For a long time, American television was obsessed with heroism. If the show was broadcast before the late 90s, you can usually count on the fact that the main character was going to be a heroic, inspirational figure. There were tons of medical shows that featured doctors who managed to save yet another life every episode, and cop shows that told stories of police officers always doing the right thing in the face of danger.
That era of television isn’t necessarily over. There are still plenty of shows with do-gooder protagonists, and there will always likely be a place for those kind of shows. However, over the last 20 years, audiences have been slowly introduced to a new kind of main character: the anti-hero.
The concept of the anti-hero is simple: it’s a central character who displays characteristics that aren’t always pleasant and heroic. This archetype has long existed in theater, film, and literature, but it’s still relatively new in television. Here are examples of some of the most interesting anti-heroes found on modern television, and why they fit the mold.
Gregory House, “House”
Dr. Gregory House fulfills the archetype of the hero *and* the anti-hero. Throughout the series, he makes it a mission to save the life of every patient that comes in front of him at all costs. That may sound appealing, but the operative term here is “at all costs.” Those costs often come at the expense of the patient and the patient’s family. House will open metaphorical wounds in the family. He will lie to his patients and ethics boards. He might even break into a patient’s house. Oh yeah, and he’s hardly above spewing harmful racial and gender stereotypes to his employees.
That said, he saves lives, and even though he may turn his patients against him during the process, they are typically grateful by the end, as it’s clear that no one else would have gone to the lengths that House would.
Tony Soprano, “The Sopranos”
Tony Soprano may not have been the *first* anti-hero on television, but there’s no question that he was the first one to become a cultural reference point. Soprano, a godfather of a prominent mob family in New York and New Jersey, is a complicated man. He loves his wife; he also cheats on her regularly. He adheres to a strict moral code that mandates he protect those in his community; he also kills and assaults people.
The show does its best to portray Soprano as sympathetically as possible, and does it well. It’s clear that he’s something of a reluctant boss who inherited the family business because he literally knew nothing else during his childhood. It’s also clear he is in a maelstrom of emotional turmoil, as evidenced by the fact that he is in therapy for the duration of the series. But if you’re going to say none of that excuses decapitating someone over a horse, it’s hard to disagree with that.
Carrie Mathison, “Homeland”
The anti-hero trend on television has been largely placed upon male characters, and this has been a source of criticism for television critics. The trend is slowly starting to change though, and that’s in large part thanks to Homeland. Carrie Mathison is an intensely dedicated CIA agent who is the only person who suspects a recently returned prisoner of war of a heinous crime. She makes it her life’s purpose to reveal the truth.
Of course, when you dedicate yourself so fully to a single purpose, you may be willing to bend some pretty important rules to fulfill your goals. Carrie engages in illegal wiretapping and she regularly undermines her superiors. She also hides a debilitating medical condition. It’s clear that Carrie means well, but it’s also clear that she does plenty of damage in the process.
Frank Underwood, “House of Cards”
If you’re cynical about modern American politics, then it is a safe bet that House of Cards is one of your favorite shows, and there is *no one* more cynical than the show’s protagonist, Frank Underwood. At the beginning of the series, Underwood is betrayed on a promise that he will be given a cabinet position in the administration of the newly-elected president. Rather than take his losses, he, um, makes other plans. He doesn’t set his vengeful eyes on only the person who took his job; he sets them even higher.
Throughout the series, we see Underwood’s intellect and unquenchable thirst for power on full display, and there is little that he won’t do on his march to American history. If you don’t already watch the show, you might be wondering what his sympathetic and redeemable qualities are. Here’s the thing: people who *do* watch the show are wondering what those may be as well.
Walter White, “Breaking Bad”
At the beginning of the hit AMC show, Walter White is a mild-mannered teacher with a loving family. However, he is diagnosed with cancer in the first episode. If this show had premiered in 1988, the show’s storyline most likely would have probably had Walter make amends with other family members while he valiantly fights his ailment. But in 2008, the show’s creators thought a, um, different approach was called for. Mainly, Walter starts distributing methamphetamine and developing a criminal empire.
Walter keeps some of his lovable dad characteristics for the first couple of seasons. After all, the reason he starts engaging in criminal activity is to raise enough money to leave for his family when he dies. But greed and hunger for power start to blind Walter as the series goes on, and the formerly polite chemistry teacher becomes “the one who knocks.”