Don't stop believing is blaring loud, Tony Soprano is sitting in that booth with his family. You notice things are off in the diner… the song gets louder and louder almost deafening. Meadow arrives late and as she enters, the bell rings, Tony looks up and …. cut to black. The golden age of television had officially kickstarted. We are now well into a decade of this “ Golden Age” and TV has seemingly turned into the most interesting landscape of entertainment. HBO and Netflix have changed how we consume media and our idea of what belongs on the small screen. But as more and more streaming platforms crop up throwing a metric tonne of prestige television offerings at us to gain subscription, one thing has become abundantly clear... The anti-hero is here to stay. The morally reprehensible yet charismatic protagonist played by a recent oscar winner set in a moody, sepia-toned world has become less of a creative choice but more of a recognisable formulaic marketing ploy.
This is not in any way to diminish the performances and production teams who I believe are truly championing quality content in most cases. But it is compelling to see the exponential rise of such television: ranging from the excellent Mrs America to the middling Little Fires Everywhere down to the comical sequel seasons of 13 Reasons Why. There is something endlessly marketable about muted colours apparently. This is a societal shift. Media is merely reflecting the temperaments of the time as it always has. The great sitcoms like Seinfeld seemingly “about nothing” perfectly encapsulated the ennui of the relatively prosperous 90s. Scathing satires like Arrested Development, 30 Rock and earnest dramas like the West Wing defined the tenuous Bush era when faith in governments had precipitously fallen. And right before this current rogue's gallery of anti-heroes, the television landscape was quite different. Between 2008 and 2016 we transitioned from colourful feel-good comedies such as Parks and Recreation to angry pervy Fleabag. To understand how we got here and why corporate entities like Warner Media, Disney, Comcast seem to mine this trope so enthusiastically, we need to understand how this “character” has evolved.
In Mrs America, a deliciously hammy Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly chastised a room by looking into the camera and saying with all the gusto of a good cartoon villain, “Women are like teabags, you don’t know their strength until they are in hot water”. On the reason for representing problematic women like the anti-ERA conservative Schlafley or a homophobic Betty Friedan, show-creator Waller commented, “The central question for me was, sisterhood is powerful, but is it transcendent? Does it transcend our tribalism?”. Previously, issues like sisterhood were relegated to glossy romantic comedies set in probably New York City. Whereas white men seemingly had a monopoly on frustrated messy characters raging against the machine - which ironically was of their own creation. We followed Don Draper in Mad Men, cheered for his brilliant ad campaigns and felt bad for him when his destructive life habits wreaked havoc on the lives of his wives and co-workers. We were even subliminally asked to aspire to be him.
Opening your TV now ... you will not see any Don Drapers. There is a new breed of lead characters. This new anti-hero is a lot more likely to be a woman (or a woman of colour) who actively discourages the viewer to relate to them. Allowing for a critical distance to see the folly of their moral failures. Since the end of Mad Men or Breaking Bad, unbeknownst to us, we have been living through a cultural revolution. From the rise in global nationalism and its counter culture to a renewed Civil Rights movement to the #MeToo Movement. Add uncertain geopolitics and frustrations with widening social inequities and you’ve got people who are less patient… less tolerant of the frivolity of bad actors. Much like shows before this it behoves the industry to recognise this rage that’s bubbling within. We are already seeing manifest. In BoJack Horseman, even an anthropomorphic horse is held accountable for his prior transgressions despite having transformed himself by the end of the series.
Television has answered the call and has been rewarded handily for it by consumers. Marquee items for streaming platforms usually feature the aforementioned protagonist who speaks to the current instability. Netflix built its brand image on the backs of gritty dramas like Orange Is the New Black and the operatic House of Cards (which itself became a casualty of this new era thanks to Kevin Spacey). AppleTV and Hulu are pursuing a similar strategy as well. HBO has “not been television” for decades by using this tactic and has cemented itself as the beloved home of quality.
Nothing spells success like a faithful representation of stories and it just so happens that right now our story can only be represented by pastiches of our very own real-world anti-heroes.