of indignities great and small ultimately leads him to become a crystal-meth dealer, Wallem adds, “It feels weird, but I’m rooting for him. I get his rage. I think that’s a new element in television -- you used to have to go to movies for that because it feels dangerous.”
“Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan likens the new spate of characters behaving badly for a greater good to the Warner Bros. gangster movies of the Depression era.
“There was a lot of misery then, a lot of unemployment, and people responded to entertainment that reflected reality -- you had gangsters who rose up from poverty and did it in a very violent fashion, and it had to be some sort of visceral catharsis,” he notes. “You get to watch someone break bad and rise out of the slums and kick ass.”
Other series in the genre include FX’s “Damages,” starring Glenn Close as a powerful attorney who takes on class-action suits against Enron-style companies and polluters (the new season, which premiered earlier this week, concerns a Bernie Madoff-esque corporate con man). She resorts to unethical and dangerous means -- threatening witnesses, imperiling her employees -- to win her cases.
The aforementioned “Leverage,” which recently returned for a third season, has featured its Timothy Hutton-led team combating sundry corruption against a Halliburton-style company, post-Katrina New Orleans contractors, insurance companies and big banks -- and it’s a comedy.
In HBO’s “Hung” -- pointedly set in Detroit, one of America’s most distraught big cities -- a long-suffering high school teacher (Thomas Jane) resorts to becoming a gigolo to make ends meet. USA’s wry action-comedy “Burn Notice,” which recently returned with new episodes, focuses on Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan), a former spy who is literally burned by his government -- he’s fired, and his assets are frozen -- for reasons that are never explained to him, so he helps out others in need to make ends meet.
USA’s seriocomic “White Collar,” which also recently resumed airing new episodes, posits that employing a con man (Matt Bomer) is the best way to fight corporate corruption. Showtime’s “Dexter” features a serial killer (Michael C. Hall) killing serial killers who have slipped through the legal system.
In each of these series, the subtext is obvious: The system is broken, the average citizen is victimized, and if the most powerful among us won’t play by the rules, then why should we? And viewers, wearied by the economic and political pratfalls of recent years, and watching in dismay as Wall Street receives government assistance while the middle class withers and unemployment rates escalate, can only revel in vicarious forms of justice.
“I’m not surprised you’re seeing more of those shows,” says “Leverage” co-creator Chris Downey. “Things that resonate with audiences address hidden desires. That’s where our Robin Hood aspect came from. We make these stories things that people could relate to, so they’d think, ‘If this “Leverage” group was out there, they could find me.’ ”
Adds Peter Gould, a writer and story editor for “Breaking Bad": “There’s no question that people are questioning institutions a lot more than in the recent past. There’s a feeling we’re in a world where society’s obligations to individuals are taking a back seat. That’s the feeling when you see the Wall Street bailouts -- the little guy is on his own. In a weird way, the characters on these shows have extreme moral compasses of their own.”
“There were rules in the past few years that didn’t apply to everyone fairly, and that drives Jackie crazy,” agrees “Nurse Jackie” executive producer Evan Dunsky. “There were eight years of no consequences, and that’s where Jackie is now, dealing with the consequences of these years of rudderlessness.”
“Burn Notice” creator Matt Nix offers a bit more equanimity, noting that the current crop of fight-the-power series “tend to say, ‘You can’t trust your government, you gotta take the law in your own hands.’ We’re more like, ‘Government institutions have made a terrible mistake, but there is nothing fundamentally wrong with them.’ Everyone on our show is patriotic in one way or another. We’re saying, ‘Man, America is facing some tough challenges right now. Our institutions have let us down, but they’re not actively bad.’ ”
“Burn Notice” offers many explosions and much property destruction in service of its nominally pro-government stance. By contrast, “Hung’s” protagonist rebels in a far more benign fashion -- by pleasuring lonesome ladies for cash.
“A social promise unfulfilled is ever-present in ‘Hung,’ ” admits co-creator Colette Burson.
“There’s a weariness of the rules,” adds her collaborator, Dmitry Lipkin. “There’s a sense of defiance. It seems there are new laws created, meant to keep middle-class guys like him away from the American Dream.”
For his part, Gilligan says he just came up with the idea of “transforming a straight-arrow into a bad guy.” But, upon further reflection, he admits, “I may have been thinking in those terms because I was thinking about myself and feeling a little uncertain of the future.”
If the creator of an acclaimed, award-winning TV show is worried about his well-being, perhaps the rest of us should be cooking up elaborate scams that stick it to the Man. The corporate world, no doubt, would appreciate our initiative.