I remember the first time I tried to explain to my family the premise of "Dexter." "Well, he's a serial killer," I said back in 2007. "But he only kills other serial killers. And he's actually a really good dad."
Trying to explain "Breaking Bad" or "The Sopranos" also didn't meet with much enthusiasm. In my desire to underscore the brilliance of the shows, I ended up sounding like I might actually be really into both meth and the mafia. (Not even once!)
But things have changed in recent years as more and more television dramas follow these antihero trendsetters. Nobody blinks at morally complex characters like Walter White or Dexter Morgan or Tony Soprano anymore, because mainstream viewers know that they arrive on screen with the promise of a good story to tell. These are protagonists who do the opposite of what's expected or buck conventional wisdom, yet come out seeming human all the same. They are at once immoral and principled. They're often brutally violent and quietly compassionate. They make bad decisions in their relationships. They protect who they love. They buy groceries and have moments of self doubt. And it's not so much that these shows glamorize bad things (mostly "Breaking Bad" made meth seem like a horrible idea) as they take a person who society would normally demonize and portray a level of human strength and fragility to which anyone could personally relate.
The problem with Hollywood's antihero television trend is that now every producer, writer and director thinks they're smart enough to pull it off. They think all that's required is a main character who breaks the law for some agreed-upon greater good. But there's more to it than that.
For example, Kerry Washington of ABC's "Scandal" can't live up to Glenn Close on DirectTV/FX's "Damages." They are both high-powered lawyers who will break the law (or worse) in order to get the outcome they think is right. But Washington's Olivia Pope clicks around on high heels with a vulnerable prissiness that doesn't quite answer the question of how she came into such a powerful position. In the first episode she swoons under the obvious manipulation of the president of the United States, while viewers are left to wonder how she could be so shortsighted. Already, it's hard to get on board with her. Close, as Patty Hewes, also clicks around on high heels, but her odd paranoia and lack of trust in people makes it clear how she got to the top of the food chain. She's disturbing and magnetic, snake-like one moment and heroic in others.
It comes down to delicately layered character development that is far more complicated than some shows are willing to invest in or able to pull off. Future copycats would do well to consider a few crucial elements that have proven effective in creating some of television's best antiheroes.
Start with a vice. The most interesting protagonists have a weakness for something, not someone. Mirielle Enos as Sarah Linden, a kind of antihero in AMC's "The Killing," can't quit tobacco, so she's often chewing nicotine gum. It adds an extra layer of anxiety to her character without being expository. The times when the stoic character does break down and light up, we know she's unraveling.
A similar component involves emotional vulnerability. In the BBC's "Luther," Idris Elba plays a detective who finds himself in hot water more than once because he's so sensitive to his enemies (who are often antiheroes themselves). He's tough, and often takes the law into his own hands, but this particular kryptonite helps to level the playing field and keep viewers hooked.
Another key component involves secrets that don't feel like secrets. Netflix's "House of Cards" is all about secrets. It's about Kevin Spacey building an elaborate plan to gain political power by any means necessary. The way he whores around and sells tips to media and does backdoor deals provides the meat of the story, but it's when he's at home playing Killzone on his big-screen TV that you get another layer to his character's psyche.
Deep-seated quirks that show up in the storyline are also highly effective. One of my favorite antiheroes is the BBC's Sherlock Holmes, and Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock is one of the most thoroughly drawn misfits in contemporary television. His apartment looks like a fun-house with weird wallpaper and antique furniture, and Sherlock treats it like an anarchist squatter's house, smoking cigarettes in a way that illustrates he might not care if everything went up in flames. He's also an incredible narcissist, which means that when he shows any sort of care it's with an agenda in mindor it's for Watson, or it's a joke. He's a jerk, but you don't care because he's damn good at what he does.
The most important ingredient to a compelling antihero remains the character's moral compass. He or she may not follow society's standards, but they follow an established code that guides who they are and what they do, always. It's what makes a serial killer like Dexter, who only kills other killers, more interesting than a story about any other serial killer. When he's faced with scenarios that threaten to break his code, he has to make tough decisions—and they're ones that in some sick way a viewer can understand because they've come this far in the story with him. Fans want him to stick to his code and want him to succeed, and the show's at its best when the two are not one in the same.