Heroes on Television


When I was thinking about Call the Midwife the other day, I thought about how I had difficulty enjoying the show at first because it felt too earnest. I have become used to series being cynical about goodness. One of the things that stands out in Call the Midwife is that the main characters are good, as are many of the supporting characters. Even the woman who steals an infant from another mother is not evil but is instead traumatized from having to give up her own child. It made me wonder what has happened to me.

Any list of the best television shows of the last twenty years is going to be mostly made up of shows that featured an antihero as the main character. (The exception that comes to mind right away is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, although I didn’t watch the show so I could be wrong). It’s gotten to the point where shows that aspire to be in the discussion of quality television must feature an antihero, and the trope is so overdone that it’s like there is a checklist to be followed. And while I understand the appeal, I wonder if a “serious” show with a conventional hero would have the cache and critical acclaim of these shows.

Part of the problem is that these days rooting for a traditional hero seems naïve. Some of us may recall the days when heroes wore white hats and the villains black hats and think that was very unsophisticated, which it was. (I think we also tend to think that everything before a certain point was as binary as that, although nuance wasn’t invented in the last twenty years.) In a Twitter conversation with the always excellent Alyssa Rosenberg, Alyssa stated that antiheroes appeal to us because they make us feel “morally sophisticated. We can get past the horror to appreciation.”

Tony Soprano not only made it very seductive to root for an antihero, it also made it seem like centering a show around an antihero was a shortcut to critical acclaim. I’ll leave it to Alan Sepinwall to make the case that The Sopranos (and Oz before it) was revolutionary instead of evolutionary but even if that’s the case, The Sopranos gets more credit than it deserves for what we now see on television. Note that this is not meant as a criticism of The Sopranos. I still think the series belongs in the top five or so of all time. What I am saying is that because The Sopranos changed the conversation so dramatically, it has been used too faithfully as a template for later series, with the main homage being the central antihero. In this way, The Sopranos may have limited what we watched during the Golden Age (and the now Silver Age) as much as it made some of those shows possible.

The Sopranos received a level of praise that had never been seen for a TV show, particularly the famous quote in the New York Times that The Sopranos “just may be the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter century”. For the paper of record to be so positive about a TV show was stunning. If there is one thing that intellectuals love it is confirmation about how clever and discerning we are. With the New York Times (and many other “respectable” publications) praising The Sopranos, viewing became mandatory. Getting past the horror to appreciation was a sign of how cultivated we were. (The ease of getting past the horror, or even not really noticing the horror, was a sign of how jaded we were with regard to TV violence.)

More anti-heroes came after Tony Soprano and we loved those shows, which we couldn’t help but view as confirmation that we were exactly as clever and discerning as we thought we were. We were flattered.

I feel that it’s important to note that just because we were flattered, it doesn’t mean that the series of the last fifteen years were giving us antiheroes for cynical reasons, at least at first. Sometimes you see or read something and it changes the way you think about a subject. Writers like Shawn Ryan and Matt Weiner and Vince Gilligan weren’t trying to jump on a trend; they just realized that there were suddenly more possibilities in how a story could be told. At some point, however, writers lost sight about what was so empowering about Tony Soprano and it became a formula.

We have reached the point where it seems like it would be a good idea for a wanna be prestige show to feature a hero. Granted, I’m not talking about a character who is simple and good. The main character in Call the Midwife is a hero but she is not perfect; she was in an affair with a married man, she lets a male friend sleep in the boiler room, she ate that cake that one of the sisters had hidden. I imagine that Call the Midwife gets a pass from being called lightweight because it’s English and its a period piece set in a time when England was very proud of itself. It may sound like I’m mocking Call the Midwife but it’s not intended as such.

And maybe it’s possible that the trend is going the other way. The Bridge and Broadchurch both feature pairs of law enforcement officers who, at least to this point, appear to be complicated heroes. The main problem with those two shows is that the subject is still grim, a consequence of what Alyssa says is our conditioning that “the idea of “quality” equals “dark””.

Maybe that heuristic was helpful at one time but it’s time has passed. Maybe we will enter a period in which we will be flattered to root for a hero unironically. Maybe that will be the next revolution. Until then, watch Call the Midwife and be skeptical of antiheroes.

UPDATE: It occurred to me after I finished the post that the women in Call the Midwife are clearly heroes and Buffy (another woman) was a hero. Maybe we can only accept heroes if they are women. (Half of the detective pairs in The Bridge and Broadchurch are also women.) The idea deserves more time than I could devote to add it here but it’s a worthwhile topic.

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