Don Draper, Frank Underwood, Olivia Pope. Complex, human characters that are also the leads of arguably some of the most popular television Dramas of the past twenty years. In this ‘golden age’ of television, TV Drama has become a haven for great writing and even greater characters. In the 80s and 90s, television was largely dominated by action-oriented dramas like Knight Rider and MacGuyver or soapy, melodramatic dramas like Dallas and Dynasty. The characters were paper-thin, pulpy and unrealistic.
But, of course, the world back then was largely peaceful and innocent; shows like Breaking Bad or Homeland could never have existed in that kind of world.
Modern television drama celebrates the complex anti-hero, exploring the difficult moral challenges of life and reflecting the uncertain times in which we live — politically, socially, economically.
Basically, there are very few talking cars on television; someone needs to get on that immediately.
Somehow, we as an audience embrace the most unlikable of characters — murderous politicians; gangsters; serial killers — and view them as icons of the small screen. If I were a more intelligent person, maybe I’d be able to concisely sum up why we love these people with a psychological insight, or maybe I’d be one of those geniuses that sells computers. But instead, I’m going to explore three of the most popular drama leads of the last twenty years: Walter White, Buffy Summers and Tony Soprano.
WALTER WHITE (Breaking Bad)
A good hearted chemistry teacher turned murderous drug kingpin.
There are any number of places to focus when analyzing Walter White, but I’d like to start this brief analysis with a quote by Vince Gilligan himself:
“You're going to see that underlying humanity, even when he's making the most devious, terrible decisions”.
Gilligan famously said the genesis of Walter White was a desire to ‘turn Mr. Chips into Scarface.’ Those contradictory characters make up the two sides of Walt’s character: Walt (a beloved, mild-mannered good guy), and Heisenberg (a murderous drug kingpin). Gilligan somehow manages to make the two completely disparate and somehow the same person. It’s quite a feat.
Walter White is a family man, through and through. He cares for his wife, disabled son and newborn daughter and wants to provide for them after his terminal cancer diagnosis. As explained in a previous blog, audiences connect with characters that love their families — that’s just human nature. But Walt is also in a crappy job — in fact, two. Not only is he humiliated on a daily basis, teaching uninterested teenagers science; he has to wash their cars by night. Gilligan creates not just an unwell, sympathetic family man; he creates an underdog.
Characters that are disrespected and outcast by society always, always become someone an audience can root for.
Heisenberg, on the other hand, is unpredictable, power-hungry and murderous. He’s a complete contradiction to the values of Walt. But it makes perfect sense! Walt is angry at the world. He’s lived a rigid life of normality, humiliated by everyone constantly, and he’s got a terminal illness. Walt is a good man that has been beaten down by the universe. Heisenberg is a hat; Walt is a man. The question of the show becomes: where does one end and the other begin? Walt is killing people and doing bad things, to help his family.
Contradiction breeds conflict, conflict breeds drama.
BUFFY SUMMERS (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
An ordinary teenage girl forced to fight against the forces of evil.
She died twice, but survived long past the end of her show as a feminist hero for the ages. Buffy Summers, the snarky slayer herself, is an excellent example of a subversive lead — a character designed specifically to break the mold. Joss Whedon created her as a response to the bland cliché of ‘dumb blonde that goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror film.’ By crafting a strong, funny, intelligent young woman that effectively saves the world every single day against unimaginable evil, Whedon broke all the rules prescribed to him by horror tradition. And he did it once more, with feeling. I’m so sorry. I should have resisted. I’m weak.
Like Whedon himself, Buffy is a rebel to conformity. She constantly dismisses the conventions of being a slayer. In a show like Buffy, which thrives on snark and humor, rebellious characters are gold. We all know rebellion — most of us have disobeyed parents, teachers, parking tickets. We love characters that don’t conform, and even better if they’re actually fighting back against the restrictions of others — see Lorelai in Gilmore Girls for a demonstration of a woman refusing to cowtow to the beliefs of her domineering mother, for example. Buffy just doesn’t want to do kill vampires forever. She wants to live a normal life as Buffy Summers.
However, Whedon shows on several occasions that Buffy can’t handle a ‘normal’ life. After she’s revived from her second death, Buffy is depressed about being forced into the grind of life when she momentarily experienced heaven. We see her going through the trauma of her mother’s death; working a dull job at a burger restaurant and generally becoming disillusioned with the pain and confusion that comes with life and relationships. Like Walt, Buffy is a walking contradiction. She cannot handle what she wants, because she’s never known it.
Whedon ensures that the rebel wants the one thing that cannot be rebelled against — Life, itself.
TONY SOPRANO (The Sopranos)
The head of a crime family with serious anxiety issues.
If Walter White is the perfection of the drama anti-hero, Tony Soprano was the first success. Much like Walt, Tony is trying to juggle the immense pressure of running a crime business, while also dealing with the everyday stresses of family life. Walt may have his terminal illness, but Tony has a more widely empathetic problem: panic attacks. But David Chase doesn’t allow his hero to become an underdog. Make no mistake, Tony is still a bad guy. His constant panic attacks just provide an ‘in’ for the audience; a way to connect with this largely unpleasant character.
In fact, this is a great tip for a drama writer. Even the most unpleasant characters need to have something an audience can relate to, something that shows weakness and makes us empathize.
Audiences won’t embrace a murderer without knowing he’s got some kind of humanity. Beneath it all, Tony is a mafia boss with a family — not a family man with a crime job. He’s not a good guy, even though he might care for his family. So, avoiding the Underdog trap, David Chase wisely gives Tony a fundamental weakness all audiences can embrace in his panic attacks, while being consistently aware that Tony is not ‘a good guy’.
And from this weakness comes, according to Chase, the ‘core’ of the show: “a man goes to his therapist.” This framing device is so smart, because it gives the audience an insight into a man largely closed off from voicing his emotions. We see him concerned about his family, expressing guilt about things that happened years ago, coming to terms with his feelings. This is his contradiction: a closed off man forced to open up. There is nothing a character like Tony hates more than to speak about his feelings.
The lead character of a TV show has to be a number of things: interesting, empathy-worthy; original. But the characters of Walt, Buffy and Tony share one thing in common: we see them everywhere. We see their relationships in life, work and romance; we see them at their lowest and at their most flawed; we see them rise and fall. And in doing that, we know every contradiction of these characters: who they are, what they want, why they do things, and we try to understand exactly what makes them tick.
That, to me, is what makes a great drama lead: humanity.
We are all a mess of contradictions. We dislike animal cruelty but eat meat; we find murder incomprehensible but root for James Bond and other fictional mass murderers; we criticize and then repeat. Good characters reflect this messiness with their own unique flair. The best characters illustrate an element of the human condition — power; rebellion; repressiveness — and embellish it within a contradiction.
“Do as I do, not as I act.”