Whether it’s a reflection of culture or not, the villain protagonist on TV has now become the most popular form of lead character on fictional TV. In fact, you don’t even have to say fiction any longer when you consider that far too many reality shows have leads that aren’t exactly standout citizens. However, no matter their moral failings and other qualms, they almost always have a strong connection and respect for family. You can see that from the blurred reality/non-reality divide of “Duck Dynasty” all the way to “Breaking Bad.”
With “Breaking Bad” over now, we saw the ultimate moral dilemma play out in epic terms: An ambiguous hero who tried to help his family and ended up getting in to a moral morass that had no escape. While it might be easy to question why Walter White didn’t stay within the framework of being ethical and merely start an annuity for his family, it also brought forth the complications of health care in this country. When someone is dying from cancer, it puts that person into a bind about how his own medically-challenged family is going to cope financially after everything is said and done.
Was that the real attraction of “Breaking Bad”, or is society simply more riveted with anti-heroes? Walter White at least had the advantage of evolving rather than becoming a villain protagonist from the beginning. That was obviously to the advantage of the show and what made it so ripe for lengthy discussions online about the moral complexities. What’s happened to the hero on television, though, that he’s taken a back seat to the villain as the lead?
The hero on TV might have seemed too predictable in the last few years, even if heroes from TV’s earliest days always had a dark side. It’s true that you see very few classic heroes on TV now. Any recent exception would be NBC’s “Revolution” where you have a few heroes, despite those characters being forced into that mode for survival. Even as “Revolution” heads into future seasons, we’ll likely see a scenario where ethical rules go out the window in order to survive.
That seems to be the true reason why society loves watching villain protagonists so much. It’s likely vicarious and creates a storm inside of us about what we’d do when our backs are up against the wall. Would we become like Walter White if we found out we had cancer and wanted to leave money to our family after death? Or would we stay within our principles and try something more ethical?
Some critics of “Breaking Bad” might say that the show glamorized meth dealing to a point where there might be real-life copycats. Those who defended the show might say that it showed enough of the dark side to the underground drug industry to keep people from ever emulating Walt. Still others may just want more ethical debates from TV in a time when the lines of ethics seem to become more blurred all the time.
Will we see more shows with the villain protagonist in the mold of Walter White? While it might seem inevitable, a TV producer would do us a favor finding something unexpected. And that might come in the variation of the hero who finds himself unneeded in a society because that particular society has become overly benevolent. Likewise, an idea of a villain becoming irrelevant because society is within the lines of his own thinking would bring something different to prevent a “Breaking Bad” derivative.
Most importantly, any more characters like this will have to show a strong logic for being that way before it’s accepted. Had Walter White been a villain protagonist from the very beginning, viewers probably would have rejected it all. No matter what the ethics are of a character, an overreaching arc showing their transformation is where the power of a TV character lies.
All we can do now is wait for the variations, and perhaps one done in reverse where going from being a villain to a hero becomes a bad, bad thing.
Welcome to a more complex world for human beings reflected on your nearby AMC and HBO station.