The Best of the Worst: The Television Anti-Hero


Needless to say I have some unusual habits, yet all these socially acceptable people can’t wait to pick up hammers and smash their food to bits. Normal people are so hostile.” ~ Dexter Morgan

Dexter Morgan.  Nancy Botwin.  Walter White.  Dr. Gregory House.

Television right now is a wonderful place for terrible people.

Has there ever been a more despicable class of heroes in our weekly lives?  Serial killers and drug dealers and utter narcissists and psychopaths (in the true, textbook definition of the word).  Movies are still mostly the realm of shining heroes, though so-often flawed in their very human ways.  If the hero of a movie is an unlikeable person nowadays, it’s usually just because they’re an overgrown Manchild (see: any male lead in a comedy) or a plastic-molded succubus (looking at you Sex in the City ladies).  The anti-hero exists in movies, to be sure, but they don’t make ’em like they do on the ol’ idiot box (at least, in the U.S.  The foreign film market is a larger, harder to define beast, and I won’t try to lump it in with Hollywood).

I would argue that Dexter, Nancy, Walter and Gregory are truly some of the worst people to ever make us root for them.  The anti-hero on television has traditionally been a curmudgeon (e.g Archie Bunker) or a charming rouge (e.g. Sam Malone), somebody that does or says unlikeable things frequently, but is always shown to be well-meaning and genuinely good.

Not the Four Kings, though (alright, Three Kings and a Queen).

These are rotten people through and through.  Because we do ‘root’ for them, we might start to convince ourselves that these are good people just forced into extraordinary situations, but if we knew these people in real life there would be no qualms about it:  These folks suck.

We witness Dexter commit atrocious murders and fake his way through relationships, but because we get flashbacks of his sad childhood, we forgive the sins.  Yeah, he makes Rita and the kids feel good, but this mf-er chops people into pieces and dumps their bodies into the ocean.  If that scale seems even to you, I suspect there might be a severed thumb on one side.

We see Nancy make selfish decision after selfish decision, all the while benefiting from drug-trafficking (and not just marijuana as the title would imply), but we keep coming back to her wretched life.  And, let’s face it, even though we’re all getting a little tired of the deeper hole she keeps digging, I think we can all agree (SPOILER ALERT), watching Shane wack Pilar with a mallet was the most satisfying scene of season 5.  Like mother like son.

We watch Walter go from cancer-stricken father to absolutely deplorable drug kingpin, and that’s just in the first season.  Dude goes off the rails, and it’s awesome (I’m behind on season 3, but I’m looking forward to catching up).  I don’t know about the rest of you, but I can tell you exactly when I knew I was going to keep watching this show: The pilot episode when Walter goes all Joe Pesci on some teenage kids in the store because they’re making fun of his son.  Yeah, we’re sympathetic to his plight and he certainly has an admirable motivation (helping his family), but on the list of responsible/reasonable solutions to medical debt, becoming a murderous drug-producer isn’t even in the top 10.

Does Greg deserve a place on this list?  I mean, he doesn’t deal drugs (just takes them), he doesn’t murder people (in fact, he heals them) and he’s even been known to comfort rape victims.  Yeah, he’s a jerk, but c’mon, he’s saving people.  Why include him on this list?

First off, because House doesn’t give a wit about his patients (or anyone, really).  With a few exceptions throughout the 6 seasons so far, House shows no personal interest in his patients (and for the few he has cared about, it’s been people he saw himself in, thus reinforcing his self-interest).  Dexter kills other killers.  Nancy and Walter are trying to provide for their families (albeit, in ill-conceived ways).  But House?  There is no hidden golden reason.  Even his desire to save people is based on his wholly selfish love of puzzles.  If a patient isn’t interesting, he doesn’t care if they die.

But, that’s not the reason I think the good doctor deserves a spot on this list.  I think the true proof of his villainy is his most interesting character trait:  He’s an atheist.  Now, as an atheist myself, I don’t think that makes House a bad person (obviously).  If anything, I think it proves he’s intellectually consistent, and that’s certainly a positive trait.  But we’re talking about a television show that is not only one of the most watched scripted dramas in America, but is also the most popular show in the world.*  Considering that one well-circulated survey a few years back found that Atheists were the least-trusted minority group in America, it’s pretty impressive that so many people still flock to their televisions once a week to see an atheist spit on their religious belief.  When I watch House, I see someone I can relate to, but what about the other millions of churchgoers who apparently have no problem loving (maybe begrudgingly so) someone who represents the complete antithesis of their worldview?

Why do we love television characters we should hate?  Well, that gets to the root of the whole anti-hero archetype, and that’s more of an academic question.  It’s worth contemplating.  I think there is something to the idea that we enjoy watching these people because it lets us surreptitiously live out our darkest impulses.  We get our weekly, cathartic release of our demons and then go back to nodding, smiling and shaking hands at the office the next day.  All the while wondering what it’d be like to stuff Johnson in a hefty garbage bag.

But that might be an unnecessarily dark reading of the human psyche.  I’m not really sure it matters why we enjoy our heroes to be so despicable, but it’s clear today that we do.  Artistically, the most praised shows, whether dramas or comedies (think Arrested Development and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), of the past decade have all focused on truly scummy people.

Great, isn’t it?

I bet you have your opinion on who you think is truly the worst human being on television.  Go ahead and let me know.  I’m always in the market for a new dirtbag to root for.

*Like Weeds, House has suffered a bit from the dreaded “Past its prime” syndrome.  No show can maintain the high of its earlier, best seasons forever, and unfortunately, in America we tend to run shows into the ground until they’re nigh unwatchable (*cough* X-Files *cough*).  That said, I feel that part of why both shows have lost some of their shine is because the main characters have gone so far into the darkside, the writers have flinched.
Season 6 of House seemed like an attempt to humanize House after seasons 4 and 5 took him into very dark territory.  It didn’t work, and I’m afraid the whole House/Cuddy storyline is going to kill the best part of the show.  As for Weeds, Nancy was always introspective and filled with self-doubt about her actions, but now she just seems mopey and helpless, completely out of control of her own life.  Fingers crossed that the new season will restore order, or just focus more on Shane.  And here is hoping Dexter and Breaking Bad resist the curse and go out strong.

2 thoughts on “The Best of the Worst: The Television Anti-Hero

  1. Enjoyed your ideas very much. On reflection, I think there are a whole range of tv shows and characters much more despicable than the ones you describe here.

    First, these folks are all fictional, and well-written (I assume, since House is the only one I regularly watch), so they are made specifically to garner our sympathy, if against our will. The more evil folks are the real people peddling bias, hate, untruths and character assassination based on a complete misreading of the facts. The so-called “news” and commentary shows on Fox revel in a shrieking river of lies, misquotes and bias. (The fake news of The Daily Show, however, is sane and hilarious.) The there are the reality shows that serve only to entertain via humiliation and exhibitionism which muster up the worst feelings people have and magnify them on a stage until they boil. Those are the horrors on tv to my thinking.

    Also, I was shocked at your putting G. House here because, as you say, he’s a healer and “if not an angel, on the side of the angels” as Laurie has said. But your argument is a good one, the atheism is not soft-pedaled at all, but then it does come through the mouth of just about the most appealing and lovable actor on tv. So maybe that’s part of what makes it palatable and even attractive.

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