Because who doesn’t love a little moral ambiguity in their protagonists?
Imagine a hostile encounter between Sheriff Andy Taylor of “The Andy Griffith Show” and Deputy Rick Grimes from “The Walking Dead”. While Taylor considers why they are even battling, Grimes will have already shot Taylor without asking questions. This battle shows the contrast of the traditional hero of old television and the Byronic hero that is so predominant in television.
Television shows are losing their episodic qualities and becoming cinematic serials. Like film writers, television writers now glean ideas from traditional and graphic novels. The source material is so expansive that the plots of television shows must span entire seasons rather than a single episode. To keep characters of serials from becoming stale, writers must design characters that can evolve over time. Add the general darkness of modern television to the mix and you get fantastically complex and mysterious characters.
As a result, TV is starting to reflect the more realistic, albeit pessimistic, qualities of modern society. Television series cannot afford to have a two-dimensional conflict of good versus evil. Main characters instead create conflict by acting in their own (or group’s) best interests at the expense of others.
Sacrificing the few for the good of the many is no longer an unacceptable choice; modern television audiences crave conflict rather than staunch idealism. When characters do good, they usually are trying to relieve themselves of guilt or manipulate others.
Enter the Byronic hero.
Before we dive too deeply into this phenomenon, let’s get our definitions straight. The hero is an idealistic enforcer of the lawful good (e.g., Captain America). The antihero, on the other hand, lacks all of the qualities of the common hero. Rather than an ideal person, the antihero is an inherently flawed individual propelled into extraordinary circumstances. Somewhere in between the two lies the Byronic hero (e.g., Iron Man).
The Byronic hero may be completely capable of performing extraordinary acts, but may not have the moral compass use his or her extraordinary powers or talent for lawful good.
A cursory check of IMDb’s highest-rated television programs reveals that a majority feature a less-than-ideal protagonist. Three of the shows in the top 20 list are from AMC and they all feature a Byronic hero as the main character.
AMC’s Breaking Bad ranks number four in IMDb’s highest-rated shows of all time. The protagonist, Walter White, is an overqualified high school chemistry teacher suddenly diagnosed with terminal cancer. To ensure that his family is financially stable after his death, Walter uses his chemical knowledge to manufacture methamphetamine to sell on the street.
He quickly evolves beyond ethical quandaries to killing his competitors to protect his turf. He knows full well that his product is destroying people’s lives, but he keeps on going. Walter loses focus and drives away the very thing he is trying to protect; his wife leaves him and his son hates him.
Dozens of other pessimistic shows with Byronic heroes litter IMDb’s top 20 list. These characters take a spartan approach to getting what they want. Rules are merely obstacles to their end goals, not to be carefully considered before purposely breaking. Life itself is not sacred to the Byronic hero.
The change in the average television hero may have a direct correlation with society’s general world-weariness. The perception of the ideal hero has changed to be more real, interesting and utilitarian. Our ideal hero can get things done, regardless of the consequences.