There’s a lot to be said for the last decade in television. We got counter-terrorists, islands, clones, meth cooks, zombies, ad executives, motorcycle outlaws and 12 year old kings, but, most importantly, the last decade of television saw the rise of one key figure, the anti-hero, and the shining example of that archetype came to a resounding conclusion earlier this month with the end of Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad. The show was a master-class in the genre that Shawn Ryan birthed to the small screen with The Shield, the morally ambiguous lead character. No one can argue that Vince Gilligan didn’t succeed in his goal of taking Mr. Chips and turning him into Scarface. By the end of Breaking Bad’s run, all you wanted was for Walt to die. But it’s because of Breaking Bad’s success that audiences are now clamoring for a return to something else, a return to clearly defined characters.
While still young, the 2013-2014 television season has already given birth to two of the most successful shows in history, Sleepy Hollow and The Blacklist. While two wildly different series, one about a town with a haunted past and the other about an eccentric criminal trying to help the F.B.I. find the worst of the worst, the two shows have one thing in common, and it is that one thing audiences have made clear they want more of: morally clear characters.
Regardless of where you come down on him as a person, you cannot say Red’s morality isn’t clear at the start of The Blacklist. He’s a criminal that, for whatever reason, wants to help the F.B.I. find the real bad guys. The guys he considers to be unforgivable. The clearly defined evil ones. Ichabod, while quirky, is clearly defined in his morality. He’s a good man that wants to fight supernatural evil in the present day. That’s it. Neither Red, nor Ichabod, nor Elizabeth Keen, nor Abbie Mills can be questioned on their morality. They live for good. They have no “dark side.”
For every Breaking Bad we got over the last decade, we got five more Low Winter Suns. The fact is, audiences want to go back to an age of good vs. evil. They want to go back to a time where the good guys fight the bad guys and win, the ratings prove that. Just this past week, The Blacklist posted the highest gain ever for Live +7 ratings with over 6 million people watching the show via DVR in addition to the 11 million that tuned in live. Not to mention, in an unprecedented pick-up for broadcast television, Sleepy Hollow was recently renewed for a thirteen episode season two that will air in the fall of 2014, only three episodes into its freshman season
We aren’t living in a post-9/11 age anymore. We don’t need Jack Bauer or Vick Mackey, no matter how much we love them, to go in with a knife or a gun and get the answers we need before the bomb goes off or the drug dealer gets away. We are no longer in need of an outlet like Walter White to vent our frustrations over the quality of living in lower middle-class America.
There are case examples of this shift occurring even before Breaking Bad’s end, and on both ends of the television spectrum. Supernatural, a show about two brothers that fight monsters, features two fantastic lead characters whose morals, while tested, are never altered. They are clearly defined. They are the good guys fighting the bad. Much like The Blacklist, White Collar features a lead that may have a sketchy past, but he is not evil. He is, like his other main-characters in the show, clearly defined. Showrunner Jeff Eastin even goes out of his way to keep that idea in check. When Peter’s wife was kidnapped by a ruthless killer, at no point did he go “off-book.” At no point did he break the law to achieve the goal of getting his wife back. He never “broke bad.”
Audiences loved watching Walter White’s downward spiral unfold, no one is arguing otherwise. The argument to be made is in the direction audiences want to go now that, that journey is over. The answer is not more anti-heroes. The answer is less. The audience still wants good, entertaining television; they just don’t want it to be with morally questionable characters anymore.
And if you believe we can’t have a great show without a morally questionable character, I submit to you as exhibit E, Homeland. Carrie is driven, crazy, broken, fascinating, but she is not morally ambiguous. She knows the rules she has to play by, and while she may once in a while bend those rules, she never breaks them. She will never plant evidence. She will never lie under oath (as proven by the season three premiere). Homeland is an Emmy award winning series with a clearly defined lead character.
It’s time to move into the next phase of the television cycle, and that phase features the good guys fighting bad guys.
Plain and simple.