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When Good Shows Happen to Bad People
March 18, 2008  | By David Bianculli
The FX drama series The Riches,about husband-and-wife con-artist gypsies who steal the identities of a well-to-do dead couple, returns for its second season tonight at 10 ET. It's a wonderful series, but it made me wonder: When, exactly, did we start rooting for the gypsies, tramps and thieves in our weekly TV dramas?

the-riches-mar-18.jpgWhile you ponder that for a minute, allow me to make this quick point. The Riches, starring Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver, is a delightful show -- cacklingly funny one minute, frighteningly and realistically violent and scary the next. For a fuller review of why I love this show, listen to today's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

And now, back to the question of the day.

What the Malloys are doing in this series -- hiding some dead bodies and assuming their identities -- is clearly wrong. When Pete, an old friend of the real Riches, comes to town and threatens to expose the impostors, Pete actually is the good guy. Yet we're rooting for Wayne... a.k.a. the new Doug Rich... to find a way out.

Similarly, on Breaking Bad, we rooted for the terminally ill Walter White, even though he had decided to set up his wife and son by making and selling crystal meth. Walter's brother-in-law, a cop, is closing in on him, but it's Walt we want to emerge victoriously. And on Dexter, who among us isn't on the side of this serial killer, just because he kills even more despicable serial killers?

The obvious lineage is James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano on The Sopranos, which began in 1999. He's a mob boss who had our sympathies, until he did something so heinous we recoiled at the sight. But then, like a battered spouse, we absorbed the blows and stayed put for more, even offering more love.

But before Tony, there was Adrian Pasdar's creepy Jim Profit in 1996's Profit. Before Profit, there was Gary Cole's demonic Sheriff Lucas Buck in 1995's American Gothic. Before Lucas, there was Kyle Secor's Tim Bayliss, the hero turned murderer on 1993's Homicide: Life on the Street. Before Bayliss, there was Terence Knox's Peter White, the doctor turned rapist on 1982's St. Elsewhere. And before White, there was that rascally oilman, Larry Hagman's J.R. Ewing, in 1978's Dallas.

J.R. may have been the original bad boy of weekly TV dramas -- the guy you loved to watch, and even root for, even though you knew his sense of morality was hopelessly skewed. But there may have been others, and I've addressed only the male half of the equation. Certainly, Joan Collins in Dynasty did her share of villainous damage in the 1980s -- but who, male or female, gets credit as the very first significant bad boy, or bad girl, of weekly prime-time series TV?

The floor is yours.




Tim Douglas said:

I'm confident I have the right answer. I believe you can trace all these anti-heroes back to The Shadow, whom America first met in 1930. (I like your idea, Tim -- but they sure didn't meet the Shadow on TELEVISION in 1930... Play fair, and take another swing. Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of TV? -- David B)

Comment posted on March 18, 2008 8:28 AM

Sean Dougherty said:

The Shadow on the radio wasn't even close to being an anti-hero. He didn't even use a gun on the radio. He was a straight-up superhero.

I would also argue that Tim Bayliss' execution of a murder doesn't really qualify him as anti-hero because it wasn't a consistent part of his character. Also, that whole season of Homicide kind of stunk. It looked like they were throwing in any random plot development just to try to get anyone to watch.

You could make the argument that John Munch taking out the guy [Steve Buschemi] who shot Bolander, Felton and Howard - which was a high point for the series - was a more serious exploration of what tempts an honest cop to do something like that.

I would argue that the first anti-hero was Archie Bunker, which would of course only be true if you were watching the show as a conservative, otherwise he'd just be a villain. But I'm 41 and while I collect old time radio programs and know more about them than almost anyone else my age, I don't really know anything about early television.

I guess the Fugitive was technically operating outside the law, but again, if you don't do anything actually wrong, that wouldn't count, would it?

Comment posted on March 18, 2008 10:52 AM

Patrick said:

I'm not sure if he would be considered a bad guy, but Batman was a vigilante. If vigilante justice is out because Batman worked with the police (kind of), then how about the A-Team. They may have been falsely imprisoned, but they remained fugitives the entire show.

Comment posted on March 18, 2008 12:24 PM

Gregg B said:

Looking back I would say the first television anit-hero was Sgt. Bilko. He was constantly fleecing his men, his Colonel and practically every guest star on the show. But you always rooted for him to succeed in his con games. The Riches have a lasting debt to Bilko and if he was around today, Bilko would be trying to collect on it! (Oooh, Gregg, I like this a LOT! -- David B)

Comment posted on March 18, 2008 3:57 PM

Scott Gunsaullus said:

I can think of at least three logical justifications for the increasing trend of so-called anti-heroes in television.

First and foremost, the J.R. Ewings, Patty Hugheses and Tony Soprano's most closely conform to the archetypes of classic tragedy. Like Macbeth, they seek to change their surroundings by force of will. They are bad and they are flawed. The audience identifies and sympathizes, because we catch a glimpse of our own dark souls reflected in the TV glass.

Second, there are the compromisers, the Vic Mackeys and Dexter Morgans of the world, who set out to do what they think is right. They know that their actions are wrong. They rationalize, with the hope that the ends will justify their means. In the process, our heroes must struggle with the horrific consequences and moral implications of their actions. The compromisers make for good drama, but they also remind the audience of the everyday moral dilemas that we, the viewer, struggle with.

Third, there are the Wayne Malloys and Don Drapers. These characters are confronted with a social order that is itself corrupt. Like Robin Hood, they choose to reject it entirely, in favor of a new code of ethics. It's not hard to see the appeal here. Everybody loves a rebel.

Comment posted on March 25, 2008 2:40 PM

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