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Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I am a Montreal-based actor, writer and comedian. When U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot, I was three days old. I cried all day. My favourite books of all time are Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis and The Ewoks Fun Time Activity Book by Chirpa and Pamploo. I am a member of The Vestibules, On The Spot Improv and The Best Buy Battery Club. Except for the Battery Club, I've been at all this stuff for over 20 years. Enjoy my blog.

Friday, April 8, 2011

TV's Shameless Anti-Heroes

The cable networks are at it again. Yep, there is now one more more ground breaking TV series featuring featuring characters that can best be described as anti-heroes. These shows seem almost counter intuitive in their appeal. They've been with us for almost a decade now and I doubt there is any going back for the medium now. 
Let's get a little more specific.

The Showtime series Shameless recently recently wrapped it's run on The Movie Network in Canada. By the time episode 12 rolled around I was a huge, if somewhat initially reluctant, fan. Based on the British series of the same name, Shameless is a show that is unapologetic towards (or, shameless, if you wanna get all clever about it)about alcoholics, criminals, nymphomaniacs, irresponsible parents, bullies, cheaters, assholes, con artists and other generally morally reprehensible people.

This is where the counter intuitive part comes in.

On Shameless, all of the above manage to come off not only as sympathetic characters but also has just plain likable people. The audience is oddly yet quickly and easily lured into both the humour and the drama of the lives of people who might otherwise be dismissed as lowlifes.

Contradictions like that are becoming commonplace on the TV landscape of the 21st century. This is most especially true in the land of cable TV series.  The anti-hero is an age old literary concept and this is not the first time that we've seen a pop culture fascination with the idea. 

Back in 70's, for instance, actors like Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson and Gene Hackman were typically playing characters that helped bring the concept back into vogue.  However, the protagonists of current and recent shows like Shameless, Mad Men, The Shield, Big Love, Nurse Jackie,  Damages, Dexter, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, Deadwood, Boardwalk Empire, Weeds, In Treatment, Californication, and Breaking Bad are taking the anti-hero to a whole new level and on a much wider scale too.

From the time of my earliest memories of TV up to as recently as the mid to late 90's, it was unthinkable that you'd ever see a time when some of the best and most popular shows on TV would lead characters that were mob bosses, drug dealers, serial killers, alcoholics, polygamists and corrupt cops.  Even in the early naissance of the trend, when HBO first started running series like OZ and The Sopranos, such shows were the exception in TV and not the rule (yes, even on cable at the time).

Make no mistake, the cable networks and their struggle to pull audiences away from the bigger over-the-air networks are squarely behind the small screen revolution. If you're looking for edgy TV,  look no further than HBO, Showtime, AMC, FX, USA and similar networks that, sadly, have little or no availability in Canada. These rogue players in the TV industry operate, not unlike the anti-heroes that populate their programming, outside the constraining traditional rules and regulations that the Big Four (five if you count CW) US Broadcast networks. Networks like ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and (to be nice) The CW are stuck with the pesky little detail of broadcasting on public airwaves. If that's your address then you've got all kinds restrictions imposed both from within and without of the network structure.

Those networks are most definitely paying  the price for those restrictions. Feeling the bite of their ever dwindling audiences, the broadcast networks are attempting to catch up with all those dark shows.  Fox, for instance, recently hired Shawn Ryan, creator of the outstanding series that unflinchingly portrayed police brutality and corruption, The Shield. Ryan's new series for Fox, The Chicago Code, is about the notorious corruption that apparently exists at every level in the city of Chicago. Unlike The Shield, however, the lead characters of The Chicago Code are honest and uncorrupted but are surrounded by horrible backstabbing people. It's an entertaining show but it's hardly even on the same level of The Shield. (I will say this, though, Jennifer Beals sure looks great at 47). 

Fox ran into similar problems when they attempted to mold 24's Jack Bauer into an anti-hero. The fact that the character of the maverick CIA Counter Terrorism agent and his use of extreme, anti-heroic methods like torture were demonized by the left and lionized by the right is clear evidence that said attempt failed spectacularly. 

ABC's Lost also attempted go the anti-hero route, particularity with the character of Sayed Jarrah, a former Iraqi torturer during Saddam Hussein's reign.  It wasn't long, though, before it seemed like the number one priority in Lost's writers room was to redeem Jarrah as often as possible. 

Once again, it's those darn pesky Standard and Practices Departments that every broadcast network must have that get in the way of makin' some good TV (not like I'm talking from any kind of personal experiences I may have had in the TV biz or anything like that).

