What is it about antiheroes that draws us to them? Is it that they play by their own rules, or that they fly in the face of social norms? Maybe it’s simply that living in darker times, we identify more readily, even if only on a subconscious level, with those who are flawed, much as we perceive ourselves and the world around us. Whatever the reason, portraying the protagonist as an antihero seems to work very well in the modern day television and cinema. Dark heroes abound, exhibiting a range of character flaws, and carrying enough emotional baggage to bankrupt a frequent flyer.
In our first Retro–Nomads post , we are going to take a look at the eleven best antiheroes of modern television; who they are and what makes them so great, why they are flawed and yet still our heroes. To call this a rogues gallery may be too generous…let’s just say they are all great scoundrels and make for riveting television. We’re sticking to contemporaries here and focusing on series you can still catch on TV, but there will be a nod at the end towards the great ones from the recent past.
Assholes and Narcissists
If they weren’t so damn good at what they do, you’d want to punch them in the face. Incredibly gifted (and they know it) these antiheroes could easily be serious villains if their intentions were different. At times, they may even dance the razor’s edge between good and evil, with flashbacks and subtle hints that perhaps in their not too distant past…they were evil.
Patrick Jane “The Mentalist”
Patrick Jane was a celebrity psychic/conman until his ego led him to ridicule a serial killer on national television. Now he is on a personal quest for vengeance against the serial killer Red John, who brutally murdered his wife and child as an object lesson on hubris. Taking every advantage of his position as a consultant to law enforcement, he is manipulative, self-centered, and above the rules. Jane believes his actions are not subject to society’s constraints, and that nothing is above avenging his family’s murder.
Dr. Greg House “House”
A misanthropic egomaniac and on again-off again drug addict, he is also said to be the character most identified with by IT folks everywhere. House is his own hero. His ego is rivaled only by his intellect, and he shows rarified disdain for anyone not his equal, which means pretty much every human being he encounters. If I ever get sick, I want him looking at my labs, but he can stay the hell out of my room.
Dr. Cal Lightman “Lie to Me”
Lightman is a human lie detector who always believes he knows better than you…well, okay, maybe he does know better. Getting to the the truth is not enough, he will learn your motivations, and to hell with privacy, politeness, or civility. What is it about a British accent that makes arrogance seem charming? I don’t know, but Lightman seems to get away with much simply because people can’t tell when he’s serious or when he’s dissembling.
Playing By Their Own Rules
Their jobs are to be heroes, but these guys are doing things their way and the ends ALWAYS justify the means. Collateral damages are part of life, and innocent bystanders are just a cost of doing business. You may want them on your side, but you don’t want them in your zip code.
US Marshal Raylan Givens “Justified”
Raylan Givens is the long arm of the law like Wyatt Earp was in Tombstone, honorable and fair, yet willing to kill at the drop of a hat. We first meet him as he’s making good on a promise to shoot a gun runner on sight if he didn’t leave Miami. Still giving the thug a chance to skip town, their encounter ends “Wild West Style” with Raylan shooting him dead… only after he drew first. Later in the same episode, he shoots his childhood friend. Yes, the guy deserved it, but we can all agree Givens is a trigger happy fool.
Jack Bauer “24”
The end justifies the means, PERIOD. Torture, extortion, and old-fashioned ass-beatings are all in a day’s work for Bauer, and if he has to ignore things like due process or the Geneva Convention, so be it. You’d hate to be anywhere near him when it hits the fan, but deep down you also hope he is based on a real person. You sleep better at night thinking that maybe, just maybe, this show is half-fiction, half documentary.
Bad Men Doing Good Deeds
Reformed “bad guys” are some of the most entertaining heroes. As an audience we forgive them “slipping” more than our standard issue heroes and there’s something inherently satisfying in villains getting a taste of their own medicine.
Christopher Chance “Human Target”
A former assassin, Chance has teamed up with another former assassin and a veteran police detective, all seeking in their own way to redeem themselves by helping those who cannot help themselves. Chance puts his special skills to use and is willing to do anything to protect his clients, including breaking the law as necessary, taking a bullet, and he has no hesitation in putting a bag guy down. The completely over the top approach of this show makes it a guilt pleasure, and the origin story has us anxious for season two.
