The rise of the anti-hero and the lure of the dark side in television

Why we relish the villains in our TV shows.

Rami Malek in Mr Robot. USA Network / NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
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Heroes with pure hearts have become as rare as dragon’s teeth now that the anti-heroes, with blurred morals and dubious motives, have risen to rule the television roost.

We need look no further than two of the most acclaimed current shows – House of Cards, with Kevin Spacey as murderous, deceptive US President Frank Underwood, and Mr Robot, with Rami Malek as antisocial vigilante hacker Elliott Anderson – to see that you are more likely to score a hit series nowadays when your main character is weighed down by dark deeds or evil ­intentions.

Even anti-heroes who seem to be working on the side of good never quite escape the pull of their "dark passengers", which is good news for viewers who love their morally complex struggled and adventures. Think of serial-killing vigilante Dexter (Michael C Hall), who did not just help police solve murders with his forensics expertise, he executed the guilty who escaped justice; or The Blacklist's suave master criminal Raymond "Red" Reddington (James Spader), who teaches recent FBI graduate Elizabath Keen (Megan Boone) to think like a crook as he helps her hunt down other crooks, all the time pursuing his own mysterious agenda.

The bad guys won

“Everybody’s evil now – in a generation and a half, this has been a complete transformation,” says Robert J Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University and founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture.

“Back when I was a kid, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, [on TV] doctors made house calls and always cured their patients. Lawyers won all of their cases and always defended good guys. There really was a sense that everybody who was the star of a show was an unambiguous hero. And let’s face it – that was pretty unrealistic.”

Lady killers

While the majority of our ­anti-heroes are bad boys, we've also got the likes of Marvel's Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), a former superhero struggling to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder who has mostly turned her back on her super powers to open a detective agency. Then there is Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) in the political thriller Scandal, who runs a crisis-­management firm while her own life is in constant crisis. And, of course, some of the bad girls end up behind bars.

"In Orange Is the New Black, whether you see it as comedy or drama, right off the bat the premise was that Piper (Taylor Schilling) was in jail – it doesn't get any more anti-hero than that," says Thompson. "She wasn't in jail for a crime she didn't commit."

Blame it on the soaps

From the dawn of the television age, daytime soap operas such as General Hospital and All My Children have proved that the most enduring roles, and the best characters, are the villains.

But it wasn’t until the late 1970s that primetime TV really embraced these kinds of soapier, steamier and dirtier deeds, as it evolved into a more serialised style storytelling in favour of stand-alone episodes and characters that never developed or changed.

The show that broke the mould

The proto-anti-hero, so to speak, to emerge during this era was conniving rogue J R Ewing (Larry Hagman) on Dallas (1978-1991), the wildly popular primetime soap about feuding Texas oil families.

"Dallas was one of the first major, primetime, popular No 1 shows whose beloved main character really was a despicable creature," says Thompson. "J R Ewing really was a scoundrel – and, of course, we loved the twinkle in his eye. He's what made that show work."

The success of Dallas was a springboard for later hits including The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad (and its spin-off, Better Call Saul), Game of Thrones, Banshee and The Walking Dead, with protagonists who tread the line between good and evil in this golden age of television drama.

"What we saw in that television of the 1950s and 1960s and even into the 1970s was really kind of a whitewashed form of storytelling," says Thompson. "We may have very fond memories ... but it also had some really severe limitations. I prefer to live in a world that now has a Breaking Bad as opposed to a world that just had [talking horse] Mister Ed."

House of Cards, Mr Robot, Better Call Saul, The Blacklist and Scandal are broadcast on OSN First. Jessica Jones and Orange Is the New Black are available on Netflix. Game of Thrones returns on April 25 on OSN First HBO