The reason that companies such as HBO, Showtime, FX, and AMC are breaking viewing records (seemingly every other week), garnering enough award nominations to make Meryl Streep dizzy, and now being able to stand eye-to-eye against the plateauing film industry is because of their unstoppable commitment to pushing the envelope. In no way am I saying this is a bad thing. We’ve seen some of the greatest shows to ever grace the small screen come out of the recent years (Breaking Bad, Homeland, Boardwalk Empire), but my question is when will they not be able to push any more?
As AMC’s landmark, drug-laced criminal empire drama Breaking Bad put down the meth pipe for good this year, it got me thinking about the character of Walter White. Television has never seen such an evil, antihero character as a protagonist before, and the world at large seems to love it. Why? Well, that’s a whole other issue that I don’t know the answer to. But — as one of the show’s biggest fans myself — I can’t help but think how will television create a character that pushes more boundaries than Heisenberg himself (don’t forget we’ve seen our Bad characters shoot an innocent kid point blank and then dissolve his body in acid…).
The road has been paved way before Heisenberg by characters such as Tony Soprano and Omar from The Wire, giving the world a glimpse of just how interesting, layered and addicting these antiheroes can be — only raising the desire for more and more to come. Just as network and prime-time television really started to incorporate these damaged, dark and sometimes criminal characters into their shows (such as Sawyer from LOST, the Prison Break gang and Dr. House himself, to name a few), HBO, Showtime, FX and AMC also seemed to put their antihero stories into high-gear as of late.
We, as a television audience, are now excited for new TV antiheroes. We invest in their stories and, with great kudos to their amazing writers, we get attached and connected to them, always trying to see the good in everything they do and every choice that they make. In the past five years alone we’ve fallen in love with Mad Men‘s womanizing and alcoholic Don Draper, Dexter‘s serial-killer Dexter Morgan, Boardwalk Empire‘s corrupt politician Nucky Thompson, the entire Sons of Anarchy motorcycle gang, the back-woods criminal brothers Daryl and Merle Dixon from The Walking Dead and even Nicholas Brody, who very well may be a terrorist bent on killing the President of the United States on Homeland… and there are many more where that comes from (but you get the point). It seems that these antiheroes are only getting “worse” in terms of crimes and of way of life, and it’s obvious that this is intentional.
But isn’t there only so far they can go? Showtime’s Entertainment President David Nevins has explicitly even come out and said that they have crafted their newest show Ray Donovan in a way that is a little restrained, making the titular antihero a little less evil than he could have been because there is no way to beat Bryan Cranston’s Walter White. With that being said though, even as companies are becoming aware of the impending wall they are going to hit in their antiheroes’ descents, I would be utterly surprised if every company wasn’t always trying to find a show that will push the boundaries of the previous. It’s obviously a very smart plan; I would do the exact same thing if I were in charge of choosing the “next big show” — these darker topics have shown to be by far the most successful. This mindset is unmistakably apparent in recent television as a whole, with not many topics seeming to be “off-limits.” We already have drug dealing and manufacturing, serial killing, zombie mutilating, arms dealing, terrorist plotting, corrupt politicking and now, starting this fall, Showtime is premiering Masters of Sex, a show that literally follows two researchers of human sexuality through their lives and experiments, as if a lot of overtly realistic and graphic sex isn’t taboo enough in television (I’m looking at you HBO’s Girls).
At the end of the day, we all love the boundary pushing and it is truly now a staple of all types of entertainment — whether it be television, film, music or literature, there is a constant desire to be unique, original and to push the envelope further than the last. Like I said earlier, I am a huge fan of this, but my only question is at what point will we no longer be able to push the envelope? It seems to me, looking at current television, that it is pushed very far already. Will there be a point where we are no longer surprised or left aghast by something on TV? I’m not sure, but we will definitely find out soon enough.