Dexter Morgan “Dexter”
A serial killer who only kills other serial killers, he has a kind of Zen ‘circle of life’ thing going for him. His complete lack of empathy only serves to make him more sympathetic as he tries to emulate what he thinks are ‘normal’ feeling and reactions, and the constant flashbacks to his childhood just make him all the more appealing. His first person narration is the icing on the cake.
Keeping the Darkness at Bay
Being a good guy is not easy work. Occasionally the toll it takes on our heroes pushes them to dark places in order to cope. While they may come out occasionally, they are most in their element in the places few others would ever dare venture.
Walter Bishop “Fringe”
Dr. Bishop is both borderline insane, and a complete genius. He has performed drug experimentation on himself, innocent children, and the odd FBI agent; kidnapped his dead son’s parallel from another reality, broken every law of physics and nature, and what the hell is he doing with that cow? Wait, never mind, I really don’t want to know. Whatever the Fringe Division is dealing with, I do know that I want Walter Bishop there to ensure the world survives for another day. His child-like fascination with pudding pops and psychedelics are equally endearing.
Dean & Sam Winchester “Supernatural”
Two sides of the same coin, we couldn’t have one Winchester without the other. Brothers, saviours of man-kind, and allies to angels, they are also mass murderers, one is a demon blood junkie, and the other became a tormentor in Hell to avoid his own further torture. The end of the world as we know it may be their fault, but they are also the best chance humanity has to survive. Dean epitomises the saying “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die” because that is his reality, while Sam just tries to hold the darkness at bay. Through it all, they have one another, and that may just be enough in the end.
These solitary figures stand steady against the evil in this world. Many times they are truly the ONLY one who can do what it takes. With great responsibilities comes great power… and great loneliness. They ride alone because no one understands what they go through, and what they do always hurts the ones they love.
The Doctor “Doctor Who”
The last of his people, a time traveler, and the self-appointed guardian of Earth, he ended the time war that would have destroyed the galaxy by trapping his own people with his enemies. Emotionally distant and unapproachable, his feelings of superiority occasionally slip out when he is stressed, or angry, or just being petty. Yet he can also be completely charming, and his contagious enthusiasm for life’s many wonders completely sucks you in.
Special Agent Jethro Gibbs “NCIS”
A former Marine sniper, he killed the drug dealer who murdered his wife and daughter. While justified, it looks like this season, his past will catch up to him. Distant, withdrawn, and with serious commitment issues, he sets the bar for the strong, silent type, inspiring in others what is second nature to him. That, and the occasional head slap for reinforcement make Gibbs the kind of guy you wish you could work for, even if all you do the first three years is fetch his coffee and play the goofy comic relief.
Hall of Fame
Beyond the ken of mortal men, these antiheroes are forever enshrined in our hearts. They may not be on television now, but they play again and again thanks to VLC and large hard drives.
Lifetime Achievement Award
Detective Vic Mackey “The Shield”
The most ANTI of all our heroes, Vic did everything and anything to enforce his personal brand of the law. A hedonist with a sadistic streak, we lived vicariously through his indulgences, both repulsed by his complete lack of morality and attracted to his innate sense of justice. In the very first episode he kills a fellow officer, a member of his team, and things only get more extreme from there. And yet, throughout seven seasons that see the rest of his team killed by one another, committing suicide, or taking the fall for Vic, we can’t help but hope he continues to slip through the cracks.
Most anticipated return
Captain Jack Harkness “Torchwood”
A 51st century omni-sexual time travelling bad ass, he has saved the world, galaxy and universe several times over. Epitomizing the motto “anything that moves” Jack’s insatiable appetite has led to several adventures both onscreen and off. He has made choices others could not contemplate, and suffered more loss than everyone else on this list combined, yet through it all, he tries to live up to an idea, and that may yet prove to be his redemption. We need more Torchwood.
Gone before his time
Captain Malcolm Reynolds “Firefly”
Once a member of the defeated rebellion army, now a smuggler, train robber, scavenger, and gun fighter; for Reynolds, breaking the law is all in a day’s work. He’ll go out of his way to start a fight with anyone he doesn’t like, come to the rescue of anyone being abused by the system, and go through Hell and back for anyone on his crew.