There’s a moment in the second episode of “Fargo” when Lou Solverson, the Minnesota state trooper played this season by Patrick Wilson and last year by Keith Carradine, gets on the phone with his commanding officer and requests to be assigned a case he just passed up. It’s a necessary decision for the show considering everyone knew Lou would be involved in the triple homicide investigation, but why he chooses to recommit — as well as the fact that it’s Lou who makes the choice — is notable.
“I slept on it, you know?” Lou says. “And given the level of violence, with no apparent suspects and the fact one of the victims was a judge…”
Lou doesn’t finish his statement because he’s already made the request. He wants back in specifically because of the violence involved. He’s not some maniacal cowboy with an itchy trigger finger, nor does he have a death wish — far from it. Lou’s a family man, and part of the reason he’s getting involved is because his step-father is the only man on the case; a case he knows is dangerous. But more than that, Lou Solverson is motivated to do the right thing because it’s the only reason he needs. His choice to take on the violence, to run toward what everyone else is fleeing, to pursue the risky path because it has to be done, that’s what makes him a hero. And we need heroes right now, if only because antiheroes just aren’t that fun to watch anymore.
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One of television’s trademarks during its golden age has been the antihero; the man (or woman, but habitually a man) who’s doing something wrong even if it’s for the right reasons. He’s trying to protect his family, even if he’s whacking rival mobsters left and right. He’s cheating on his wife, even if he’s the best damn ad man around. He’s becoming a meth kingpin, even if he just wants to leave his family with enough money to survive before the cancer gets him. He has purpose. He’s complex and unpredictable. He is fascinating to behold. But he’s also far too damn prevalent.
Aside from the afore-hinted-at landmark characters, TV is bursting at the seams with unlikable leads. Looking exclusively at this year’s Emmy nominees, you’ve got Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) on “House of Cards,” a murderous, manipulative politician intent on conning his way into the White House; John Rayburn (Kyle Chandler) on “Bloodline,” a controlling family man so intent on being the good son he doesn’t realize he’s broken bad; Ray Donovan (Liev Schreiber), a “fixer” (read: murderer) with a questionable love life. Throw in shows like “Game of Thrones” or “American Crime” — where you can throw a dart at the cast list with exceptional odds of hitting a wretched human being — and most awards-worthy dramas feature lead characters you wouldn’t want to know in real life. Open it up to well-reviewed cable, and you’ve got non-nominees like “The Affair,” “Empire,” “The Walking Dead” and “The Knick” all sporting heavy-duty antiheroes, too.
Much has been written about why this warped protagonist came to power during the golden age, which arguably started in the early aughts (or very close to 9/11). Whether they served as fitting parallels to society’s troubling times or the humanizing nature of their flaws made them all the more relatable, thankfully, both beliefs are coming to an end. Optimism is on the ups and people are realizing characters don’t have to skew more bad than good to be relatable — why anyone should be encouraged to think of themselves as more bad than good is a question for another time (and possibly professionals of a different field).
More importantly, TV viewers are being given people like Lou Solveson to not only look up to — as was the way of yesteryear’s screen stars — but also to stand up for logic, reason and sanity in general. We need look no further than the onslaught of political debates and the outlandish, incoherent claims of candidates to see why people want a straight shooter now more than ever. Lou’s shining moment on “Fargo” so far came when he went to question the Gerhardt family (aka, the North Dakota mob) at their own compound. Surrounded by angry, unwelcoming faces holding guns a nod away from turning on him, Lou didn’t back down an inch. In fact, he provoked them. Not only that, but he provoked them with facts.
When asked for his gun before being allowed to speak to mob family matriarch Floyd Gerhart (Jean Smart), Lou denied the request claiming it had “sentimental value.” Then, when he was told he wouldn’t be allowed in (and after his partner had given up his own weapon), he said, “Am I the only one here who’s clear on the concept of law enforcement?” The righteous tone persisted when Dodd showed up and threatened “the wrong girl,” as Lou put it, pushing his way into the fray with, “And I’m from out of town, so forgive me if I should be terrified, but in Minnesota when a police officer says talk, you talk.”
A similar sort of smack talk can be found from another hero; one who’s new to TV, but pulled straight from the heyday of honest ’80s icons. When asked what he thought of bringing a real hero back to TV in “Ash vs. Evil Dead,” Bruce Campbell said, “Ash wears man girdle and dentures. You think that makes him a good hero?”
