Cable TV is the home of terrible people. That’s not to say that some of the people on network aren’t horrible too (Addison Montgomery is a hypocritically terrible person, whereas Prison Break‘s TBag is flat out evil). But on cable, more and more, the heroes, protagonists, the centres of the shows, are truly terrible people.
There’s the lesser evil, like the title character in United States of Tara. The charming cast of engagingly fun if troubled characters is led by the dissociative personalitied Tara. Some of her alters are understandably antagonistic (Buck is a bully, T is a brat, Alice is flat-out terrifying) but Tara herself presents as the well-intentioned and thoughtful reason to put up with the others. But by the end of season 2, when Tara’s self-centered crap had ruined her sister’s wedding even before she transitioned, it’s pretty clear that Tara is concerned with no one but Tara. But with her it’s a flaw thing, not a simply terrible thing. She may not be as worthy of the patience her family shows as she maybe should be, but Tara’s not an irredeemable character.
The there’s the tricky reality of The Sopranos. I hated everyone in The Sopranos (except, sometimes, Melfi, and sometimes Christopher). The heavy 6 seasons were an unpleasant trek of struggling with my inability to relate to or care about the characters I was watching. Yes yes, Tony can be very charming. He cared about the ducks, and that damn horse, and yes apparently you’re supposed to sympathize with people who had bad mothers. But he’s just not a good guy, it baffled me how audiences were so willing to overlook that. He’s a murderer, an exploiter, a cheater, a misogynist, a slob, a stubborn, uncompromising, bigoted MOB BOSS. Carmela is even worse for knowing all those things and doing nothing about them. His kids are selfish brats. His friends are gross shadows of himself. There are few redeemable people in The Sopranos. But when I got to the end I read a NY Times article wherein auteur David Chase told me I was supposed to feel like that. Apparently, it was supposed to be a portrait of corruption and selfishness, and when America loved the characters anyway, Chase threw more and more evil at them, seeing how far he could push it. That blackout at the end was a sort of punishment, an act of finally closing the window to the corruption that the audience had been inexplicably enjoying. In The Sopranos, that terrible person factor is the point. You’re not supposed to relate to them, you’re supposed to worry if you do.
The worst example is the horrifying creature that is Nancy Botwin. Her final act of heroism at the end of season 6 is mildly redeeming but that might be my problem. Tara isn’t that offensive in her terrible-ness, The Sopranos accepts Tony’s terrible-ness as a reality in the show, but Weeds seems to operate under some strange delusion that “she may be flawed but is really a very good person deep down, she’s just in over her head”. No. In season one you could make the argument that MAYBE that was it. But No. She’s a lunatic. Even going into the backstory, her life in high school, she was clearly always a selfish bitch who made terrible life choices. The journalist in season 6 was the first person to ever fully express who Nancy is, it was a breath of fresh air. I simply cannot deal with Nancy Botwin.
But the terrible-ness is the point I guess, on cable at least. It’s about the gritty underbelly of who we really are or some crap like that. But I don’t buy it. Reality is full of heroes. It’s got a lot more heroes than it has villains. And every one of those heroes has intriguing and complex darkness to them. That’s where the stories are. I’m all for antagonists, all for darkly flawed protagonists, but the selfish, remorse-less villains have got to go. They’re not teaching us anything. Give me Albie Grant, who works in opposition to our heroes but honestly is trying to do the right thing. Give me Claire Fisher, an angsty, troubled, morbid young woman who’s misery isn’t endearing but also isn’t ill-intentioned. Hell, give me Dexter, he kills by a code and would give away his darkness if he could (or, honourably, he might keep it in order to save the person who might get stuck with it).