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The best antihero dramas aren’t vicarious thrill rides. They’re morality plays in reverse.

The recent glut of bad antihero dramas makes it worth remembering what makes for a good antihero drama.

Breaking Bad
Walter White gained the world but lost his soul. That made him compelling.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

For whatever reason, we are suddenly inundated with lots of bad antihero dramas, shows that looked at The Sopranos or Breaking Bad and thought, “I could do that!” — only to learn just how hard it is to make the genre compelling.

Two recent Netflix releases, Gypsy and Ozark, know the words to sing but have no sense of the tune their betters followed. And the upcoming fall TV season is positively lousy with bad antihero shows — both dramas and comedies. They invite viewers to revel in the bad choices made by their protagonists, but also think those bad choices are the only interesting things about the characters.

On Gypsy, for instance, Naomi Watts’s character lives a double life for seemingly no other reason than “other shows about antiheroes involved them living double lives.” There’s no foundation — just edifice.

This is to say nothing of all of the facile, hollow antihero dramas that’ve been on the air for a while, like Showtime’s Ray Donovan and Netflix’s House of Cards. And just about every network has, at one time or another since The Sopranos launched in 1999, come up with a bad antihero drama of its own. But why is it so difficult to make a great antihero drama? What’s the difference between a Breaking Bad and a Gypsy?

The simple answer is that great antihero dramas aren’t just about the bad choices their characters make — they’re about the good choices the characters don’t make, too. We want to see Tony Soprano kill his enemies and do whatever he wants, because we want to live vicariously through him. But on some level, we also don’t want him to do the bad thing, because we know it will only damn him further. The best antihero drama is a morality play in reverse.

Antiheroes need something to lose — and ideally that something is both concrete and existential

The characters in Ozark don’t really have much to lose.

Think of the best antihero dramas. In every single one of them, there’s something tangible that the hero could have had if they hadn’t chosen to do the terrible things we watch them do.

On some level, the best antihero dramas play off one of the key ideas that animated The Sopranos, the granddaddy of them all. The Sopranos’ universe was cheap and a little mean, and doing the right thing was usually much harder than doing the wrong thing. Indeed, doing the wrong thing — whether that meant killing someone or not stopping to help some car crash victims — usually provided a brief, visceral satisfaction. That problem you had? You could just ignore it.

That’s why the best antihero dramas play out as tales of moral instruction, but in reverse. Tony Soprano slowly gives in to moral rot as he avoids doing anything that would better himself psychologically and emotionally (to say nothing of the fact that he’s a mobster!). Don Draper keeps running away because he’s convinced no one will love him, which leads to a constant plunge into bad or at least decadent behavior. Walter White insists he’s helping his family by cooking meth, but once he starts, he opens up a wound in his soul that requires more and more affirmation and worship.

The focus isn’t just on what Tony, Don, and Walter get from making the wrong choice, but what they lose, both on a tangible level (Walter eventually becomes estranged from that very family) and on a more spiritual level. Their stories aren’t religious parables or anything, but they’re close cousins in many ways. Indeed, The Sopranos is replete with Catholic imagery, and in one memorable pair of episodes, Tony may or may not visit purgatory. Meanwhile, Breaking Bad features some sort of larger, godlike moral force that steps in from time to time to nudge characters away from their current courses of action. (They almost never listen.)

But this basic premise — one person embraces the most selfish version of themselves in order to attain immense profit, at the cost of something — has lost some of its potency due to overfamiliarity. And the vast majority of new shows that attempt to play in this space largely emphasize the “one person embraces the most selfish version of themselves” aspect over everything else.

This is not to suggest that none of the new antihero have anything interesting to say. Ozark works best when it examines how a marriage might fray (or become stronger) in the face of its lead character’s selfish impulses. And Gypsy adds an intriguing layer of sexuality, wherein its lead character has a husband and child out in the suburbs — but she can’t resist being drawn into the orbit of a younger woman whom she finds intoxicating.

But neither series does a particularly stellar job of imbuing what the characters stand to lose with any greater moral weight or stakes. Gypsy’s main character doesn’t so much as discuss her bisexuality with her husband, or attempt to grapple with what wanting to sleep with someone else will do to her marriage, because either event might lead to the two characters simply saying, “We should have an open marriage,” which would kill the show’s forced drama. And Ozark doesn’t really give its characters much to lose beyond their own lives — the tangible stakes are present, but the spiritual ones are nowhere to be found.

Three recent antihero dramas illustrate how the formula can still work in 2017

Amazon’s Patriot is my favorite recent antihero drama.

The antihero drama isn’t completely dead, of course. Indeed, arguably the best drama on TV is FX’s The Americans, which is a classic example of the form — right down to the two kids the Soviet spy protagonists will lose if they’re ever caught.

But it’s hard to tell a straightforward tale of good people doing bad things without becoming completely swallowed by just how little ground is left to cover within that space. And even if you can find new ground to break (as I would argue both Ozark and Gypsy have — at least on a surface level), it’s far too easy to confuse the antihero drama for the “people do bad things to garner our cheap thrills” drama.

Fortunately, a few of this year’s freshman antihero dramas offer new ways to proceed within an increasingly tired format.

First there was Amazon’s Sneaky Pete, which launched in January and depicts a con man who weasels his way into a family of bail bondsmen by impersonating a long-lost, long-imprisoned nephew who nobody’s seen in ages. What’s smart about Sneaky Pete (which hails from Justified creator Graham Yost, who knows what he’s doing) is the way it flips this script by giving its main character something to lose after he’s started the con. The more entrenched he becomes in the family, the more he realizes that he’ll lose them the instant they realize the truth. This means that to get to the “good thing” — human connection — he has to keep doing very bad things. (The first season is streaming on Amazon; season two arrives in 2018.)

Amazon is also home to my favorite entry in the recent antihero drama glut, the weird and morose Patriot. The series debuted in February, and on its surface, it’s the most traditional antihero drama of them all — complete with a white-collar white dude who is hiding some terrible secrets (like how he works for the CIA and has racked up an impressive body count).

But Patriot plays this setup as much for laughs as for drama. Our hero has little to lose, because he’s the product of a system that gives him no dreams other than American exceptionalism — but the disparity between said exceptionalism and the world he actually sees and experiences on his missions wears him the fuck out. Patriot is also a strangely ambitious series, as much trying to implicate its (presumably American) audience in their culture of excess as it is trying to implicate its hero. And when the series turns to the thing he would rather do than be a murderous spy, it’s at once hilarious and poignant. (I won’t spoil it. Go watch the show on Amazon and find out for yourself. Season two arrives in 2018.)

Finally, USA’s The Sinner, which premiered August 2, completely shifts the ratio of the antihero drama. It centers on a seemingly normal family woman who snaps during a family outing and commits an act of shockingly savage violence. Why did she do it? The series is interested in that question and in the question of what happens when a person so brutally violates society’s moral compact, even if it only happens once. Does that violence define her? Or is she still more than her worst action?

The Sinner frequently hints that its ultimate solution may be slightly too byzantine and convoluted for my tastes, but it’s still an interesting experiment in how to think about the issue of reviving the antihero drama. (New episodes air Wednesdays on USA at 10 pm Eastern.)

The problem with having too many antihero dramas on the air isn’t simply that they’re about antiheroes, or white dude antiheroes, or anything like that. (Indeed, both Sneaky Pete and Patriot have white guy protagonists.) It’s that they mistake the visceral thrill of watching someone do bad things for the entirety of the best antihero dramas’ appeal. All storytelling works best if the protagonist has something real and tangible to lose. You can only get by on letting the audience live vicariously through you for so long.

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