TV is really good now. Let me begin with that central point. Yes, there are still terrible things on TV like the “Kardashians” and “Survivor,” but we’ve also gotten really amazing TV like The Wire, Breaking Bad, Lost, Game of Thrones, Arrested Development, House of Cards, and the list goes on. The reasons for this ascendance into TV’s golden age are varied and detailed by people far more in the know than me, so I won’t go into all of that here.
But I will note one thing that was really cool when I was a kid, which has become almost commonplace today: the bad guys sometimes won.
If you know me at all, or have read any of my other pieces, you know that I am something of a TV aficionado. Self-proclaimed, if nothing else. Without giving you my whole life story I watched a lot of TV and movies as a kid and spent a fair amount of time by myself.
Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t crouching in a basement, friendless, and writing a manifesto. I had a sick family member that took up a lot of my parents’ attention, so I learned to play by myself and immerse myself in other worlds. It actually helped me develop my fantastic imagination.
In any case, like many kids my age I watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles almost daily. Back in the 80’s, the show (and kids cartoons, generally) followed a pretty basic formula: the Turtles and/or April O’Neil are living large, eating pizza, loving life, Shredder and Krang (or one of a handful of other sub-villains like Rat-King) come up with a scheme, the Turtles find out about the scheme, there is a fight, bad guys sort of hold them off or beat the turtles back, turtles rally and win the day. Exciting stuff (and no, that’s not sarcasm).
But there were a couple of episodes where things didn’t quite work out that way and my interest level piqued when the bad guys won. It’s not that I wanted the turtles to lose exactly, it was just really interesting when the villain succeeded in their plan. Think about how all of these stories rolled out: “We can’t let Shredder get the MacGuffin or he’ll destroy New York City!” Because the turtles always won, we hardly ever saw what happened when Shredder actually got the MacGuffin or him get ready to destroy New York City.” On the few occasions when that finally happened, it was exciting.
It was also annoying how Shredder’s minions, BeBop and Rocksteady, always shot at the turtles with laser weapons and couldn’t hit them. I can’t remember the name of the episode and I have looked (believe me), but one time Bebop and Rocksteady lured the turtles into a trap and shot them!
That’s right. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles got shot! Of course, it was with lasers and the turtles were only slightly burnt and smoking, but they were hit and down for the count. They later came back and won, but it was still a cool moment.
There was also an episode where Shredder and Krang’s massive, super-tank fortress, the Technodrome, finally got enough power or something and made its way to the planet’s surface and started tearing up New York City. In fact, I believe that was a 2-parter wherein the turtles technically lost in the first part because they couldn’t stop Shredder from powering up the Technodrome in the first place.
The most famous example of this is probably when Optimus Prime died in the original Transformers cartoon movie (featuring the voices of Leonard Nimoy and Orson Welles, BTW…). As a kid, we were used to our heroes always winning out in the end. If there was a fight and they were injured, they’d get better or something would heal them. Not this time. No, after Prime’s all-out attack on the Decepticons and Megatron, he was mortally wounded and he died for real.* He passed on his “Matrix of Leadership” or whatever to Hot Rod, but the being Optimus Prime was dead as in “he wasn’t in the movie anymore.” As kids, we weren’t used to seeing that.
Hell, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers ended with them losing! The kid phenomena, Power Rangers, which sold a gazillion toys and sparked a live show, then a movie, actually ended with a big loss for the rangers. Lord Zedd and Rita (who had gotten married by this point (WTF)) figured out a way to reverse the rotation of the Earth, which (as we all know) reverses time. The rangers tried to stop it, but were held off (for probably the only time ever) by Goldar and whatever goons they were using. When time reversed, the rangers became kids again and, apparently, they could not morph when they were kids. Lord Zedd and Rita grow big and start trashing Angel Grove. THE END. It was all subterfuge for the next series, which would necessitate another ranger team coming to help them with different powers and zords (read: toys) but the rangers were beaten. Let’s call it what it is.
As a slight addendum to that, the Rangers also “lost” at the end of the series that followed MMPR, Mighty Morphin’ Alien Rangers. Lord Zedd and Rita found a way to smuggle a bomb into the rangers’ Command Center and blew it up. Power Rangers Zeo rather cheaply retconned its way out of it, but still rather shocking.
Of course, there is probably the greatest downbeat ending of all time: The Empire Strikes Back. Our intrepid hero, Luke Skywalker, was handed his ass by the Dark Lord (of the Sith) Vader, Han Solo was frozen in carbonite, and the rebels were in flight across the galaxy having been driven from their base. Things were pretty dire and it wasn’t very uplifting. Audiences loved it and, to this day, it’s the gold standard in Star Wars storytelling.
