When Good Guys are Bad: Antiheroes in Popular TV

In recent years the popularity of the television antihero has increased by such a significant amount that it’s now relatively unusual to see a straight up good and moral black and white character anywhere in TV. Our presently most popular TV heroes are serial killers, drug lords, terrorists and gangsters – Walter White from Breaking Bad; Dexter Morgan from Dexter; Nick Brody from Homeland; Tony Soprano, Nancy Botwin,  Sister Jude, the entire cast of Sons of Anarchy, and most of the core cast of The Walking Dead –   these select antihero protagonists are a few among many. Basically, the bad guys are ruling our small screens and we’re loving it.

walter white antihero
Sitting down to the weekly serial dramas is no longer a case of clear cut characters in clear cut worlds where we all know right from wrong and rest assured the bad guys will get it in the end. Every week we’re tuning in to sympathise with protagonists with a complicated dark side, compromised people struggling ethically, morally like Sargent Nick Brody or Rick Grimes, or those just knowingly doing the wrong thing because they need or want to like Dexter or Walter White. HBO’s wildly successful series Game of Thrones is littered with good guys, bad guys and those like Tyrion Lannister who walk a line somewhere in between.  Australia’s Underbelly, the dramatic adaptation of the real life Melbourne gang wars, has become such a beloved program the real life criminals it’s based on have become celebrities in the popular Australian media.

tyrion lannister

 Empathy for the Antihero

Why do we empathise with these characters, who in a different generation may have been the villains?  Each antihero has a moral centre, a foundation of goodness that makes it OK for us to like them. When Walter White first hit our screens he was a devoted husband and father struggling to ensure his family would be provided for following his death. Nick Brody,  brainwashed by a seductive terrorist, came full circle to the righteous side and even before that, his crimes were in the name of honouring the death of a child he loved against the actions of war criminals.  Dexter just kills bad guys far worse than he is.

Like Dexter, all of these antiheroes are set against real villains far more extreme than they are. Walter White pitted himself against the Cartel and the formidable Gus Fring; Brody helped bring down Islamic terrorist leader Abu Nazir. But it’s not all justified sympathy.

nick brody antihero

With antihero protagonists, the stakes are constantly being raised as each antihero meets a new challenge that further complicates their moral centre often with downright malice and truly questionable actions: Walter White poisoned a little boy to prove a point to his partner he needed to keep onside; Brody effectively killed the U.S Vice President and Dexter’s code seems more and more flexible with every season to now extend to the ultimate act of transgression of forcing his sister to kill an innocent and a friend, turning the show’s only real hero into an antihero herself.

Nevertheless, the goodness in these characters remains at the front of their character, or at the very least, they remain less evil than the true villains. So the point remains, however nice these guys are off duty, these are criminals, sociopaths and murderers. So, why is it now OK that we love them as pop culture icons?

Rick_GrimesWhy Are Antiheroes Pop Culture Icons?

The situation of Australia’s Underbelly, might be argued to be a larger part of an ongoing culture that sees Australia infatuated to the point of pride with its national criminal history. Murdering outlaw, Ned Kelly is glorified as a national hero and the long folk tradition of the bushranger is taught to children in schools as part of national history and culture.


Further afield, it could be easily justified that these are globally complicated times and our popular TV characters reflect that. In recent years, increased media saturation and the democratic nature of online information sharing have exposed us to far more reasons not to trust the elected leaders or at least question every motivation behind every public action and word; wars are now fought on ideology and soldiers no longer need to wear a uniform to fight; national intelligence and security is questioned from every angle; and the security of our own privacy is under constant threat as we upload more and more of our lives. Complicated indeed, but any generation can claim complicated times. Extreme racial inequality, social prejudice and injustice, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, economic depressions, recessions – every era has its complications, its cynicism and mistrust.

The antihero was not invented in these current complicated times. Genre cinema of the 1970s and 1980s was full of dark souled action heroes – Rambo, Snake Plissken, Dirty Harry. Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name is an archetypal antihero developed in the 1960s, while the 1950s brought John Wayne and James Dean as complicated heroes who don’t always do what’s right.

