With the advent of streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu and the tens of cable networks in the 21st century, never before has the American television viewer have had so many viable options to watch. Because of this increased competition for the American viewer, it has forced each avenue that produces television series to up their game. The result has been a new Golden Age of Television. Once again I will focus on three more series that have aired within the last 10 years that are indicative to this golden era we live in. These three shows all have in common lead characters who are antiheroes.
According to Webster Dictionary, the definition of an antihero is: a main character in a book, play, movie, etc., who does not have the usual good qualities that are expected in a hero. Antiheroes have long been a staple of daytime soap operas. The most popular, iconic figures on daytime television have been antiheroes. Characters such as Todd Manning, John Black, Sonny Corinthos and Luke Spencer being four of the most famous of the soap opera genre. The first iconic antihero to be portrayed on primetime television was James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano when “The Sopranos” debuted on HBO in 1999. In my opinion, the single greatest antihero in television history was Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of high school chemistry teacher turned drug lord Walter White on AMC’s landmark series “Breaking Bad.” The show premiered almost exactly 10 years ago and had an incredible five year run. I didn’t watch a single episode of “Breaking Bad” until last year. When I began watching, I couldn’t stop. Cranston’s portrayal of White in his rise from a nerdy high school teacher to a murderous and manipulative drug lord was breathtaking. You find yourself rooting for White because even though he’s dealing in mass quantities of crystal meth, the crack cocaine of the 21st century, you understand his reason for his involvement with this illegal venture. White has stage four throat cancer, and he’s trying to make as much money as possible before he dies in order for his family to be financially set for life after he dies. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t point out another iconic antihero from the show: White’s former student Jesse Pinkman, portrayed by Aaron Paul. Jesse’s drug addiction and abandonment issues has you rooting for this young man to overcome his problems, despite the fact that both he and White are both making and distributing the most dangerous and addictive illegal substance since crack cocaine. When you also factor in the unscrupulous characters they have to deal with in distributing crystal meth and the father-son bond the two develop through their partnership, you find yourself heavily invested in their quest to obtain their goals.
Before the introduction of crystal method, the most lethal illegal substance that was the most destructive was crack cocaine. How crack cocaine was introduced into American society is the main plot line of John Singleton’s “Snowfall” that premiered last July on FX. Singleton grew up in South Central Los Angeles where he saw through his own eyes the devastation that occurred from the drug being flooded into the area. “Snowfall” has an ensemble cast that looks at the advent of crack from three angles: the CIA, the drug cartels and a young 19 year old African American male portrayed by British actor Damson Idris. Idris plays Franklin Saint, a college dropout who accidentally comes across cocaine through hanging out with his rich White friend who introduces him to a South American drug lord. Then, on a journey to Oakland, Franklin is taught how to turn cocaine into crack, and Franklin, with the help of his aunt and uncle, begins to see not only how potent the new drug is, but how quickly it sells on the street. Franklin is motivated in dealing drugs because he wants to get his mother out of South Central. You find yourself rooting for Franklin, another antihero, because he’s a very intelligent young man who adores his mother, despite the fact that you know in hindsight the incredible destruction that crack cocaine caused the inner cities throughout the United States. Like White and Pinkman, Franklin has to outwit and outmaneuver several unscrupulous and immoral individuals who are trying to kill him.
The single, most fascinating antihero in cinematic recently had a classic series based on his exploits as a Baltimore forensic psychiatrist. “Hannibal” the series ran on NBC for three seasons between 2013 and 2015. The show centered around Dr. Hannibal Lecter and his relationship with the FBI Behavioral Sciences, headed by Jack Crawford. Crawford’s star profiler is Will Graham, an instructor of FBI agents and a man who can recreate a crime scene by looking at the scene and visualize exactly how the murder was committed. Graham is portrayed with an amazing vulnerability by Hugh Dancy. Graham is mentally scarred by his unique gift to get inside a killer’s mind. It takes an incredible psychological toll on him, and because he’s psychologically affected by this, his boss Crawford, powerfully portrayed by the legendary Laurence Fishburne, orders him to see Dr. Lecter for a psychiatric evaluation. Lecter, whose iconic character is portrayed by the marvelous and charismatic Mads Mikkelsen, uses this as an opportunity to gain the trust of both Crawford and Graham. Lecter helps Crawford and Graham solve several crimes involving serial killers because, unbeknownst to them, Lecter is one as well. Lecter, through his sessions with Graham, begins to psychologically torment and torture him. Lecter is a psychopath, but like Anthony Hopkins before him, Mikkelsen plays him with such charisma and smoothness that the audience can’t help but hope that Lecter will see the error of his way. Lecter is the ultimate psychopath, so there is no hope for him. I highly recommend that readers of this column who’ve never seen this series go find it as it’s the perfect prequel for the Hannibal Lecter series of movies starring Hopkins.
In my opinion, the most fascinating characters on television and in movies have always been the antihero. Characters who are heavily flawed who through mostly shady and illegal methods gain money, wealth, revenge and\or justice. All three shows have as their protagonist classic and legendary antiheroes. Never before in the history of network television has their been so many antiheroes portrayed on television. As I continue to cover this Golden Age of Television, many more will be focused on.