The Demise of the TV Antihero


In late September, both "Breaking Bad" and "Dexter" will finish off their notable cable-TV runs, closing the book on two of prime time's most reprehensible lead characters.

I have no clue as to what fates await ruthless drug dealer Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and coldblooded serial killer Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall). I don't know if they'll pay for their sins with their lives, or flee to parts unknown -- or just disappear as the screen annoyingly fades to black.

But the bottom line is they'll both be done, and it might be a while before we see the likes of them again.

Since the late 1990s, when Tony Soprano started sending people to live with the fishes, the so-called antihero has been all

the rage on television -- especially cable. Shows such as "The Shield," "Deadwood," "Sons of Anarchy" and "Boardwalk Empire" delivered crooks and killers whose actions grew increasingly despicable, leading to what FX president John Landgraf calls "a nuclear arms race of darkness."

"Dexter" and "Breaking Bad" both did their parts to escalate that race by taking TV to places previously considered way out of bounds. Who thought viewers would follow, much less embrace, a forensics expert with a flesh-carving fetish? And when had we ever seen a mild-mannered chemistry teacher morph into an out-of-control, murderous monster?

Now, it's time to pull back. "I can't imagine a protagonist darker than Walter White," Landgraf at the recent TV critics press tour. "I think that's the end of the road for out-darking each other."

That sentiment has been echoed by David Nevins, entertainment president for Showtime, the network that gave us "Dexter." He suspects that, when it comes to truly depraved antiheroes, TV has reached the saturation point.

"I think we're now sort of seeing some movement back away from the extreme edge," Nevins said during the press tour. "I don't think you can keep going further to the left of what Bryan Cranston is doing on 'Breaking Bad.' I'm sure somebody will figure out how to go further to the left of him, but there's also interest in more in the middle."

Of course, we're not about to see the end of flawed, or "morally ambiguous," characters. They're scattered all over prime time and are here to stay. But in the near future they might more closely resemble the Hollywood fixer played by Liev Schreiber in Showtime's freshman hit "Ray Donovan," than Walter White.

"Ray Donovan is much more of a guy in the middle who's actually trying to be on the right side and, most of the time, is on the right side of the law," explains Nevins. "(He's) mostly trying to be a good man in a more conventional sense of law abiding, you know,

societal norms."

That doesn't mean brutal bad guys are totally gone. AMC, home of "Breaking Bad," recently debuted "Low Winter Sun," a gritty drama with shades of "The Shield," about two Detroit cops who have killed a fellow detective.

But, despite being impressed by some solid performances by Mark Strong and Lennie James, I agree with New York magazine's Matt Zoller Seitz, who recently wrote that the show feels like a relic from TV's past. Meanwhile, he adds, the "vein of pop-culture ore" opened by "The Sopranos" has been strip-mined and tapped.

Even Vince Gilligan, the writer-producer who blessed us with "Breaking Bad," is ready for a change. When recently asked what kind of show he might want to work on next, he replied, "The best thing you can do is to not try and repeat it. If ("Breaking Bad") is an apple, go out and make an orange."

And as for the near future of the relentlessly dark bad guys, Gilligan agrees that the pendulum is swinging the other way.

"I don't have a crystal ball," he says, "but maybe where we go from here is that characters get less dark and antiheroic and perhaps they start to get lighter again."

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