In these past generations, however the antihero on the small screen was rare. In the most popular TV series of the 1970s and 1980s – Ironside, Hawaii 5-0, The Mod Squad, M*A*S*H, Dallas, The Dukes of Hazard, MacGyver– the good and bad, the hero and villain were clearly delineated to the point they all might as well have been wearing white or black hats.


TV is a better indicator of the cultural climate than cinema as TV is right there in everyone’s homes where people actively choose to watch a film. As James Wolcott wrote in Vanity Fair last year “Movies divide and stratify; television, like sports, is the democratic includer.” Arguably with digital TV files readily available for download from iTunes, Netflix or piracy, TV shows are now more of the same as people can choose to watch and when, but these shows are still being shown on television at some point in time and place.

What this means is that an antihero on TV has a greater culturally significant presence than on movies, and the major shift in characterisation we’re looking at now has been in TV, whereas movies haven’t changed all that much.

So, if our current socio-political culture has given rise to the recent glut of the TV antihero, why was TV in the past morally so much more black and white as those too were complicated times? It’s the same equation in opposite terms.  Troubled times call for a defined hero as a comforting antidote to what’s going on in the world and as such, popular TV protagonists of the past were a reassuring albeit fictional solution to complicated and unfixable problems of the real world.

dexter morganAudiences Demanding More From TV

The difference is that we now have a popular shift towards the complicated hero because we demand more reality in television, and that includes the Reality TV genre. More than any external social  climate, the current popularity of the TV antihero is more due to the what we are wanting from our entertainment, specifically more sophisticated and complex characterisation and stories that challenge expectations set up by previous TV conventions.

It’s often said the last few years have seen the dawning of a  new Golden Age of television, where TV scripting is more sophisticated even to the point where cinema has been left to the cheap thrills and blockbusters where TV sits down to tackle the real art of complex storytelling. While there are exceptions on both sides, the most engaging and powerful screen stories are now coming from TV. This is arguably an after effect and a calming salve to soothe the irritation that was the onslaught of reality TV during the early to mid 2000s. We want more from our TV now, more challenging stories and higher quality entertainment but we also want it to seem real.  So, on one hand of this situation, reality TV gave rise to its opposite in terms of quality entertainment produced with real art and creativity, while on the other side, reality TV also brought a demand for real life credibility in fictional TV.

Audiences are demanding more sophisticated characterisation and in that, even if the stories themselves haven’t changed too much, our hero and villain lines are being significantly blurred. Antihero or not, every well drawn character needs his or her weaknesses to add credible human depth and multifaceted dimension. These popular antihero characters have their weakness – crime, moral turbulence, dark ambition and other very real grey areas – developed and expanded to the point of extreme anti-social practice while at their core, they’re still good guys.  We all too have our problems, and while for most us this doesn’t extend to homicide or terrorism, we like to see that it’s OK to have a dark side.

The Future of the TV Antihero

How far can it go? Real as they may seem, the stakes of the ambiguous good guys are getting  higher and the hero is becoming more and more “anti.” There always needs to be a line, and it’s my prediction that the more we see of heroes approaching that line, the less interesting it will become and the antiheroes  will stale and make way for the return of the clear hero protagonist.

Sons of Anarchy Season 4 Banner

An antihero is still a hero, we still need that. Every bad action they do is unfailingly for their own version of the greater good and that greater good always come out on top. Even as Walter White is claiming he wants to sit atop a crystal meth empire, when the villainous threat aims at his family, he knows when to pull back and although the last season is still to reveal the final consequences of it all, it’s a fair prediction to say that Walter, in whatever grey and muddied area, will be victorious.  In all entertainment, every trend and novelty fades into something different and it’s not hard to imagine a new series hatched in some production office, pitching a return to the heroes of yesteryear and the purity of the moral fortitude fighting the good fight and far more fictional fiction to deliver us from our woes of the real world.


Kate Krake

Kate Krake (aka Kate Murphy) is a writer with a long established passion for all realms of popular culture. She lives in Brisbane, Australia. Find out more on Kate's Blog.