In the case of Shameless, we are not dealing with anything so dramatically important as police corruption, counter terrorism or people lost on an island. The show follows the story of a majorly dysfunctional working class family living in Chicago's South side (a neighborhood, BTW, that has a notorious history of crime and gang violence). The lead character is Frank Gallagher, a father of five kids who makes no attempt to support them, has no job, lives off of fraudulent disability claims and is, in his own words, a raging alcoholic. Frank's wife took off more than a year ago, leaving six kids to, in essence, raise themselves. The kids are often seen pooling their money from after school jobs in order to cover silly little indulgences like the electricity bill and taxes.

As I watched the first episode of Shameless, I remember thinking "Oh, man, no way am I ever going to get into this". My initial impression was that this was just going to be yet another cable series trying to be edgy with dumb sex jokes, scatological references, mean spirited humour and totally unlikeable characters. It was not long, however, before Shameless' mysterious charms took hold. There is something incredibly engaging about a world that is so completely disordered that it throws its moral compass out the window. It's an incredible feat that a typical episode of Shameless can have you rooting for the criminal and siding with the completely irresponsible alcoholic.

It is a feat that rests squarely on the shoulders of the show's creators, writers, directors and an incredible cast. In particular the performances of Emmy Rossum (as the family's oldest and, oddly, most responsible member), Justin Chatwin (her mysterious love interest), Emma Kenney (who nails some of the best lines ever written for a 10 year old ) and one of the finest actors working today, William H. Macy.  

Shameless is worth watching just for Macy alone.

There are many really good actors out there who could play the role of the show's patriarchal drunk but there are very few that could make that guy as likable as Macy does.

That type of appeal is what's kinda really at the heart of Shameless. It's an approach that is only successfully achieved through humour. Shameless has plenty of humour. Dark humour. Humour so dark, in fact, that it often covertly slips into drama. The series has an uncanny ability to cross in and out of the territories of comedy and drama without ever having to show its passport.

I'm sure the British series that Shameless is based on did all this stuff first but their TV has always been something of a different animal. I am currently in the process of seeking out the UK hit (which is now in its ninth season!).

There was another acclaimed and high rated series out there in cable land that I was ready to turn off during the first episode as well. 

It's called Dexter. 

My initial opinion of a series with a serial killer protagonist was that it would never work. That opinion was backed up by the first episode which, for me, fell directly into the category  of "This is pretty frakin' sick, man.". I gave the show a second chance with the next episode. Turns out, that's all it took. Five seasons and who knows how many dismembered corpses later, and I'm all like "Yay! Serial killer! Go!".

Dexter is not your typical serial killer, however. How dull a show would that be? No. Dexter is a serial killer who only kills other serial killer. Ya just gotta love that concept for it meta-ness alone. It's a concept that seals the deal on the success of Dexter as an unlikely protagonist and anti-hero. Another huge factor in the success of the show is the performance of Michael C. Hall in the title role. Like William H. Macy in Shameless, Hall proves that all actors who use their middle initial in their name are good actors. He also rises to the challenge of making a character who, lets face it, kills people almost every episode, very sympathetic. The amount of cliffhangers in the series that feature Dexter almost being exposed is incredible. It speaks to Hall's ability to win over an audience. 

Another key to Dexter's success is that the show has some of the very best thriller writing currently seen on TV.

If the bad guys are good then the good guys are bad. 

Nowhere is this more true than in FX's ground-breaking police thriller, The Shield. The gritty series was created by Shawn Ryan a producer who cut his teeth on the Buffy The Vampire Slayer spin-off Angel (pun intended!).  As previously mentioned, Ryan created and currently produces Fox's The Chicago Code, a series that, while not quite as edgy as The Shield, is probably making the guy much more money.

In the Shield, Michael Chiklis plays corrupt LA cop Vince Mackey. Sandwiched between his dad roles in The Commish and No Ordinary Family, Chiklis took home his first Emmy award for bringing Mackey to life. 

And why the hell not? The guy's amazing. 

Chikilis lost weight and put on muscle for the role as a means of completely reinventing  his nice TV dad image into that of a majorly bad ass cop. Unlike Shameless' Frank Galagher or Dexter, the character of Mackey does not have quite so many redeeming or sympathetic qualities. He's a cop that is hard edged and downright rotten to the core. 

