The role of the protagonist used to be relatively straightforward. We used to root for, rigorously follow and hope for the best for the characters that we watched, whether they were on the movie screen or our televisions. Main characters used to be at least affable and sympathetic enough that we could understand their flaws, but in recent years the tides have turned and left us with a whole new crop of deeply flawed, hardly-likable-on-a-good-day characters. While the old virtues still remain, the magnetism of the so-called antihero has been an interesting new development that is gaining popularity on the small screen.
Whether it happens to be a mysterious past, a self-destructive pattern or someone who has enough negligible traits that we can’t quite forget about them, many of the characters popping up on televisions represent a new kind of hero that we follow with the intensity we once reserved for the protagonists we loved. Instead of their innate goodness or appeal, we are drawn in by the character traits we would wholeheartedly despise in real life that give us a character that channels our own urge towards rebellion and seems to feed our need for an appropriate redemption.
While The Sopranos Tony Soprano was born into the brutality of the family business and is considered one of the original purveyors of the anti-hero, Hannah Horvath of Girls has given us a girlfriend we halfway despise but are still drawn to for her uncanny, ugly-edged honesty. Though there can be no true measure for how much of our fascination with the following is dictated by love or hate, it’s just fact now that we’ve become fascinated with them, despite ourselves, for the keen view they’ve given us into the workings of the anti-hero.
5 Hannah Horvath – Girls
Girls has experienced a significant amount of controversy since it first premiered on HBO on April 15, 2012, and much of that particular hostility has been directed at the show’s divisive main character Hannah Horvath, one of the most talked about television characters in recent history. Played by Lena Dunham, Girls attempts to plunder the unexplored territory that, according to Dunham, lies somewhere between Sex and the City and Gossip Girl and follows Hannah and her three closest friends Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna as they try to navigate the nearly post-college world of New York City. With more down-to-earth struggles than can be found on other television shows, Dunham’s portrayal of the aspiring writer Horvath has received significant scorn for the seeming self-interest, entitlement and nudity that characterizes her and the other girls, along with the frequent nudity of Hannah’s television life. While the show just wrapped up its third season and has won quite an audience, something about Hannah’s audaciousness still unsettles the viewing public even while Girls has turned into a show people love to watch.
4 Don Draper – Mad Men
Portrayed by Jon Hamm, Don Draper is easily one of the most morally questionable and compellingly watchable characters in television, not only for his inescapable surface charm but the power he seems to wield in his professional and personal life. Premiered on AMC on July 19, 2007 and written by Matthew Weiner, Mad Men is set in 1960’s New York City on the happening Madison Avenue and follows Don Draper and a host of other advertising men, and women, as they face the struggles of day to day life against the upheaval of the 60’s. Draper is a man with a few secrets, but it’s his extramarital affairs, his reliance on drinking and his unstable and violent upbringing that have led to the version of Don Draper we come to be perplexed by, a man no one really knows even if they’re all entranced with the image he projects. Voted as the most influential man in the world by Ask Men in 2009, despite being fictional, Don Draper continues to vex viewers who are all wondering how it will end for the man who hangs too heartily on to his demons.
3 Olivia Pope - Scandal
It’s rare we get a female character that truly makes us question her moral high-ground, but Olivia Pope has entered the forefront of popular culture in the last couple years as a seeming protagonist that’s hard not to watch. Written by Shonda Rimes and premiered on April 5, 2012, Scandal stars Pope, played by Kerry Washington, as a tough talking lawyer and former White House aide who works with her own team at Pope & Associates to cover up crises in the scandal-ridden city of Washington, D. C. As the first black female protagonist to hit the air waves since 1974 when Teresa Graves starred on Get Christie Love, Pope may be something of a hero as a woman in charge but between her affair with the married President of the United States, Fitzgerald Grant, and her decision to fix the election with Grant’s campaign team, she’s made a familiar bedfellow of the grey moral line. While viewers and critics continue to question the ethos of many of Olivia Pope’s bold moves, there’s no doubt that she’s a character that brings alive the presence of a strong, complicated female and leaves us with questions about what’s going to happen next.
2 Tony Soprano - The Sopranos
Often said to have inspired the current variety of male anti-heroes that are beginning to dominate the airwaves, Tony Soprano, played by the late James Gandolfini, was foisted upon the American public when The Sopranos first premiered on HBO on January 10th, 1999. Written by David Chase and televised for six seasons, the show followed the life of patriarch Tony Soprano, the head of the DiMeo crime family, as he attempted to balance out his duties as a mobster with the responsibilities of being a family man to his wife Carmela, daughter Meadow and son Anthony Jr. Though Soprano could sometimes be a figure worthy of empathy, he also possessed the violent tendencies needed for his profession and struggled with behaviours associated with depression and mental illness, visiting a therapist throughout the series. While it’s entirely possible that Don Draper and Walter White might not have existed without Tony Soprano making way first, the character had a telling impact on pop culture and James Gandolfini won three Emmy Awards for Best Lead Actor in a Drama Series for his very credible portrayal.
1 Walter White – Breaking Bad
January 20th, 2008 marked the day that the viewing public was first introduced to the rather timid character of Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston of Malcolm In the Middle fame. Instead of following a man who was already deep in the throes of his own destruction, however, Breaking Bad updated the formula and took us through the devolution of a relatively decent man into a drug kingpin monster. Created by Vince Gilligan, the story starts outs simple enough, following the life of chemistry teacher Walter White as he works two jobs to make ends meet to take care of his handicapped son Walter Jr. and his pregnant wife Skyler. It’s when Walter is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer that the switch is flipped, and upon running into former high school student and all around punk Jessie Pinkman, Walter and Pinkman start making meth to raise funds for the family White will be leaving behind. Unfortunately for White but fortunately for the viewers, it doesn’t take long before Walter is pulled full scale into the violent, every man for himself world of drug production and becomes a person the old Walter would have despised. For portraying one of the most enticingly complicated of television characters, Cranston won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series at the Emmy Awards three consecutive times.