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Bad Guys on TV

In a recent episode of "The Office," clueless boss Michael Scott (Steve Carell) decides to dispatch his workplace nemesis by planting marijuana in the man's desk for the police to find. "Does seem awfully mean," Michael says in a fleeting moment of doubt. "But sometimes, the ends justify the mean." Michael's plan ultimately fails, mostly because the marijuana he thinks he's buying is a baggie filled with basil-heavy caprese salad. But as funny as the plot is, what's funnier is how much it resembles storylines on dramas such as "Dexter," "The Shield" and an upcoming episode of "Damages." By now, we've seen plenty of TV characters wield illegal substances to accomplish their objectives. For the trope to trickle down to a screwball comedy just goes to show that in television, there has never been a better time to be bad.

A year and a half ago, audiences were debating whether Tony lived or died during the coy blackout in the finale of "The Sopranos." It's pretty clear now that Tony —or at least the antihero archetype he created—lives just about everywhere on TV: Jack Bauer, the torture-happy federal agent of "24"; Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), the pinup-boy serial killer of "Dexter"; Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the two-faced ad exec of "Mad Men." What would Emmy voters do without them? These kinds of fully rendered characters—dark canvases streaked with some light—have changed the television landscape to the point where what we see on the small screen is, pound for pound, superior to what we see at the movies. But here's a really dark thought: has this so-called golden age gone too gray? In the quest to avoid the old black-and-white archetypes, has the pendulum swung too far toward morally ambiguous characters? Remember how shocked—and thrilled—we were when Tony strangled a mob turncoat in the middle of touring colleges with his daughter? Now no self-respecting TV protagonist would flinch at the prospect of shedding a little blood in the name of a greater good. What once seemed daring now feels predictable.

You could argue that the political climate of the past eight years primed audiences for antihero worship, that in the midst of a war started with faulty intelligence, suspected terrorists sent to black sites and a domestic eavesdropping program, it's no wonder we would be interested in delving deeply into the true motives underlying the actions of powerful people. People like Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) of FX's "Damages," an attorney who exacts litigious revenge on unethical corporations that hurt innocent people, no matter how unethically she has to behave or how many innocent people (or animals) she has to hurt to do it. Or people like Charles Barker (Patrick Swayze) of A&E's "The Beast," a shady FBI agent, unaware that his new partner is actually investigating his actions. And how about Nathan Ford (Timothy Hutton) of TNT's "Leverage," the leader of a group of criminals who help little guys settle scores with greedy corporations—the Robin Hoods of Wall Street? Ford says that "sometimes bad guys make the best good guys," but considering that all three of these shows premiere new episodes this month, it's starting to seem as if bad guys are the only good guys.

This is not the first case of Hollywood's "if it sells, make more" mentality, as dozens of flourishing "Survivor" knockoffs prove. But antihero shows are different in that they are inherently self-limiting. As any fan of "24," "Weeds" or "Dexter" can attest, at the end of each stake-raising season the viewer thinks, "That was interesting, but where can they possibly go from here?" During the last season of "24," after years of thrilling audiences by keeping the world on the precipice of terrorist horror, the writers chose to have a nuclear weapon actually detonate in a populated area. Narratively, the show has yet to recover. On the other hand, in the finale of "The Shield," Vic Mackey, once a hard-charging renegade detective, isn't dealt the violent death many thought he deserved and had coming. Instead, he's sentenced to what amounts to life imprisonment as a paper pusher, disconnected from his family, his friends or any connection to a real life. It was a pitch-perfect ending, accomplished by ratcheting down the extreme plotting rather than turning it up. "I think that was the key to the longevity of the show—not trying to say, 'Boy, we did all this outrageous stuff, what can we do that's more outrageous?' " said Shawn Ryan, the show's creator, at a screening of the finale. "I think the show became less outrageous over the years. I think if we had gone the other direction, I think we would have flamed out quicker." But as Jack Bauer can attest, not everyone shares Ryan's restraint.

The other narrative problem with antiheroes is not that they are flawed but that they are flawless. At least, they are infallible. Jack makes unconscionable decisions at every turn, but he's never, ever wrong. In the season-seven premiere, he faces off against Sen. Blaine Meyer (Kurtwood Smith) during a hearing by a committee examining his actions. "For a combat soldier, the difference between success and failure is the ability to adapt to your enemy," Jack tells the senator. "The people I deal with, they don't care about your rules. All they care about is results." Jack, of course, gets them every single time. The misanthropic doctor of "House" might offend you, but he'll succeed in coming up with some obscure diagnosis that has eluded everyone else. Dexter kills only criminals who have escaped justice, and he does meticulous research to make sure the person is guilty before he does the deed. Traditional hero characters are usually right, too, especially on episodic, self contained shows, but their infallibility isn't a crucial component of the character's success. If the detectives on "Law & Order" arrest the wrong guy initially, as they so often do, at least their cause was noble. Dexter doesn't get to accidentally kill an innocent, nor does Jack get to torture someone to flesh out a faulty hunch. Antiheroes don't get the luxury of being wrong, and audiences are robbed of the opportunity to watch these characters deal with the consequences of their mistakes.

First the dotcom bubble, then the housing bubble and soon the antihero bubble. As these characters are transformed from innovative to imitative, viewers will inevitably tire of them, if they haven't already. For all the hype around "Mad Men" and "Damages," they are still watched by a fraction of the audience that turned out for "The Sopranos." But that doesn't mean that this chapter of great television is coming to a close. What TV needs now, in these uncertain times, is dramatic characters like those of Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick ("Once and Again," "thirtysomething") or on "Brothers and Sisters"—characters who aren't trying to save the world or plunder it, but are just trying to subsist in it. After all, aren't the times we're living in dramatic enough?