Actually, it’s exactly what makes him a good hero. His physical faults make him relatable, and those are much more endearing and identifiable than if he was simply an asshole. Unlike his muscular cohorts of decades past (as well as himself circa “Army of Darkness”), Ash’s aged physique fits with the mentality of the times simply by being real — a real body for a real hero. While he’s less eager to face off against the Deadite army one more time, there are no major issues with rooting for Ash. Once he’s in the mix, he’s in it for good. No one kills the undead better, be it with his chainsaw, boomstick or other, more creative endeavors, and his reasons for doing so are similar to Lou’s: He’s the only one willing and the only one who can.
Kind of. “Ash vs. Evil Dead” features a couple of sidekicks and one soon-to-be-introduced queen to Ash’s king. It helps — in terms of equality and originality — that two of the four are women. The group shares similar humanizing elements as their hero, only instead of physical limitations, the youngsters (played by Dana DeLorenzo and Ray Santiago) are set back by a lack of experience. (We don’t yet know enough about Lucy Lawless’ character to comment, but we’re assuming she won’t buck the established tone.) Why the audience remains invested is the same — that all four heroes are there for the right reasons — and despite Campbell’s sarcastic claim that at 57 years old and showing it, Ash is “an antihero if I’ve ever seen one,” he and his merry group of heroes are just that; no prefix needed.
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What’s interesting about updating old school heroes like Ash for the modern day (beyond the welcome onscreen diversity) is how other shows are squeezing in classic hero characters under the guise of antihero-ridden TV. Take, for instance, “The Knick,” a series built around an antihero shaped as a new version of an old antihero. Dr. John Thackery is very much the prestigious version of Dr. Gregory House: Clive Owen is an Oscar-nominated film actor in a pay cable series run by an Oscar-winning director (as opposed to a well-liked, award-winning “TV actor” in Hugh Laurie on a broadcast drama), and he’s playing a grumpy, drug-addicted, discovery-driven doctor (same as House). Thackery has no friends to speak of because he’s so wholly unfriendly, but he does have one man he consistently works with and mirrors him in all ways but one: Dr. Algernon Edwards is not a prick.
Andre Holland’s exquisitely-crafted character does, however, have faults; ugly faults. In Season 1, the character repressed all the rage he felt toward society’s injustices until he unleashed them via back alley brawls; fights he often provoked for little to no reason simply so he could inflict the pain he felt on others, or externally feel what he was already reeling with internally. Season 2 unveiled another dark secret in the third episode; one we won’t spoil, but will say isn’t really all that awful. And really, neither was his fighting. “The Knick” went to great lengths to show just how much Algernon could endure before giving in to his vice, and the proportion remained so vastly uneven there was no forgiveness necessary. He’s a good man, through and through, but especially when compared to Thackery.
This kind of duality between two characters is represented with just one on Cinemax’s sister network. Kevin Garvey, the ostensible lead of “The Leftovers” played by Justin Theroux, is a true hero when he’s awake and something akin to an antihero when he’s asleep. His unconscious self commits heinous deeds like kidnapping, theft and (spoiler alert) attempted suicide, but he always tries to correct those mistakes when he wakes up. Because the audience is only introduced to his misdeeds after they happen — as unwilling mistakes attributed to something alien inside of him — the Kevin we get to know onscreen is largely heroic. Though his brash tactics take some time to fade away, by this point in Season 2 he’s actively working for the side of good; so much so he’s been willing to go to jail and now the mental ward if it means protecting himself, his family and his new town.
It’s almost as though these characters were crafted to help as a means to transition television out of the past and into its future, which, coincidentally, may look a lot like years of old. Audiences are willing to believe in true heroes again, or at least seem ready to root for them. Ash’s humor makes his show an addictive journey. Algernon’s desire for equality mimics that of our nation. And it doesn’t hurt that Kevin’s a cop (or was), an accepted model of heroism both onscreen and off, but a symbol of some controversy in modern society.
Lou, too, carries the same symbolic weight with him whenever he goes to work on “Fargo,” but the period setting and his general demeanor make no mystery that he’s nothing but good. It’s a trend that should continue as more fictional men step forward to pick up his mantle, not because they’re forced to, but because they have no other choice. Maybe then the real world can follow suit.
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