What is this strange hold Nancy Botwin has over me? Her misadventures as a pot-dealing single mom in the Showtime TV series Weeds are now in their seventh season and somehow I’m still watching, even as she irritates the hell out of me. The ludicrously lucky Nancy careens though one self-inflicted crisis after another while ruining the lives of everyone around her. I’m reminded of being annoyed weekly by Brian Kinney, the anti-hero of Showtime’s hit remake of Queer as Folk, whose commitment to hedonism seemed less about fun and more about some kind of psychosis.
This kind of character appears to be Showtime’s brand. Whereas acclaimed competitor HBO has created several hit TV series through careful world-building (taking us inside the New Jersey mob, the LA funeral industry, the Manhattan singles scene, a maximum-security prison, ancient Rome and now the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros), Showtime’s successes have been built on the shaky psyche of a single truly fucked-up person.
To illustrate, here’s a quiz I put together with quotes from their website. Match the series to the description of its main character:
5) United States of Tara
6) Nurse Jackie
a) “a personal life on the constant edge of collapse, it’s going to take a white lie here, a bent rule there”
b) “dodging disaster since day one, but always had a special talent for manipulating”
c) “never gives up hope that someday she can just be herself”
d) “lives by a strict code of honor that is both saving grace and lifelong burden”
e) “the kids have found ways to grow up in spite of him”
f) “his personal life is in shambles, his career is on the brink of self–destruction and he still just can’t stop”
The anti-hero has long been a staple of film (Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces arguably the best example) and in literature (Patricia Highsmith‘s Tom Ripley my personal favourite) so it’s surprising that television, with hours and hours to potentially devote to character, took so long to adopt the archetype but viewers, especially American ones, have generally preferred to allow nice people into their living rooms each night. In the 1970s, All in the Family‘s racist curmudgeon Archie Bunker was quickly defanged after it appeared many viewers didn’t get the satire and, in one of my favourite experiments, the 1996 Fox series Profit featured a Wall Street psychopath who cheats, blackmails and murders his way to the top:
Critics enjoyed Profit‘s droll, dark comedy but viewers recoiled and the show only aired eight episodes. A decade and a half later, however, we’ve now seen five seasons of Dexter, the serial killer who makes Jim Profit look like a choirboy, even as he fumbles towards humanity. Such a conflicted character is a gift to an actor playing him and to audiences bored of the old standard-issue TV cop/lawyer/doctor types. We’ve evolved.
But all these shows are a race against time. How long can Dexter’s murderous moonlighting go on before his unsuspecting sister and police colleagues begin to appear hopelessly stupid to us viewers? How long can Nurse Jackie and the family in Shameless sustain ways of living that are clearly unsustainable? How long can the natural charm of actors Mary-Louise Parker and David Duchovny make up for their characters’ complete inability to learn from their damn mistakes? If any one of these series’ characters ever got some clearly much-needed help, their stories would end. While I was disappointed by the recent cancellation of United States of Tara, a fun showcase for the wonderful Toni Collette, it was clear that its premise had no more than one year left in it and its now-final episode thankfully ended on a natural, graceful note.
In a column about the AMC series Breaking Bad, whose crystal-meth dealer has gone from victim to villain and represents the peak(?) of this trend, LA Times writer Robert Lloyd asks, “Are you sick of TV antiheroes?” While it’s obvious that he is (leading me to recommend him NBC‘s Parenthood as a fine series finding the drama in everyday life), the comments are divided and lively. As frustrating as Showtime’s stable can be, a great many of us will continue to be fascinated by all that messiness, while wondering who could possibly top serial killers and drug kingpins as our next lovable TV personalities.
Better still is that while viewers gawk at the freak show in the centre ring, we’re getting a steady stream of side characters who represent typically marginalized people. These series have brought gay teens, addicts, families living in poverty, the mentally ill and illegal immigrants into people’s homes and told their stories. If television can get us to sympathize with narcissists, criminals and monsters, maybe we can learn to like each other.