The end is coming for the TV antihero. Well, actually, the end is coming for a few very select TV antiheroes, but the whole genre might just be following right behind. Dexter has killed his last victim. Walter White has cooked his last meth. And after a ridiculous decision by AMC to split up the final season of Mad Men, Don Draper will have pitched his last ad.
With the demise of Breaking Bad, Dexter, and Mad Men the television landscape will lose the shows which helped pioneer this new antihero craze. Usually when a new trend emerges, the genesis of the trend dies out and permutations and variations take over.
For instance, it was The Office that gave birth to cringe-inducing humor and mockumentary style filmmaking. Sanding down the edges of The Office’s crueler, edgier laughs gave us Modern Family and the sweetly hilarious Parks and Recreation. These comedies were similar enough to the genesis point but different enough to not feel like a tired retread.
However for every successful genre evolution, there are examples of a style of show burning bright and fading fast. After the monstrous success of Lost, every network was looking for its next mythology-heavily serialized drama. This lead to clunkers like Flashforward, The Event, and Invasion.
A genre can’t move forward if it doesn’t try to cover new ground. This is certainly true of the new crop of antihero shows, which all feel very paint-by-numbers. You could almost put together an anithero bingo card at this point. Certainly shows like Showtime’s Ray Donovan and AMC’s promoted-to-the-point-of-desperation Low Winter Sun would immediately win the prize.
These shows aren’t bringing a new color to the antihero, they’re merely photocopying the elements that work from better shows and attempting to reuse these tricks with diminishing returns. Audiences get tired of seeing the same thing over and over again, and a one-trick pony can only impress for so long.
What made the pioneering antihero shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad so compelling is that they were doing something we had never seen on television before. We weren’t used to being asked to emphasize with a murderous mobster or a morally compromised meth kingpin. But now we are, and making shows with “gritty” main heroes (almost always white and male) doesn’t give audiences anything they haven’t seen before.
It’s time to bid farewell to some of our favorite love-to-hate characters and move on to new stories, told in new ways. No show can be the next Breaking Bad, no alcoholic ad man will compete with Don Draper, and no serial killer will be as likable as Dexter Morgan. So instead shouldn’t TV try something truly novel and find a new tale to tell?