What this is all leading to, is the storytellers and creators of TV and movie content realized that having everything work out and be wrapped up neatly isn’t very dramatic. We like to see our heroes win, but it’s truly only satisfying if there are actual stakes–and actual threat that they might lose. But more and more shows have connected around the “anti-hero” or the just plain bad guy (see: Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey). That’s why fans are so mad about Han Solo not shooting Greedo first — it’s not about Han being a cold-blooded killer as George Lucas vainly asserts — it’s a character trait that shows Han is a man of action who will not be walked into a corner
It used to be that the audience had to identify with the main character. He had to be moral and make good decisions. He may not always win, but he always did his best. Both Tony and Vic showed us that our main character doesn’t need to be good — in fact, he can be downright loathsome as long as he is interesting to watch. Walter White is a great example of this; he started in a place where people could identify with him and understand his choices (to an extent), but as Breaking Bad went on, Walt started to go off the rails. He really went from “Mr. Blue Chips to Scarface” as creator Vince Gilligan envisioned.
It’s not exactly a new or foreign concept. The Godfather depicted protagonists as bad guys doing bad things, but we generally rooted for them. Or at least we were fascinated to watch. The slasher film craze of the 80s works into this, too. The movies started out as being innocence against violence and evil, but gradually characters like Jason, Freddy Kruger, and Michael Myers became the stars. Audiences turned out to see Jason get those immoral kids doing drugs, having sex, or just generally being mean. They were taking authoritative action — not action we would take necessarily, but these are movies; we want our characters doing interesting things.
Consider Hannibal Lecter. Really think about who he is and what he does. He kills people and he eats them. In some cases, he tortures them before he kills them. He made one guy cut off his face and feed it to dogs. But we like him. He’s a gentleman, he’s got a great accent, he’s smart, he’s witty, and, generally, he goes after people that we don’t really like. At the heart of it, though, are Hannibal Lecter’s contradictions. We’re mesmerized by this character who does such terrible things, but on the surface is really quite interesting. He’s affable (to some), he tells great stories, and he seems to know more about you than you do.
Contradiction is dramatic. It creates story where the script doesn’t explicitly depict it. “Clarice Starling is bright, young, and innocent. Hannibal Lecter is incisive, brilliant, and dangerous.” What happens when these two forces meet? As they talk and interface, that story plays out in the actors’ performances while the overt plot comes through in their dialogue and revelations. Plus, try to remember that when Silence of the Lambs came out, other than book readers and the 13 people that saw Manhunter, no one really knew what Hannibal Lecter was. Other characters told us he was dangerous and Clarice, herself, says it to his face when she notes that he “ate” his victims instead of keeping parts of them as trophies. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the amazingly charismatic and charming Anthony Hopkins played Lecter. Until the 3rd act, when Lecter escapes in traumatic and explosively violent fashion we didn’t really know what he was capable of doing. There’s probably even a few people that silently cheered his escape because Lecter’s captor, Dr. Chilton, is so slimy and loathsome.
Anyway, to bring this long-winded piece back to something resembling a point, in Silence of the Lambs, the bad guy wins after a fashion. The primary antagonist, Jame Gumb, is killed by our fledgling hero, Clarice Starling, but Hannibal Lecter escapes. AND as we now now, Lecter is certainly more dangerous than Gumb. Frankly, Lecter emboldens guys like Jame Gumb and makes them worse. The audience is really the winner in this scenario. It’s just watched a taut, well-executed story where the bad guy wins. It can’t wait to see more.
Similarly, rather than be angry or downcast because the Ninja Turtles or Power Rangers lost, I was jazzed up. The story was excited. What would my heroes do now? As exciting as heroes are when they’re winning, they’re more interesting when they’re losing. How will they react? Can they turn things back in their favor?
Think about Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The most common criticism of Captain America is that he, like Superman, is too perfect. He’s bland. He’s a boy scout. Those things are true. But what does the bland, boy scout do when the ground fall out from underneath him? What does he do when everything he believes is called into question? He’s named “Captain America” for goodness sake. What does he do when the United States he’s fighting for tries to kill him and is responsible for some really heinous stuff? TWS was a great movie and while (spoiler alert) the good guys prevail in the end, it was a Pyrrhic Victory. Many are dead and one of the bedrock foundations (so we thought…) of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is shattered to pieces. The bad guys sort of won and that movie was the better for it (so is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.).
I’m sorry for the somewhat meandering piece. I used to get these thoughts out with my friends at my old job and since I don’t have easy access to those fine minds anymore, this is the medium I must use. And, I ask you, if random thoughts about TV shows and movies don’t belong on the Internet, where do they belong, huh?
Oh yeah, and watch Hannibal (1st Season up on Amazon Prime and 2nd season on Amazon or iTunes or whatever digital medium you prefer). It’s really good.