Tony Soprano. Don Draper. Walter White. And now: Ray Donovan. These fictional bad boys have ushered in what some have called the new “golden age” of television. They’re not villains – at least not entirely. But they’re definitely not heroes, either. Breaking the mold of traditional heroism and villainy, they instead embody the unique qualities of the antihero.
So, what is an antihero and why are they so compelling?
As the 20th century progressed, protagonists—reflecting the increasing complexity of modern life— became increasingly morally ambiguous; the Gilded Age gave us Jay Gatsby, the Great Depression spawned Tom Powers, and Vietnam gave birth to a spectrum of sociopaths, from Michael Corleone to Travis Bickle. And their moral compasses rarely pointed to Boy Scout—instead of upholding the law and avenging injustice, these characters broke the law and sought revenge.
Despite their antisocial behavior, these antiheroes somehow seemed in the right. What once were characters considered to be societal outliers had now become the blueprint for fictional protagonists. And so dawned the era of the antihero.
But why are we drawn to antiheroes?
It might be because their moral complexity more closely mirrors our own. They’re flawed. They’re still developing, learning, growing. And sometimes in the end, they trend toward heroism. We root for their redemption and wring our hands when they pay for their mistakes. They surprise us. They disappoint us. And they’re anything but predictable.
While the antiheroes’ incompatibility with societal rules lays the foundation for compelling drama, it’s their unlikely virtue in the face of relatable circumstances that emotionally connects us to them. Consider the moments that we spent cheering for Tony Soprano. Typically they involved his efforts to overcome his anxiety—a relatively common condition—and his attempts, at times unprecedented, to protect family, both nuclear and crime.
Similarly, Walter White garnered our sympathy when we initially learned of his cancer, lack of financial stability, and inordinate medical debt. The failures of our society are not unique to Walter White, but are a common, shared experience between the character and his audience. He feels our pain as he, too, has been pushed too far by a broken health care system that threatens his family’s —let alone his own—survival.
We can possibly overlook Don Draper’s dalliances when we learn of his abusive, traumatic upbringing. But we really can’t get angry at him when we listen to him explain how the Kodak Carousel will give each and every one of us a chance to smile and walk down memory lane with just the push of a button, recapturing both the simplicity of childhood and the promise of adulthood.
Ray Donovan is no different. He’s a man who has made it out of seedy South Boston to the glitz of Los Angeles. Sure, he does—and continues to do—some terrible things along the way, but we empathize with his struggles to communicate with his children. We understand the difficulty he has in allowing himself to be emotionally vulnerable to his spouse. We want him to remain a secure attachment figure for his traumatized brother and his cognitively impaired boss. And we want him to be strong and successful in the face of his own traumatic past.
Antiheroes liberate us. They reject societal constraints and expectations imposed upon us. Antiheroes give our grievances a voice. They make us feel like something right is being done, even if it is legally wrong. Antiheroes do things we’re afraid to do. They are who they are and they do as they want—without apology.
And for 60 minutes each week, we live vicariously through them. Without apology.