Last night I went out for a few pints with Don Draper, Nucky Thompson, Frank Underwood, Walter White, Jimmy McNulty, and Omar Little. They didn’t get on too well as a group. Don, Nucky and Jimmy were getting wired into the whisky, Frank just sat there with this insufferably smug expression on his face, and Omar began asking very personal questions about where Walter worked – at which point Walter put on this weird little hat and started waving his hands around, and the barmaid came over and told him if there was any more funny business he would be out the door. I then embarrassed myself by trying to engage them all in a group conversation about the recent clement weather – a grim silence as they glowered at me – before the night broke up spectacularly when Frank persuaded Nucky to shoot a politician at the next table, Don and Jimmy got into a punch-up over the barmaid, Walter started doing experiments on his beer (causing a minor explosion) and during the kerfuffle Omar robbed the till.
The landlord tells me I’m barred.
We love anti-heroes in the 21st century. Correction: we love them on TV. Brett Martin’s excellent book ‘Difficult Men’ covers the topic far more eloquently than I ever could, and raises all sorts of interesting questions. The book traces TV’s evolution in the last 15 years from being primarily a formulaic, family-friendly medium into overtaking cinema and literature as the most cutting edge of art forms. Martin theorises on the reasons, and speculates that plasma TVs are one factor (ie. TV can now be as beautiful as cinema) with another factor being boredom with the corporate blockbuster and canned laughter awfulness of mainstream TV. He tells a great story about one of the tipping points of this transformation, when the writers of ‘Six Feet Under’ delivered their first draft of the script to the HBO management, fully expecting a rejection, only to be told: “Can’t you make it more fucked up?”
This week I just finished watching HBO’s latest great show, True Detective. It certainly ticks the ‘fucked up’ box, while also being beautiful to look at and brilliantly acted. The show is incredibly tense, very dark, and its two lead characters are once again anti-heroes – both alcoholics, one an adulterer, the other a misanthrope and drug user. Yet we are sucked into their world and identify with them constantly throughout (although to be fair there are one or two blips where our empathy wobbles).
But exactly how much empathy do we need to feel for characters to keep on consuming a story? Two of my favourite characters of the great TV shows this century have been from Boardwalk Empire – Jimmy Darmody and Richard Harrow – and to me they illustrate this conundrum neatly. Both are cold-blooded killers, disposing of rival gang members in horrifically violent ways, but their shared back story as traumatised First World War veterans somehow makes them sympathetic characters. It’s a very tricky balance for a writer to get right, and maybe it works better on TV, because there is the advantage of the visual medium. As Don Draper gazes out of a New York skyscraper after his latest adulterous encounter, his empty, lost expression may remind us of the lost little boy growing up in the whorehouse and somehow soften us to his predicament. Jon Hamm’s acting tops up our empathy. Words on a page have to work much harder.
I wonder sometimes – have TV and books ‘swapped’? Back in my formative years in the 80s and 90s, books were far more ‘cult’ than TV. During my twenties there seemed to almost be two categories of books, the ones I studied as a student of English Literature – by posh dead white men – and the books that poured kerosene on the hillside and set the heather blazing: The Secret History, The Wasp Factory, Trainspotting, Fight Club, Morvern Callar, and several others. All of these books featured complex characters that didn’t fit the traditional mould. Sure, there was also cult TV back in the 90s but it tended to be comedy (at the time The Simpsons and South Park seemed to be the only shows that were discussed around the water cooler).
I found out about True Detective this way – through the recommendation of colleagues, topped up by hype on social media. When was the last time I read a book based on the same word of mouth buzz? Fifteen years ago? Indeed, a recent Booktrust study showed that more than 60% of 18-30 year olds preferred DVDs to books – hardly surprising, but twenty years ago I think books would have fared better. However, another study claims that the under 30s are now reading more books thanks to the ubiquity of all sorts of devices. It’s hard to get a handle on the truth.
If we return to my imaginary night out with those cult TV characters, it would be difficult to imagine wanting to spend any time with them at all in real life. None of them are particularly likeable, yet we are willing to spend many hours with them as they drink excessively, take drugs, cheat, steal, kill, and scheme their way through life. In modern popular fiction these characters do not exist, unless they are represented as ‘baddies’, usually in crime fiction – balanced out by a Diet Anti-Hero lead character, a detective with a couple of forgivable flaws but ultimately still representing ‘Good’. Something that is safe and bankable for the big publishing houses, yet as they stray towards this middle ground of anodyne safe fiction, they drift from telling real stories with edge and surprise, the stories we increasingly seek out in this golden age of TV.
When was the last novel featuring a genuine anti-hero that truly ‘tipped’ and sold loads in the mainstream, stacked high on promo tables in your nearest Waterstones? I can’t think of one this century.