Walter White and Dexter Morgan have both sung their swan song. The series finales of AMC’s Breaking Bad and Showtime’s Dexter have come and gone and fans of both shows are either thrilled and satisfied with their endings, or terribly disappointed. No matter where you land on the issue of how the shows ended, the fact remains that both shows did something revolutionary to the television crime drama… they focused on and make a star out of the bad guy in a way that television had not done before. Both Dexter Morgan and Walter White were criminals. Murderers on the wrong side of the law. And yet we rooted for them. They were humanized to us. We sympathized with their plights and found ourselves relating to their struggles and torments. We rooted for them.
Television has long held to a standard of simple good guys versus bad guys in cop shows and a quick look at the new fall season shows that the trend is still alive and well. These shows are crime, crime, crime but very low on character. As opposed to making good and bad and clear and predictable black and white, Breaking Bad and Dexter painted the most illustrious grey, forcing audiences to think as they watched, to put themselves in the shoes of these very flawed, but very human characters, making us wonder if given the same set of circumstances, what choices we would make. We are compelled to ask ourselves if they truly are the bad guys. And if the determination is that they are, an even more compelling question arises… who are the good guys?
When traditional boundaries are lifted, it frees writers to dive deeper into the murky waters are the human condition and that, very often, leads to great storytelling. That what it comes down to with these shows and other like them, such as Boardwalk Empire and Sons Of Anarchy. The complexity of these characters that goes beyond the surface of just them “being bad”, the very dark but very real places the writers and actors take these characters in the context of a great story is why they continue to resonate with audiences.
Up and coming network executives would do well to continue bucking the trends of years gone by and be on the look out for compelling characters and masterful storytelling that isn’t necessarily up to the status quo. There are a good many scripts out there that get over looked because they weren’t written by the “right” people or because they are “too edgy”. Audiences have matured. They have been watching television their entire lives. They expect more. They deserve more.
The times are changing. There are more outlets for television programming now than ever before. It’s a shame that so few shows in such a wealth of them are truly stand outs. Perhaps a change of the guards is in order. Otherwise, how will we find the next Walter White or Dexter Morgan?