Two years ago, I called the antihero a morally vacuous cliché whose domination of prestige TV shows was ending. Looking at my list of my 2015 favorites, I still see shows featuring tortured men on the moral razor’s edge, torn between the two sides of their nature — but the cracks are beginning to show. Post-Golden Age, antiheroes are social misfits on the verge of losing their lives and their minds. Don Draper may be the last of the lot who comes through with a scrap of body and soul intact. Let the backlash begin.
This year, we said goodbye to Mad Men. I declared the show’s finale to be the end of TV's Golden Age of sexy, charismatic monsters. Whatever its flaws, Mad Men’s perfect ending put it into the pantheon of TV’s greatest shows. Don Draper epitomizes the latter day antihero, agonized by his failure to reconcile his fractured duality. In the show’s final moments, our man realizes that the genius that made Don Draper a great ad man flowed directly from the alienation of the imposter Dick Whitman. With a smile, Don/Dick realizes that he was free to write himself a new story that better suited him. That’s not a failure. That’s the satori that allowed Don Draper to be, at last, a real live boy.
Where is my mind?
The Pixies song “Where Is My Mind?” featured prominently in two of the best shows, and biggest surprises, of 2015: The Leftovers and Mr. Robot. Their wildly different plots shared a common theme, that, as William Faulkner put it, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even the past.” After two percent of the world’s population suddenly disappears, Kevin Garvey’s struggle between survivor guilt and moving on seems too heavy-handed to be effective. It’s a credit to showrunner Damon Lindelof that his liberal use of magic realism and allegory turned watching this show from a grim chore into a fascination for me.
The madness of Mr. Robot’s Elliot Alderson also springs from loss. Elliot is a latter-day hacker Hamlet who signs on with the Anonymous-style insurrectionist society to hack into multinational E Corp’s computers. Their ostensible mission is erase records of 70 percent of the world’s debt, but Elliot does this not out of high-minded idealism, but out of a need to avenge his father’s death, which was caused and covered up by E Corp. Like Hamlet, Elliot’s mind is bent to the breaking point by the pressure of placating his father’s angry ghost. Even in his moment of triumph at successfully cracking E Corp, Elliot is so lost without his father that he’s no longer sure who he is.
The abyss gazes also
Tony Soprano seemed edgy 15 years ago — not so much, compared to the monsters who make my list this year. Hannibal, the most outré show on TV, ended its run with epic, romantic gore. The sick bromance between the urbane serial killer Hannibal Lecter and his protégé/nemesis, FBI profiler Will Graham, finally reached its climax in a double-team murder choreographed like a sex scene. When Will and Hannibal finally embrace, then plunge off a cliff, one can’t help but harken back to Don Draper’s fall and wonder if they will reinvent themselves or accept themselves for who they are. Perhaps they've negated each other and self-destructed. As much as I loved the show, maybe it’s better if I never know the answer.
Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick also featured a menagerie of monsters. Dr. John Thackery, head of surgery at the Knickerbocker Hospital in early 1900s New York, is Dr. Gregory House without the humor or the chiding sidekick. A brilliant medical innovator, Thackery is also a degenerate drug addict and compulsive risk-taker. Light years ahead of his time, his quest to push the boundaries of medicine leads him to disaster. The show is shot in tones of sodden gray, reflecting the universal moral and physical corruption of Tammany-era New York. Thackery, willing to go to any lengths to find a cure, is tormented by every failure. His final act of Season 2 is so grotesque, horrifying, and fitting that if the show is over, The Knick will go down in my book as having the darkest finale of all time. Coming from me, that’s a compliment.
Pitchforks and torches
Penny Dreadful and Rectify could not be more different. Penny Dreadful is an over-the-top monster movie whose protagonist, Vanessa Ives, literally resists seduction by the Devil. Vanessa is assisted in her battle by witchcraft and allies both mundane and supernatural. In her showdown with Lucifer, Vanessa is offered the one thing God could not offer her — a normal life, with marriage to her friend Ethan and motherhood. Though she wins this battle, Vanessa has lost her friends and, ultimately, her faith in God.
Rectify, on the other hand, is a quiet, leisurely meditation on truth and innocence. Thirty-seven-year-old Daniel Holden has spent half his life in jail for the rape and murder of his 16-year-old girlfriend Hanna. Released on DNA evidence for the rape, Holden is still a suspect in the murder. The world has changed since he left it, and upon returning, he’s like an alien visiting from another planet. Somehow, despite his trauma and the hatred directed at him, Daniel maintains his naive passivity like a lamb to the slaughter. Though he’s not even sure what happened, Daniel pleads guilty to Hanna’s murder and accepts exile from his hometown, to spare his family the pain of his presence. The truth still waits, tantalizingly close to the surface.
Lest you think my year was one of unremitting darkness, there were two comedies that I truly loved. Broad City is still the funniest, raunchiest show in my lineup. The second season explored even more graphically the awkward romantic and workplace dramas of twentysomethings Abbi and Ilana. NYC is a third character in the ensemble, replete with weird enclaves and quirky inhabitants.
Pawnee, Indiana is likewise an absurdist backdrop for Parks and Recreation. As Mad Men’s finale marked the end of the golden age of the antihero for me, so Parks & Rec’s conclusion probably means my days of watching network sitcoms is over for good. I’m going to miss watching the world’s most enthusiastic government employee (and possible future president), Leslie Knope, labor joyously to change the world, infecting even perennial libertarian grump Ron Swanson with her good cheer.
So many of my favorites have ended this year. Fortunately, there’s Black Sails, UnReal, You’re the Worst, and Better Call Saul. And who knows? If The Leftovers can turn things around, maybe True Detective, Fargo, Transparent, and Orange Is the New Black can rebound from weak seasons to their former glory. Here’s hoping.