The rise of the anti-hero on TV and the impact it could have on kids

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 20 2011 9:21 a.m. MST

Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), left, Mike (Jonathan Banks), Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) in "Breaking Bad."

Ursula Coyote/AMC

A new National Public Radio story highlights the rise of the antihero in cable television dramas and ruminates about the phenomenon's origins.

Reported by TV and media critic Eric Deggans, the piece defines antiheroes as "characters the audience likes and wants to see succeed, even though they act an awful lot like villains." Deggans illustrates the trend by citing antihero-laden fare such as "Dexter," "Sons of Anarchy," "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men."

"In a world filled with war, recession and cynicism, straight-up heroes feel fake as a three-dollar bill. So the confused guy who does bad things for the right reasons just might be the best reflection of where we are today."

Last week New York Magazine branded Nucky Thompson, the "Boardwalk Empire" mob boss played by Steve Buscemi, a bona fide antihero following his uncharacteristically violent behavior during the show's season finale.

"Where do Nucky's actions put him in the pantheon of TV antiheroes? Closer to the seriously psychotic side of the spectrum with Tony Soprano ('Sopranos') and Walter White ('Breaking Bad'), or to decent men who do bad things, like Don Draper ('Mad Men') and Stringer Bell ('The Wire')?"

The rise of antiheroes may portend far-reaching and unintended consequences. For example, children typically struggle to differentiate morally ambiguous behavior — and in that context, even nonprofit advocacy groups are starting to take a long look at the cultural assent of the antihero.

"Many violent acts (on television) are perpetrated by the 'good guys,' whom kids have been taught to admire," Dr. Steven Dowshen wrote for KidsHealth in October. "Even though kids are taught by their parents that it's not right to hit, television says it's OK to bite, hit, or kick if you're the good guy. This can lead to confusion when kids try to understand the difference between right and wrong."

EMAIL: jaskar@desnews.com

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