I get the anti-hero thing. He comes around in American literature as early as Huck Finn, after all, some ne'er do well who can't abide the prevailing westerlies of the world he lives in, but somehow grabs our hearts anyway. The anti-hero is the guy who rolls his eyes when Lone Ranger rides in on his white horse, the Tonto who finally tells the masked man that, dang it, he's not going into to town again if he's only going to get bushwhacked. The anti-hero swims upstream, or else doesn't swim at all, just floats along. But somehow we like him anyway because we find ourselves in his smile or his frown.
He's all over the television these days in some of the most powerful and successful dramas that TV has ever produced. While Hollywood is addicted to blockbusters, endless sequels, and the ample cash on hand of 17-year-old, hormone-driven patrons, television is telling stories that vastly outperform anything in your local multiplex. Some claim we're now in "the third golden age of television" because in series after series, the writing is crisp and powerful, the story lines bravely complicated and anything but predictable. No one needs to beg you to "stay tuned" to a perfect abundance of of wonderful series you simply won't miss on your own.
What's also changed is America's viewing habits. Netflix's House of Cards was remarkable, not simply because it was Netflix who created it, but also because the entire season was put up for viewing in one fell swoop. We watched it all in three or four nights as I remember because my wife and I have turned into binge watchers, as have millions of others. For weeks, we've been glued to The Good Wife, an almost startlingly good series from CBS. We watched Parenthood in huge chunks, found it incredibly absorbing.
The death of James Galdolfini a few weeks past created all kinds of op-ed pieces about television's new character and characters because the godfather of all that change is, of course, The Sopranos. We're not aficionados. We watched it almost relentlessly for a weeks on end several years ago, season after season, until both of us--my wife and myself--simply wearied of the blasted blood-letting. I have good friends who know the series episode by episode, the way some know Seinfeld or Mash. We quit. Such is life.
That having been said, I understand the raves that series still chalks up because The Sopranos simply refused to be television. Great characters routinely get offed. Language barriers fell off the table. Heroes are cold-blooded murderers. If TVs first golden age brought us Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet, we've come a long way, for better or for worse. What cable networks like HBO and Showtime discovered was that programming that wasn't aimed at the widest demographic could still grab--and hold--millions of viewers.
The Waltons was great tv--lovingly created characters trying to eek out a good life in trying times on a farm that wasn't going to promise a rose garden. But we're in a different world today--different worlds, I should say, because today there is really something for everyone, including something for everyone in scripted tv programming, the most expensive programming there is.
The Wire was another pioneer, certainly not for the faint-hearted--gritty, crime-invested Baltimore, drug-addled thugs, booze-addled cops, and money-addled politicians. To say we loved it is overstatement--street crime isn't particularly lovable. But we couldn't not watch. It's unforgettable television.
We couldn't handle Damages, not because the stories weren't strong or the characters weren't compelling; but we stopped after a half-dozen episodes because there shines from a series like Damages no compelling light whatsoever, a law firm staffed with brilliant barristers who seek only their own advancement, beautiful people who are unredeemably ugly. We quit. I love the west and westerns, so I hated to quit Deadwood, but we lasted only a few episodes in because the unrelenting foul language.
But we loved Wallender (the Danish version is far superior Brit's), a plain-old detective story enhanced immensely by an anti-hero who drinks too much and is almost savagely addicted to the horrors he is greeted with every last day of his job. I hesitate to call it great television because the phrase seems almost like an oxymoron; but it is simply great storytelling.
London Hospital is absolutely wonderful, a turn-of-the-century British series that's half documentary, half-drama. There's blood galore here, but the people holding the scalpels are wonderfully multi-dimensional.
I've always thought that stories are wonderful when their vicissitudes reach heights and depths that are somehow equal--when their abject horrors are no greater than their sometimes momentary triumphs, when their characters' depravity is balanced by that part of them that opens to the image of God all of us carry. I get anti-heroes, but somewhere within them I have to see the image of God.
The ones who err on the side of light are silly, but so are the ones who err on the side of darkness--and both, at least to me, are difficult to watch.
I never was much of a TV watcher, but I am today. Part of that is being retired. But part of it is also the fact that there is, these days, no end to really fine television storytelling.
It may not all be for you, and it certainly isn't for us. But that doesn't mean that there isn't real excellence. There is.