TV Today: Why We Love Anti-Heroes (2013)


If you are a TV aficionado, then you have probably been hearing the term “anti-hero” a lot in the past decade.  In fact, Showtime has made a fortune off of its “anti-hero” platform showcasing its series DEXTER, WEEDS, HOMELAND, NURSE JACKIE, CALIFORNICATION, as well as its upcoming new series RAY DONOVAN.  These are perfect examples of shows that feature the joys and triumphs of “anti-heroes.”

But recently the “anti-hero” craze seems to have reached such a saturation point that no one can exactly define what an “anti-hero” is and how it differs from just being a villain or a hero.

The standard dictionary definition of “anti-hero” is someone who lacks heroic virtues, such as being morally good, courageous, or noble.  Whereas classic heroes are “white knight” types who are noble, good of heart, moral, and who try to behave in an exemplary fashion.  Villains on the other hand are diabolical, have evil in their hearts, do not seek to do good, and behave immorally.  So the more dubious classification of “anti-hero” would suggest a more blurred line between hero and villain, not quite a hero and not quite a villain.

So what qualities make up an “anti-hero”?  The “anti-hero” may at first look like a villain because his deeds or words make it look like he is selfish and uncaring of others.  But the “anti-hero” is a lot more complex than that.  The “anti-hero” will do bad things, but will have good motivations in his heart or will be seeking to redeem himself for his bad behavior.  Simply put, the “anti-hero” will have the appearance of a villain, but the heart of a hero.

Looking across the television landscape, we have dozens of examples of “anti-heroes.”  They are the scoundrels we love, despite their bad habits.  Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) is perhaps one of the easiest examples to identify.  Dexter is a serial killer. There is no gray area about it; Dexter has killed a lot of people. But the subtle distinction is that Dexter tries to kill only those who truly deserve it.  He knows perfectly well that killing people (even bad people) is wrong.  But he has this compulsion to kill and he tries to channel it in such a way that it gives a positive result – he kills other killers that have escaped the justice system.  He is like the garbage collector, and he takes out the trash for society.  He also strives to be a better man every day.  His actions are bad, but in his heart he struggles to do the right thing and be a better person.


But looking at two other serial killers currently on television: Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), are they “anti-heroes” or just your average villain?  Knowing how their stories end, we know perfectly well that Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter are not trying to do anything good. They are evil through and through – albeit, Hannibal is a bit more aware of his evilness than Norman is at this point.  But neither is really seeking redemption or to help society. They are only trying to satisfy their dark urges and celebrate their darker natures.

Other good examples of “anti-heroes” would include Sawyer (Josh Holloway) from LOST, Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) from FIREFLY, Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) from SONS OF ANARCHY, Sheriff Hood (Antony Starr) on BANSHEE, Dylan (Max Thieriot) of BATES MOTEL, Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) of THE AMERICANS, Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) on ARROW, Aiden (Sam Witwer) on BEING HUMAN, Detective Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones) on COPPER, Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) on HELL ON WHEELS, Pope (Colin Cunningham) on FALLING SKIES, Duke Crocker (Eric Balfour) on HAVEN, Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgard) on HEMLOCK GROVE, Brodie (Damian Lewis) on HOMELAND, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) on JUSTIFIED, Hook (Colin O’Donoughue) on ONCE UPON A TIME, Miles Matheson (Billy Burke) on REVOLUTION, Huck (Guillermo Diaz) on SCANDAL, and Damon Salvatore (Ian Somerhalder) on THE VAMPIRE DIARIES.


Each one is a “loveable rogue.”  They are criminals, murderers, traitors — men who live outside of the law. Yet we still see the goodness in them.  They cannot be judged solely on their actions, but by their intent.  They may do bad things, but they are desperately trying to bring justice into the world, avenge wrongs, protect others, and be better men worthy of the love of a good woman.  It’s just that their instincts to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals and happiness steps outside the moral boundaries that society has placed upon them.  The fact that they have committed bad acts that makes it hard to justify their actions and forgive them entirely.  But we desperately want to.

Interestingly “anti-heroes” may be criminals, murders and other undesirables, but when it comes down to a dire situation, they will be the first ones who step up.

There is also a certain sexiness to the “anti-hero.”  Perhaps we have to blame Hollywood for that.  They have cast the “anti-hero” in such a way that the role demands a certain amount of charm and seductiveness.  But the lure of the “anti-hero” dates back as far as Emily Bronte and her depiction of Heathcliff in “Wuthering Heights” and Charlotte Bronte’s Mr. Rochester in “Jane Eyre,” or even Alexandre Dumas’s “The Count of Monte Cristo.”  There is a universal appeal to the “bad boy” that classic literature and modern film and television have all embraced.

But no matter how you describe the “anti-hero,” our heart always seems to recognize him no matter what he looks like.  He is the one that will surprise everyone and do the right thing; whereas a villain will never be able to conquer his urges to do something bad because in his heart he really wants to be bad.  Villains are sociopaths – people who do not feel remorse for their bad deeds.  They only feel joy from it.  They have no conscience to weigh upon them and keep them from repeating their amoral behavior, and for many, they get a certain “high” or rush from their acts.  They enjoy the sensation of power it gives them.  Yet the “anti-hero” will feel pain and remorse and will seek ways to atone for their bad deeds.  It is an interesting dichotomy.

Should “anti-heroes” be entitled to forgiveness and adoration?   I chalk it up to our various religious upbringings. It is in our nature to forgive and give people a second-chance. We just need to sense that they want to change and be better, and the genuineness of their contrition is what makes it possible to forgive and forget.

Some would argue that only the “white knight” hero is worthy of our adoration and commendation.  Yet it is impossible to ignore the appeal of the “anti-hero.”  Should they be condemned simply because they have committed sins in the past or they live by a different code?  Fortunately, our society has always allowed for the possibility of reformation and redemption.  It makes us feel like we can strike back at the evil surrounding us if we can win one more heart to the side of good.  It is a precarious balance and “anti-heroes” are the wild cards working in our favor.

Regardless of the real-world implications and appeal, “anti-heroes” hold a special place in our hearts in entertainment. They are surprisingly addictive and we find ourselves craving them to spice up storylines.  We just love seeing such reluctant heroes fight their own nature to do the right thing.  It also gives us hope and we feel rewarded when we see them conquer the darkness and take a step back towards the side of good.  Plus, “anti-heroes” are just plain fun. The world would be a more stark place with only “white knights” and “black-hearted villains.”  Anti-heroes keep us guessing and give us something to have hope for.  We are a society impossibly addicted to hope – and as we constantly see, we are addicted to “anti-heroes.”  We want to believe in the goodness inside people, and we feel justifiably rewarded when we catch glimpses of it in someone who we did not initially perceive as being good.  It’s like discovering hidden treasure.  So long live the “anti-heroes” – our lives would be a bit more colorless without them.

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"Once Upon A Time"
“Once Upon A Time”
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