But I have a confession to make: I’ve becoming addicted to television again, for the first time perhaps since I was a high school student. Now, I’m not talking about watching shows on network TV, which is still filled with banal drivel (ever see “Two and a Half Men” or “How I Met Your Mother?”). No, what I’m talking about is the veritable renaissance that is occurring on cable TV—what has rightly been referred to as a new golden age of television, one that, in my estimation at least, may actually surpass those two other “golden ages” that occurred in the early 1950s and early 1970s. In fact, Cable networks like HBO, Showtime, and AMC and the Internet giant, Netflix, are producing series that are infinitely richer and more emotionally engrossing than anything that has ever been produced for television in the past.
There are far too many great programs now on cable TV for me to talk about all of them. Instead, I’ll focus on three in particular that millions of Americans like myself just can’t seem to get enough of: “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” and “House of Cards.” What these series have in common is that they rely on complex story arcs that span over multiple seasons, focus on complicated, morally compromised characters who evolve as these series progress, and have an almost philosophical preoccupation with exploring the meaning of our human condition.
But there’s something even more important that they all have in common: these series all have at their centers main characters who gleefully embrace lifestyles that can only be described as morally reprehensible and even evil. Walter White (“Breaking Bad”), Don Draper (“Mad Men”), and Frank Underwood (“House of Cards”) are men driven by pure egoistic self-absorption, who don’t give a damn about other people’s feelings or needs, and who will do just about anything they need to (lie, cheat, break the law, and at times kill innocents) to get what they want (sex, money, prestige, and power).
None of these characters would exist, of course, if David Chase, the creator of “The Sopranos,” hadn’t first demonstrated that audiences could come to care about—even love—a completely immoral central character, provided that character was endowed with realistic motivations and feelings that the audience could relate to. Tony Soprano was not just a vicious mobster—although he certainly could be extremely nasty at times. He was a man who was forced to live up to the legacy of his father, had to care for difficult family members, and had his own web of neuroses and insecurities with which to contend. In short, Tony was just like you and me, although his job frequently compelled him to kill people who got in his way.
Walter White, on the other hand, seems to be driven at first by the quite understandable desire to care for his family after he is diagnosed with lung cancer, but this, as we all well know, is just a façade. In a telling scene that occurs towards the end of the series’ run, White meets with his wife, Skylar, one last time in order to provide an explanation for the actions he took that destroyed their family:
Skyler: If you tell me one more time that you did this for the family...
Walt: I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was, really... I was alive.
Manufacturing and distributing drugs, killing off the opposition, even manipulating those he supposedly cares about—Walter does all these things not out of necessity, but because he loves it, because being a drug kingpin gives him the kind of cool rush and inner satisfaction that nothing else in life can.
Without a doubt the character that best embodies this unabashed, unrestricted will to power is “House of Cards” Frank Underwood. Completely understanding the logic of existence in a morality-free universe, Frank has managed to eradicate from his personality any vestiges of humanity and compassion that might make him weak or vulnerable. There is simply nothing that Underwood won’t do to achieve his goal of becoming the most powerful man in the world, and this includes murder if necessary. In Frank Underwood’s universe everyone exists to be used and the ability to effectively manipulate others becomes the highest virtue of all.
Because they act while most human beings remain passive and because they are willing to take risks to master their fates, we are willing to forgive just about anything these characters do, no matter how despicable it might seem. Is it any coincidence that each of these men came from humble origins and had to overcome tremendous odds to achieve what they did? Subconsciously, I think that viewers relate to these anti-heroes because, compared to an economic elite (the top 1%) that caused the entire American economy to collapse and which has actually benefited financially from that collapse, the actions of men like Walter White, Don Draper, and Frank Underwood almost seem reasonable. It’s like one of our own getting back at “the system,” and that, I think, is what makes us root for them.
By comparison, consider the female characters in each of these shows and how unpopular they are with audiences. Skylar White and Betty Draper—like Carmella Soprano before them—are viewed by audiences as passive but also morally complicit in their husband’s immoral activities. None of these women intentionally choose the life of evil; they simply accept the social and economic benefits that accrue to themselves because of the more deliberative choices that their husbands make. They may bitch and moan, but they don’t DO anything.
In this sense, Claire Underwood fits somewhat outside the mold of the poor, beleaguered anti-hero’s wife. She’s definitively Lady MacBeth to Frank’s MacBeth. Like Lady MacBeth, Claire is an active partner in her husband’s political machinations, but, like Lady MacBeth as well, there seems to be a limit to how far her conscience might enable her to go (Can you imagine Frank shedding tears after destroying someone who stood in his way?). Since the show is still in its infancy, it remains to be seen if Claire Underwood will prove more popular in the long run than her female counterparts.
Television viewing at its best is a cathartic experience. In the 1950s and 60s we wanted television to soothe us. We wanted to feel like the world was an intelligible place, that our social and political leaders had our best interests at heart, and that hard work and dedication could lead to upward social mobility. Today we know that none of this is true and we question whether anything we do in life—whether individually or collectively—will make any difference at all. Apparently, we need men like Walter White, Don Draper, and Frank Underwood to convince us that, despite appearances to the contrary, the individual still matters and the deliberative choices a person makes can actually produce beneficial results.
In the end, I would argue, it’s not the darkness per se of these characters that we love, but their willingness to act on the great stage of life…whatever the consequences. That’s what separates them from the rest of us, and that’s the source of our unquenchable fascination with them.