The World Doesn’t Need More Amoral Men: Why The TV Male Anti-Hero Needs to Die
In 2014, Rust Cole was profound. He saw life as a pointless exercise, devoid of morality and meaning. As the protagonist of True Detective‘s first season, he was meant to be an amoral man. He was also the latest evolution in a trend that has dominated TV so far this century — the male TV anti-hero.
The male anti-hero has defined the greatest television of the 2000s on Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos, and various other shows across genres. These men do bad things, but they do those things for complicated reasons. Their motivations are interesting, but at this point, they’re not exactly revolutionary. With the third season of True Detective underway, it’s clear that the male anti-hero isn’t going anywhere on TV, which is unfortunate.
The Era of Peak TV
Since the end of Breaking Bad and Mad Men, these difficult, amoral men have receded somewhat in the cultural conversation. These shows were definitive texts, and with the emergence of Netflix as a dominant player in television, there are fewer and fewer shows that everyone watches. Even so, the anti-hero still has plenty of homes on TV. There are shows like Ozark or Narcos that work as hard as they can to remind you of Breaking Bad.
There’s the aforementioned True Detective, which focuses on a different troubled cop in every season. Each one of these cops have some sort of dark past. They live on the right side of the law, but that doesn’t make them good people.
One of the best examples of the TV anti-hero today actually comes from the world of animation. Bojack Horseman is about the frail male ego, and its most recent season actively parodies shows about troubled cops like True Detective. Bojack Horseman is careful to get inside the head of its depressed main character. It’s a show about mental illness and male impotency that handles both topics well. Even though its characterization of its male anti-hero is carefully executed, it’s time for the tropes that Bojack and every other show mentioned here take advantage of to die.
What about the ladies?
There are plenty of great shows about troubled men. In fact, there are too many great shows about troubled men, and not nearly enough great shows about troubled women. There was an entire era of television that was mostly about men behaving badly. Some of those shows were willing to interrogate their characters and generate insights about masculinity through them. Even so, these shows were about men.
Even if there’s more to be said about the male anti-hero, more has already been said about them than has been said about their female counterparts. There have been some shows explicitly focused on women who are, in one way or another, unlikeable. There was Enlightened, a short-lived HBO series about an angry woman. The series was distinctive in part because it seemed okay with who Amy Jellicoe, its central character, was, warts and all.
Because Enlightened was about a difficult woman, it had a completely different tone than almost anything else on television. It was weird and frantic and fun. It also only lasted two seasons.
The Female Anti-Hero
What Enlightened suggested was that unlikeable or complex women do not have to act or look like their male counterparts. That doesn’t mean they can’t — when it worked, Jessica Jones was a great story about a troubled women who closed herself off to her emotions like many male anti-heroes do.
There just haven’t been enough female anti-heroes yet for them to become a cliche. The ones that exist today are all totally different from one another. In addition to Amy on Enlightened and Jessica Jones, there’s Eleanor Shellstrop on The Good Place. Eleanor is bad in a trashy, uncivilized kind of way. She shoplifts, she’s rude, she’s dirty. Those traits aren’t a summation of who she is, though. One of the foremost ideas behind The Good Place is that people change and can become better versions of themselves. Eleanor is rude and vulgar when we meet her, but those traits aren’t necessarily fundamental to her identity. Even so, Eleanor’s less stuffy and more rock-n-roll than either Jessica Jones or Amy Jellicoe.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel‘s Midge Maisel provides another excellent, albeit less obvious, example. She’s a terrible mother, and often blissfully unaware of the problems that exist in the world around her. Midge is basically just looking out for herself, even if she never states it that plainly. She’s a woman who wants was she wants, and isn’t embarrassed to say that. She’s also a socialite.
Good TV = New Perspectives
The most memorable and distinctive TV shows of the past few years have opened up new, unfamiliar worlds. Shows like Atlanta, Game of Thrones and even The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel have explored spaces that TV hasn’t explored before, or is taking a new lens to familiar settings. The revolution of The Sopranos was to take a tough guy mobster and unpack his psychology. Almost 20 years later, we know what tough, angry men think about pretty much everything.
What TV can still explore, what can still be new, is how women think and behave. That’s not to say that there aren’t great shows fronted by women today. There are plenty. They just need to be considered alongside the great male anti-heroes that the world already knows so much about. For every Tony Soprano, there must be a Midge Maisel. For every Walter White, an Eleanor Shellstrop. Unfortunately, we just have about a thousand male anti-heroes without a counterpart.
Women need to be central to more of the stories that get told on TV. For years, men have dominated the conversation around the very best that TV has to offer. Now, it’s time for them, myself included, to cede that ground to female characters and storytellers. Let’s face it — the world doesn’t need any more amoral men.