I’m writing this in the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings, which any fair-minded person on either side would agree was a travesty. Our national motto E Pluribus Unum has never seemed so mockingly hollow.
During the same time, I found myself immersed in the second season of Billions, a Showtime series now available on disc. It’s the story of two latter day gunslingers, a high-flying hedge fund founder and the U.S. attorney in Manhattan.
The former is a Wall Street shark whose knack for picking winners is exceeded only by his greed. He’s willing to do anything to win in his business. The latter is equally compromised, hounding white collar targets with a ruthlessness powered by political ambitions. He’s also a sado-masochist, and his wife (who works for the hedge fund!) routinely tortures him in their bedroom.
Both men are trying to destroy each other, and nothing is off-limits: insider trading, bribery, entrapment, sacrificing underlings. ANYTHING goes! The episodes are full of mayhem, with hardly an ounce of human decency to be found.
The show is appalling, all-too-true to life, and entertaining as hell.
One night, I realized I was being manipulated into rooting for the presumptive villain, the investment shark, played by the charismatic British actor Damien Lewis.
The prosecutor, played by the highly-accomplished Paul Giamatti, is even more despicable, even though he represents law and order. Both men are Emmy-winners, which goes to the quality of the production: all of the acting, directing and writing is first-rate.
Yet I was brought up short when I realized I was cheering on a guy who stood in for all the crooks who tanked the economy in 2008 and brought on the so-called Great Recession. That collapse hurt me personally, as it did almost all Americans.
Lewis’s character is no hero. Nor is Giamatti’s. Yet they’re driving the narrative. Where were the admirable people in the story?
This led me to think about the entire TV landscape. When did anti-heroes become the norm?
Let’s go back just one generation.
In 1997, actor Dennis Franz won the 2nd of his four Best Dramatic Actor Emmys playing “Andy Sipowitz” in NYPD Blue. His character was described as “a racist goon with a heart of gold.”
Three years later, James Gandolfini notched his first Emmy nomination playing the murderous “Tony” on the mega-hit, The Sopranos. He went on to more nods and several wins in the Dramatic Actor category, as the mafia saga became a template for the entire cable industry.
Since 2000, 15 of the 18 other Best Dramatic Actor winners were also anti-heroes, a motley crew that contained a paranoid, a drug-dealing crime lord, an unscrupulous lawyer, another crooked cop, an amoral ad man and a treasonous Marine.
Contrast this group with winners in decades past, when western lawmen, journalists, brilliant investigators and even a globe-trotting spy dominated the category. I’m referring to characters like Matt Dillon, Lou Grant, Columbo and Alexander Scott. Noblemen all.
So, what happened?
Well, the world and then pop culture turned bleak.
I’ve always believed that art is more REFLECTIVE of society than a molder of it. In the innocent 50’s and even in the turbulent 60’s, the U.S. strode the globe like a colossus, which indeed we were then. Heroes were larger than life and possessed no ambiguity at all: John Wayne was the prototypical American Male in the Movies, and his clone James Arness played the same figure on Television.
But then Viet Nam, the Civil Rights struggle, Assassinations, various “liberation movements” and Watergate splintered the population into hostile camps. Even worse, the institutions that used to knit us together—the federal government (especially the presidency), the public schools, mainstream churches—came under attack or revealed a dark underbelly.
Bill Cosby, who landed three consecutive Emmys playing the aforementioned “Scotty” and was more recently labeled “America’s Dad,” is now a convicted sex offender.
So is it any wonder that this year’s winner portrayed a lethal KGB agent posing as a suburban family man?
Aside from some comic book characters there aren’t any heroes out there, and John Wayne is long dead. But perhaps if somebody introduced an inspiring figure like Sylvester Stallone did with “Rocky” in the murky 1970’s, the tide might turn again.
This much is certain: we’ve always needed heroes, we always will, and when only morally bankrupt figures are held up instead, it debases us—no matter how skillfully-rendered they are.