Thursday, December 05, 2013

Culture Shock 12.05.13: TV embraces your inner psychopath

James Spader in "The Blacklist."
The breakout series of this fall's TV season is NBC's "The Blacklist."

As a drama, it's a bit far-fetched, relying on coincidences, improbable twists and characters stubbornly keeping to themselves information that would resolve the plot. In other words, it's indistinguishable from most other TV dramas. But none of that matters, because what makes "The Blacklist" so addictive is James Spader's performance as globetrotting super-criminal and, when it suits him, FBI informant Raymond "Red" Reddington.

Spader has made a career of playing characters who earn the overused label "quirky," and he won three Emmys portraying windmill-tilting attorney Alan Shore. Now he has the role every actor dreams of. He has his own psychopath.

Well, maybe Red isn't quite a psychopath, but he's close enough. He has most of the same traits as the other antisocial protagonists who have become some of television's most popular characters. It's a pantheon so shady some of its members don't even qualify as anti-heroes, yet few of them are entirely villains, either. They go up to the line, cross the line, erase the line, and pick up the line and skip rope with it. They operate outside the system, live by their own moral codes and get things done when no one else can.

They're throwbacks to Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry" Callahan and Charles Bronson's Paul Kersey, who embodied 1970s outrage at runaway crime and a justice system seen as coddling criminals. Liberals recoiled, seeing "Dirty Harry" and "Death Wish" as fascist wish fulfillment. Conservatives looked at Callahan and Kersey and saw the last sane men in a world gone mad.

Since then, violent crime has declined to near-historic lows, but you couldn't tell from the way people still worry about it. Yet on top of that, now there is the perception white-collar crime is out of control, that Wall Street can wreck an economy, leave taxpayers to clean up and get away with barely a public shaming.

The political system is in thrall to the powerful and well-connected, government spy agencies spend most of their time spying on their own citizens, and now you can't even keep your health care no matter how much you like it. Every institution in America seems broken or corrupt or both.

No wonder we turn to characters like Red, who exist outside the system. The Miami police are so incompetent and politically compromised, they miss the serial killer in their ranks. Good thing Dexter Morgan goes after only other serial killers, armed with his own moral code, "The Code of Harry."

Hannibal Lecter isn't quite as nice, but he still rationalizes his actions by claiming to eat only the rude. Who hasn't wanted to deal out just desserts to a cad or 200?

Now NBC has turned Dracula, usually a villain and sometimes a tragic hero, into an anti-establishment crusader, pretending to be an American industrialist whose anachronistic, steampunk, green technology will bring down his hated enemies, who happen to be Victorian oil barons.

Yet Dracula is still Dracula. He acts without remorse, sacrifices pawns and leaves a trail of blood-drained corpses in his wake. He's no hero. He just has an agenda people nowadays kinda like.

The stakes today are much higher than they were in the 1970s, and our vigilantes have grown larger to match. No doubt, as liberals fretted, they are a kind of wish fulfillment, but liberals make wishes just as conservatives do. As H.L. Mencken wrote, "Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats."

We still turn to rule-breaking heroes: Dr. Gregory House, the two modern-day Sherlocks of CBS and the BBC, even Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man. They all break the rules to get their way.

But sometimes the threats are so bad, we want heroes who aren't heroes at all, really. Guys who will get their hands dirty and not lose a wink of sleep over it. In a world gone mad, it's the ultimate wish fulfillment.

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