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The Moral Relativism Of Serial Television


The sweet spot for serial television drama right now exists on non-premium cable channels. After decades of dominance by the broadcast networks, followed by a period in which the premium cable channels broke the mold with hits that reached mainstream culture like Oz, The Sopranos, and Dexter, non-premium channels like the Fox property FX, BBC America and AMC have rushed in to, at least temporarily, hold a lock on the highest volume of compelling drama on the small screen today.

Much of what the non-premium channels are doing right now has been stolen directly from the premium-cable playbook. The standard season length for these dramas fits in a 10-13 episode zone that allows for each season to have the feel of an addictive and compelling miniseries and eschews the dilution and clunkiness that tends to accompany the standard 20-24 episode network TV season. BBC America has taken this condensation one step farther with franchise hits Luther and Sherlock, instead favoring three two-hour episodes for an entire season, with each episode containing its own (mostly) self-contained story unit, which allows British stars like Benedict Cumberbatch and Idris Elba to remain relevant in their home country while being able to still pursue their more lucrative film careers nearly full time.  These networks have also been willing to take the risks associated with later time slots in order to explore themes that typically run afoul of the network censors.

But one area that the non-premium channels have pushed perhaps even farther than their premium cable counterparts has been the destruction of the hero. While The Sopranos and Dexter featured protagonists that were antisocial psychopaths, they still fit firmly within the mold of traditional antihero, as most fans of the show continued to root for the protagonists through to the end in spite of their manifest flaws. And even though the jumbled Oz lacked a singular protagonist and pushed the bounds of brutality beyond possibly any show before or since, it was not without characters like Tobias Beecher, Miguel Alvarez and Ryan O’Reily who were at least easy to root for.

The non-premium channels have taken divergent but interesting approaches to the problem of hero creation. FX’s Timothy Olyphant vehicle Justified plays on the surface level as a fairly ordinary western-style drama with a relatively typical rapscallion, womanizing hero in Raylan Givens. However, the brilliant twist of Justified presents itself in the character of Boyd Crowder, who is initially cast as a villain in the show’s first season, but almost immediately becomes a competing antihero to Givens. Givens is presented with a neverending cavalcade of genuine villains to hunt down and shoot throughout the show’s first five seasons, but always lurking in the background is Crowder’s parallel track of questionable survival as small-time crook in rural Kentucky. For the better part of four seasons, the creators of Justified have kept Crowder and Givens largely out of each other’s paths or at times even working towards the same goal while Givens clears the competition for Crowder; however, in the show’s upcoming (and final) season, FX promises that Givens and Crowder will be forced into a confrontation from which only one can emerge. Given FX’s history as a channel, it is anything but clear that Givens will necessarily emerge the victor in this showdown.

BBC America’s dystopian clone drama Orphan Black offers yet another wrinkle on the dramatic hero concept, presenting us with a dizzying array of vastly different and yet essentially identical clones who play interlocking roles of hero and villain, varying from episode to episode – although show still does offer a primary protagonist hero (Sarah Lawrence) and has introduced in the second season an arch-villain proclone as the face of the nameless villain corporation who created all the clones. Perhaps the most ingenious treatment of the hero concept in modern television comes courtesy of FX’s The Americans. If any character can be said to be the hero of this show about Russian spies living undercover as ordinary Americans in the early 1980s, it is FBI agent Stan Beeman, who is both possessed of crippling personal weaknesses and also is obsessed (albeit unwittingly) with thwarting the actions of the show’s protagonists. Thus, while the show presents the viewer with the disorienting experience of rooting against the show’s main characters, there is still someone in the show who is essentially worth rooting for.

By far the more troubling treatment of the hero concept is found in AMC’s recently-concluded blockbuster Breaking Bad and FX’s biker-gang reimagining of Hamlet, Sons of Anarchy. Breaking Bad somehow managed to be perhaps the greatest drama on television despite offering literally no heroes of any kind. Although the first season allowed viewers to believe that Walter White might perhaps at least be a sympathetic antihero, it became glaringly clear at least by the introduction of Gustavo Fring that White was rotten to the core, narcissistic, and deserved to die some sort of painful or humiliating death alone. White’s foil, Jesse, although more likeable than White, never rose above the level of pitiable in the series and Walt’s wife and son made Walt seem almost likeable by contrast.

Towards the end of the show, Vince Gilligan attempted to prop up White’s DEA agent brother in law Hank as a hero who might bring Walt down, but this attempt felt pasted on in light of Hank’s treatment as a borderline racist buffoon throughout much of the show’s first three seasons. Ultimately, Hank was unable to accomplish this goal as the show careened towards its helter-skelter conclusion and he died at the hands of the same contemptible white supremacists who ultimately forced Walt’s end. The most poignant and emblematic scene of the show’s remarkable run came in the show’s penultimate episode, as Walt was holed up in a frozen new England cabin, hidden and completely isolated from a world who wanted him dead. His sole point of contact was the man who brought him a monthly run of supplies. On one such run Walter offered him $10,000 to play cards with him for two hours, so desperate he was for human contact; but the contact would only stay for one hour, and grudgingly at that. It was a scene expertly calibrated to convey pitiableness, while reminding the viewer that the subject was beyond pity. The show did not even allow the viewer to achieve catharsis in Walt’s death, as it would have inevitably occurred at the hands of cancer within days or weeks even without the machinations of the white supremacists.

Although not yet concluded, the equally compelling Sons of Anarchy appears to be careening towards a similar conclusion. The show’s principal character, Jax Teller, is initially presented in a manner that could perhaps be characterized as chaotic good. However, as he attempts to escape the orbit of his lawbreaking club, he becomes less and less sympathetic to the point that he is only a hero to the extent that he stands opposed to his vile mother and stepfather, expertly played by Ron Pearlman and Katey Sagal. However, the depths to which he stoops to exact his revenge, which he ultimately achieves in the show’s penultimate season, make him every bit as contemptible in the end, as everyone with the slightest redeeming character on the show has been killed off.  Even the various federal agencies that prosecute the Sons over the years are depicted as just as morally bankrupt and corrupt as the biker gang they are attempting to ensnare, or more. As Sons of Anarchy enters its seventh and final season this fall, most fans of the show find themselves actively rooting for all the characters – including Jax Teller himself, to end up either dead or imprisoned.

It is at least marginally troublesome that as a society, our most compelling entertainment increasingly eschews the concept or even the ideal that good exists in the world and ultimately should prevail. An artistic criticism of this view can legitimately point out that life is rarely so neat as to allow for the inevitable victory of the white knight. However, the rejoinder to this point is that we are not considering real life but rather television, which exists because we would rather watch it than real life. The entire raison d’etre of the medium is to idealize real life interactions into conclusions that are satisfying on at least some visceral level. If our television tastes are any guide, America increasingly takes satisfaction from a muddled mess of emotional responses which are provoked by disorderly and sometimes directly contradictory stimuli. Perhaps, if a society can be judged by its entertainment, what we are witnessing is the leading edge of the end of America’s desire to collectively be the good guy, or even to support the good guy in his efforts to be good. Or perhaps we don’t need television to tell us this; perhaps we need look no further than the ballot box.

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