Television's New Antiheroes: Creating Sympathy For The Devilish Commentator Eric Deggans says television's current crop of antiheroes may reflect the reluctance of an audience in cynical times to accept a traditional straight-up hero.
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Television's New Antiheroes: Creating Sympathy For The Devilish

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Television's New Antiheroes: Creating Sympathy For The Devilish

Television's New Antiheroes: Creating Sympathy For The Devilish

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Cable TV, these days, is offering a new crop of some very popular characters who aren't exactly heroic. They aren't even necessarily good guys just acting a bit bad. They are meth dealers, serial killers; there's a murderous biker gang. And critic Eric Deggans is struck by the way audiences are responding to TV's antiheros.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Does this guy sound like a hero?

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "SONS OF ANARCHY")

DEGGANS: That's Jackson "Jax" Teller, the antihero at the heart of FX's blockbuster biker gang series, "Sons of Anarchy." Just this season, Jax blew away a rival gang with an RPG missile, shot a Russian gangster in the head and…

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "SONS OF ANARCHY")

DEGGANS: ...got into some serious trouble while selling guns to the scariest gangsters on the planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "SONS OF ANARCHY")

DEGGANS: Jax Teller is the leading edge of an increasingly extreme crop of anti-heroes: characters the audience likes and wants to see succeed, even though they act an awful lot like villains.

The cable channel AMC has become a haven for anti-heroes - from philandering ad man Don Draper on "Mad Men" to the meth-making, ex-schoolteacher Walter White on "Breaking Bad."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEGGANS: And their latest anti-hero, ex-Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon, owned slaves. When it comes to bad guys doing bad things, you can't get much worse than that.

So how does AMC's new series "Hell on Wheels" make a slave-owning anti-hero sympathetic? It makes the villains even worse. Bohannon is hunting down the Union soldiers who raped and killed his wife.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "HELL ON WHEELS")

DEGGANS: In fact, "Hell on Wheels" uses race as a handy scorecard; the heroes resist prejudice and racism while the villains wallow in it. And the antiheroes can get even worse. Consider Dexter Morgan, a serial killer who only kills other murderers, on Showtime's hit series "Dexter."

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "DEXTER")

DEGGANS: Dexter may be TV's ultimate antihero - a murderer working as a forensic technician for the Miami police. Author Jeff Lindsay, who created Dexter in his crime novels, once told me he specifically built the character to draw an audience's sympathy. Dexter has a soft spot for kids, a strong moral code, and a license to do things the rest of us can only dream about.

That's the last lesson in creating a great antihero: He or she often protects the innocent, even when they're dealing drugs and killing people. But these characters, warped as they can be, are also a statement on our times.

In a world filled with war, recession and cynicism, straight-up heroes feel fake as a three-dollar bill. So the confused guy who does bad things for the right reasons just might be the best reflection of where we are today.

MONTAGNE: Eric Deggans is TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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