Saturday 24 March 2018

Have the TV villains finally had their day in the sun?

It's time to resurrect the TV hero, writes Darragh McCullough.

Tony Soprano
Tony Soprano
Claire, House of Cards
Bryan Cranston as Walter White in 'Breaking Bad'.
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

I used to love Walter White. I used to cheer every time he plucked up the courage to blast another drug baron to Kingdom Come.

I felt his pain every time that eejit of a brother-in-law of his patronised him about what a geek he was.

Now I can barely bring myself to finish watching Breaking Bad. I know I'm behind the times with this one, but I dread what the once helpless chemistry teacher is going to do next in pursuit of amassing more millions in drug money. Where I once could nod in agreement with those TV critics that lauded Breaking Bad to the hills, I now shake my head in bewilderment at how so much TV could turn, bad.

In an effort to give myself a breather from Walt's ways, I started into that other multi-award winner, House of Cards.

And boy did I fall hard for Congressman Francis Underwood.

Yes, he was ruthless, but I couldn't help admiring just how good Frank was at manipulating people, situations, and, crucially, the truth.

So I gorged on Capitol Hill and the political shenanigans of the world's defender of democracy.

But it didn't take long before I started to feel uneasy about my new infatuation. Suddenly it looked like Frank really was a nasty man that had little or nothing to like about him. Needless to say, I got the shock of my life when he did that in episode one of the second season.


Tony Soprano

I was devastated. Not just for the people Frank harmed in his pursuit of absolute power, but for the fragile hope that I was going to witness some good, some triumph of right over wrong for once.

It was the same sinking feeling I got as I waded through Mad Men. Again, the setting was intoxicating – all that cutting edge creativity of advertising's early days. But as every episode slipped by, I realised that Don Draper would continue shagging anything that looked sideways at him, drive Betty completely crazy, and that Peggy would sacrifice every moral fibre in her body for the sake of getting ahead.

Why do TV makers insist on doing this to us? I just wanted to be able to root for Don and dream of looking that good. Fine, nobody's perfect, and that's why we could initially overlook Walt, Frank and Don's more questionable dalliances. But everything has a limit. I've reached my anti-hero limit, my fill of bad.

You could blame Tony Soprano. Hailed as the dawn of a golden era in TV, when script writers could finally shake off the constraints of having to appeal to the lowest common denominator, The Sopranos was seen as the mould breaker.

We all wanted Tony to succeed, to break free from the endless cycle of mob extortion and brutal slaughter. Was there ever a man who became so utterly vulnerable as big Tony when he grappled with his demons and aspirations on Dr Melfi's couch?


Calire House of Cards.jpg
Claire, House of Cards

I reckon it was the straight-faced, endless lies that did in Tony for me. Why couldn't he just be honest with Carmela for once? God knows, she was doing her best to stand by him. I left Tony to his own devices. Sure, I still loved the scenes with his shrink, bursting as they were with equal measures of hilarity and heart wrenching honesty. But there was just too much of the bad stuff.

The real source of the endlessly lying anti-hero has got to be Tony's big screen predecessor, Michael Corleone. That was another fella that I was all for at the start. He was just trying to do right by his da, right

Even when he was shooting that up-start mob boss and the corrupt chief-of-police in the face, ruining the bolognese for the rest of the poor diners in the little Italian restaurant, I was willing him on.

But what did he do then? Turned around and did away with everybody who was any threat to him.

First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday’s Irish Independent

And you know what the worst thing is? I could have even forgiven him this – they were all bad so-and-sos anyway. But it was the bald faced lie at the very end to his missus, Kay. Come on Michael, she loves you – just be honest with her.

Even before the opening credits rolled on Godfather II, you knew that Michael Corleone was a bad egg, a rotten one in fact, totally corrupted by the pursuit of power and success. The latest generation of small-screen anti-heroes are just following in his foot-steps.


Bryan Cranston as Walter White in 'Breaking Bad'.


We could just blame all this on hyper masculinity, and bad boys being appealing to both male and female viewers, but the women are just as bad. Glenn Close's Patty Hewes is terrifying in Damages, and her minion Ellen played by Rose Byrne started off innocent enough, but is just as corrupt now too. Claire Underwood is just as frightening as her duplicitous husband, her ice maiden act softened from time to time so she's not outright heinous, but the overall effect is chilling to the bone. And Orange Is The New Black, Netflix's new hit original series, is all about female anti-heroes – a prison full – admittedly, some worse than others.

All I want is somebody to cheer for. You know the type, the McGyvers of this world, the Magnum PIs, the Mileys from Glenroe. God, even JR wasn't such a bad lad now that I think about it.

Surely the best TV-making talent in the world can come up with something other than yet another anti-hero? I mean, I just want to come home and chill out and get a good night's sleep. There's enough bad in the world. Bring back the TV hero.

First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent

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