While the quality of films over the last few years has been on a steady decline, entertainment enthusiast are still able to rejoice at what many academic television writers are calling the golden age of television. In the last decade we have seen a large shift away from episodic shows that do not have much crossover from week to week to serial shows that have multi-season arcs. A few months ago I wrote on article on Celluloid Cinema about how Netflix is largely responsible for this paradigm shift, so instead with this article I’m going to focus on what is emerging as the flagship type of character in this golden age, the anti-hero, a hero that does not fit the mold of a traditional hero.
]Commonly when discussing narrative and story many subscribe to the idea that the central character must always be a hero with good morals and intentions. In order to understand why this has come to be the place in modern cinematic storytelling it is important to look back at the history of film censorship. In an effort to make sure the government did not censor films, in 1930 the big Hollywood studios established a group called the MPPDA (Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America) to come up with a code of rules to follow so the industry could censor itself. This group of rules become known as the Hayes code and one of the biggest principles of the code was “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.” As a result, from 1930 until the codes lost support in the late sixties, films were not able feature villains as the film’s central character or make the audience feel empathy towards them. However, the rules of the Hayes codes had an effect that reached past that of the film industry. Since audiences were accustomed to the moral guidelines of the Hayes codes when television shows grew in popularity in the forties, society expected television to adhere to the principles laid out in the codes. In the seventies and eighties once the codes were no longer enforced by film studios there was rise in mob and gangster films as the abolishment of the codes allowed for films to explore the anti-hero which is a central character that brakes many of the morality rules that we typically attribute to the hero of the story such as being kind to others and not breaking the law. While it was clear this type of story was what audiences wanted to see, television was unable to follow suit as they relied more heavily on advertisers who did not want their products to be showcased with stories about bad people.
While the anti-hero has been a central part of storytelling in films for the better part of 40 years, television has only dabbled with the idea for twenty years and really found its stride in the last ten. One of the first shows to gain critical and cultural acclaim with the anti-hero was The Sopranos in the late nineties. In the same vain of the gangster films in the seventies that first explored the anti-hero, The Sopranos centered on the mafia and the criminal dealings of the family head Tony Soprano. Since the show was produced by HBO, the rules that traditionally surrounded the morality of central characters on television could be bypassed due to not having to worry about advertisers concerns. Within a few seasons The Sopranos would become one of the most watched shows on television due to the new breath it breathed into storytelling. By the late 2000’s networks and advertisers started to take risks and produce content that was against the norms advertisers were use to. These risks gave birth to shows such as Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy, and Breaking Bad. Quickly, the acclaim that these shows received finally convinced advertisers not to be fearful of shows that explored immoral situations because audiences would still watch them. In fact, the most popular shows on television have become those that feature anti-heroes and go against the grain of what audiences have been forced to enjoy for decades. If we look at just this last year’s Emmy nominations for best drama six out of seven were about anti-heroes showing just how big of an impact this type of character is having on television.
At this point it is hard to tell if television is at its peak or if this trend of high quality, high production value shows will only grow with time. There was a time in television history when it was possible to keep up with the really good shows on television because there was only a handful, now there are dozens currently on air that many do not even hear about as they get lost in the noise. After exploring the current trend of television shows it is very likely that this boom in television would not exist without the anti-hero. In the same way the anti-hero spurred storytelling in films in the seventies, television is receiving that same boost now.
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