Anti-Heroics with a Side of Boredom
William Brafford wonders about the meaning behind the rise of the anti-hero in the television shows favored by certain audiences (and, not to point the finger at myself too much, by a certain writer). He concludes:
There are two motions here: there’s a larger structure of judgment, within which the characters’ bad choices are shown to be harmful, but scene-by-scene the viewer’s enticed by the allure of the anti-hero. I suspect that this is not moral seriousness, but rather the sense of it. (Emphasis added)
That last sentence is doing a lot of work, but we should make sure to recognize it for what it is: a very salient critique of this type of television (and film, and literature). The Sopranos, for instance, puts the viewer in a position of cheering for one group of objectively bad people to triumph over another objectively bad (subjectively worse) group—or, in fact more frequently, to triumph over the good guys. Ultimately, The Sopranos begins to criticize precisely this sentiment in its viewers—David Chase, from what I understand, was somewhat disturbed by it.
While I wouldn’t characterize Mad Men as a show involving anti-heroes, the same movement William outlines can be seen: the allure, and the talk, about the show during its first two seasons had more to do with the cigarettes, the martini-lunches, and the womanizing than with the quality of the writing. (Rod Dreher wrote an essay some years ago touching on this; it, unfortunately, seems to have sunk to the depths of the internet along with the rest of Culture11.)
This criticism is more of the audience than of the work itself. As William notes, it is a particular audience more than a general one. (He uses the term “young Bobos” which, I suppose, gets the point across well enough that it would be distracting to quibble.) I’m tempted to root this in boredom—how there must be a counterpoint to shows like Friends and Seinfeld that are about (single) people of a certain age and a certain class leading very bored lives. Sort of the sense of the Don DeLillo problem: is he really suggesting that the only way to escape our life-numbing boredom is through acts of violence, or is he simply describing characters who can’t see any other way?
But maybe there’s also a sense of wanting to have our cake and eat it, too—that, unable to accept or even understand our own imperfections, we seek a means of justifying the failures we’ve taught ourselves to accept as natural. By this I don’t mean merely the sense that we’re not “as bad as” Tony Soprano or “as much” a man-child as Roger Sterling. No, it’s the moral problematic of the contemporary depiction of good and evil: that neither is ever quite what it seems. This is the demand of both the producers and the consumers of our literature, printed and visual—but it is not the Karamazovian gap which Dostoevsky described.
But Fyodor Mikhailovich wrote with the drive of a prophet. Our contemporary muddying is, more often than not, too formulaically fatalistic: every saint’s a sinner and every sinner a saint. The unmasking has grown expected. The good are closet hypocrites and the evil are, at the very least, slightly mundane, and nothing we can do will ever change this—so this state of affairs shouldn’t be considered so problematic. As long as we stop short of genocide, the only sin is passing judgment—because who am I? And even on myself—because I will always be this way.
One can see, I suppose, how this might lead us very quickly back to boredom.