As TV antiheroes grow ever darker, viewers deal with empathy conflict


Playing a TV serial killer can be a confusing job, and James Purefoy knows it firsthand from “The Following.” He earned a legion of fans attracted to his focused, controlled madman … and nearly lost them with a singular killing.

“I slaughtered my way across the Eastern Seaboard, and on one show I killed a cat,” he says, referring to his character, Joe Carroll. “The storm that hit me the following day was horrible: ‘I loved you when you were a serial killer, but now that you’re killing cats, I’m off!’ Can we talk about the first part of that sentence?”

Antiheroes were once the beloved crotchety truth-tellers on TV (think “House”), but today the average flawed protagonist is more likely to be of a much darker stripe. “Breaking Bad” and “Dexter” ushered in this wave a few years ago, as empathetic leads with a secret, driven by forces both external and internal to ever more heinous actions.


But recent seasons have taken that a step further, offering even more grisly fare for audiences to chew on with the likes of “Hannibal,” “The Blacklist,” “House of Cards” and “The Following.” All star main or even titular characters who do horrible things and often come out smiling with few to no consequences — and even less guilt. It’s a real upending of TV shows’ unwritten moral social contract: that the good guys kill only when forced into a corner and then have nightmares about it later.

That makes for sometimes uncomfortable viewing for TV audiences because these shows are among the most lauded on the small screen. Yet to enjoy the seduction of, say, “House of Cards,” one has to root for Francis Underwood, who is the kind of guy who pushes an inconvenient reporter/ex-lover into an oncoming subway train when he thinks she knows too much.

“I get asked about the likability of characters,” says “Cards” creator Beau Willimon. “I don’t give two thoughts to likability. Storytelling is an exploration; it’s not about making statements. We have no statement. There’s no agenda to the show. That is a reductive way to consider art making.”

Likewise, Bryan Fuller’s realization of Hannibal Lecter elicits colliding emotions from viewers. “It’s good to feel icky if you like someone as horrible as him,” Fuller says. “It’s your moral compass that’s telling you this is the wrong direction to be feeling. Part of the push-pull of the attraction to someone that villainous is that we respect them for their strength and power and smart choices — but we loathe them because we see how those things can be turned against us or the people we love.”

Joseph Magliano, a psychology professor who specializes in film comprehension at Northern Illinois University, says placing such characters front and center taps the brain’s natural desire to empathize and connect.

“The brain did not evolve to understand film,” Magliano says. “I find it perplexing and profoundly interesting that we can experience a sense of empathy for characters who may demonstrate attitudes and behaviors that are despicable. … I don’t think it’s much different than our ability to care for people in our lives as they do self-destructive things.”


For every Hannibal or Joe, there are lesser demons doing terrible things on other shows. “Blacklist’s” Raymond “Red” Reddington is a silky-smooth manipulator who’s not above casual killing. Executive producer Jon Bokenkamp writes him specifically as a kind of id wandering around on our TV screens, saying and doing what the audience might want to but never would.

“I see honesty in him more than evil,” Bokenkamp says. “The whimsy and fun with which he goes about his life is one of the things that makes it palatable.”

Crafting these creatures takes a delicate touch. Former “Dexter” executive producer Sara Colleton says it’s a fine line between antihero and villain. “One tiny step and it’s queasy and repulsive and pornographic, and one inch on the other side and it illuminates human nature and is an insight into their lives,” she says. “That’s where art comes into it.”

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