Chiklis, however, subtly and sparingly creates sympathy for the man.  In the case of The Shield that is a particularly difficult job. In the first episode of the series, Mackey shoots a fellow cop point blank in the head (he was informing the FBI about Mackey's habit of cleverly pocketing drug dealer money after big busts). The arc of one entire season revolved around Mackey and his elite squad of (also corrupt) cops trying to pull off a major heist from a group of seriously ruthless Armenian mobsters.  
Joe Friday and Steve McGarrett must be turning over in their fictional graves.

The writers do suggest a reason for Mackey's corruption that is not totally selfish. He has an autistic son which, in the American health care and social support system, is something that can get a tad pricey on a cop's salary. A direct line is never drawn between the two in any of the scripts. In a rare moment of restraint for American TV, the audience is allowed to make that connection all on their own.  While I have great sympathy for anybody who may be in such a situation, I'm pretty sure that shooting people in the head is still bad.

Anti-heroes do not reside exclusively in the world of cops and killers. Nor for that matter are they strictly the denizens of contemporary culture. Case in point is AMC's sublime Mad Men. 

I was first attracted to Mad Men by the time period in which the series takes place. That time period being the early 1960's, the world I was born into.  It soon became apparent, however, that there was much more to the show than just that. Nonetheless, they do capture the period amazingly. The sets, costumes and look of the show is beautifully faithful to the era as is the writing and the performances. It's the best replication of the time that I have ever laid eyes on.

The common denominator between Mad Men and the other shows in this blog are in the characters, particularly that of the anti-heroic male lead of the show, Don Draper. Don Draper is an alcoholic (though a billion times more subtle about it than the guy on Shameless) and is emotionally cold and distant from just about everybody in his life. He also has a chronic case of serial infidelity (a trait that is only very very slightly offset by his incredible taste in women). Draper is expertly brought to life by the amazing Jon Hamm. Hamm endows Draper with a quiet and largely concealed humanity. Hamm's Draper is yet another guy that we really shouldn't like but yet do anyway. 

The other thing that impresses me no end about Jon Hamm is that he pursued a career as an actor without changing his last name.

One of the characters on the show that Draper is particularly cold to is his wife, Betty Draper. She too has plenty of problems of her own (besides her terrible husband). She is emotionally repressed, controlling, close-minded and pretty darn cold and distant herself. Betty Draper is nicely underplayed by the Grace Kellyesque January Jones. Mrs.Draper (no Ms yet in those days) is the polar opposite of the TV mom's of the era from shows like Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. Her approach to parenting is almost that of an anti-June Cleaver.

But Betty Draper is far from TV's only or most intriguing female anti-hero.

That honour goes the high powered New York attorney Patty Hewes on the FX series, Damages. 

Hewes is played by Glenn Close in what is possibly the single best role of her career. Hewes runs one of the biggest and most prestigious law firms in NYC. In Close's hands, Hewes is powerful, direct, ruthless, firm, supremely confident and almost always in control of everything that goes on around here. Hewes is one of those strong woman who is very successful in male dominated field type of characters. In this case, though, the male dominated field often consists of hired assassins, extortion, corruption and, every once in a while, cold blooded murder. A strong woman, yes, but you'd no more want your daughter adopting Hewes as a role model than you would want your son looking up to Tony Soprano.

Thanks to Close and a solid writer's room, you really do feel for Hewes, even and especially in, her darker moments. Technically, Hewes is really more of the antagonist of the story to Ellen Parsons, the protagonist. Parsons is the up and coming young lawyer, played by Rose Byrne, who often finds herself on the wrong side of Hewes. Part of the brilliance of Damages is that the line between good and bad people is frequently and routinely blurred. 

All this is just the tip of iceberg. 

There are many more anti-heroes and shows that I have not touched on. There's Bryan Cranston nailing the role of a high school science teacher turned crystal meth dealer on Breaking Bad.  There's the dense and complexly plotted The Wire where the cops and the drug dealers are merely different sides of the same coin. There's the David Mamet-on-horseback Western, Deadwood. And, while we're on genre revisionism, there's also Battlestar Galactica, the ground-breaking science fiction series that saw evil alien clones bent on destroying humanity slowly, over the arc of the series, become just like humanity. The list goes on and on but my blog does not.

With these shows and their anti-heroes, TV has shifted from it's reassurance and predictability of the past. About the only thing reassuring and predictable in this new wave of American anti-hero shows is that you know they are going to go to some really dark places and, quite possibly, leave you there.

The other thing these shows have significantly changed is the amount the ease and speed with which one can  shut down anybody attempting to make that tired old trite observation that "there is nothing good on TV these days. It's all crap."  

You've come a long way, baby.

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