Anti-heroes take over TV

Breaking bad – a cult hit on television

Breaking bad – a cult hit on television

More than ever, the anti-hero theme has become a mainstay on TV. Many shows portray these charming characters engaging in all forms of vices that we simply can’t emulate. That however, hasn’t stopped everyone admiring them.

With TV shows such as Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, we stick with the lead character without any feelings of guilt or remorse.  In fact, many of us sit and wish for his luck as we play in UK online casinos on a Friday night. With anti-heroes, you constantly remind yourself that this is someone you don’t want to become. In some cases, like Walter White in Breaking Bad, you end up wondering why you even empathise with him at all.

Walter White is a high-school chemistry teacher who decides to go rogue after being told he has lung cancer and very little time to live.  To give credence to his heinous actions over five series, he keeps reminding himself that everything he does is for his wife and son. In the final season, he is rejected by the very same family, and, at that moment, what he has become over the course of his rogue period dawns on him.

With all the negatives, why do we love anti-heroes?

One reason is that their actions are deeply rooted in everyday circumstances. People can relate with their struggles as they remember one or two real-life cases that touch on the plots of these shows. The imaginary transgressions, as lived out by the anti-heroes, therefore don’t feel too far-fetched. 

Secondly, such characters are often greeted with widespread condemnation and/or countercultural celebrations. This enhances ambivalence on the subject of these characters. An individual feeling revulsion or antipathy for Walter White’s actions, for example, can be pointed to the beginning of the story when he was a nice family man. An argument can be made that without the cancer diagnosis, Walter White may not have discovered such levels of distasteful behaviour within himself.  On the other hand, no one can feel good about the character without moralistic inquisition.

What prompted the rise of the antihero?

In the past, broadcasters had strong restrictions on what could be aired. With the rise of autonomous cable TV networks, programme-makers were at liberty to explore the boundaries of what was moral. This explains shows like Banshee and Better Call Saul. The producers don’t have to worry so much about widespread acceptance. As long as the behaviour manifested by the anti-heroes is compelling and there is a context to their actions, producers have a broader canvas to play with. Most importantly, shows with some transgressive element tend to get more people talking, and that generates higher ratings.

Better Call Saul 2 starts February

The brilliant Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul returns to Netflix next month (Feb 15 in the US, the next day in all other territories). In the first series of creator Vince Gilligan’s drama we saw Jimmy McGill, aka Saul Goodman (the excellent Bob Odenkirk), attempt to build a relationship with his lawyer brother Chuck (Michael McKean), whom he looks up to, only to be badly betrayed. Is Saul now about to break bad himself?

Bob Odenkirk in AMC's second season of Better Call Saul

Legal high: Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul 2

The trailer above hints that that may be the case. Part of the joy of the first series was getting reacquainted with old faces such as Mike Ehrmantraut (what a terrific actor Jonathan Banks turned out to be) and chilling figures, such as Tuco (Raymond Cruz). While Better Call Saul – which is made by AMC in the States – is compelling as a dark and gripping drama in its own right, Breaking Bad fans will be interested to hear that Aaron Paul, who play Jesse in BB, has been hinting again this month that he may making a cameo in Saul. ‘Hopefully, I will be involved,’ he said. ‘But I don’t know when that will be. I’m not going to say anything more, but I’m absolutely open to the idea. Hopefully, it happens.’ Meanwhile, anyone hoping to binge on Saul will have to pace themselves. It’s being shown the old-fashioned way – in 10 weekly instalments.

Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut in AMC's Better Call Saul 2

Mean streets: Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut

Third degree: Adrian McKinty

Matthew McConaughey in True Detective

Adrian McKinty is one of the most acclaimed new crime writers from across the Irish Sea, routinely mentioned alongside Ken Bruen, Declan Hughes and John Connolly. His series of edgy thrillers about Catholic detective Sean Duffy and the character’s exploits while working in the none-too-comfortable surroundings of the RUC during the Troubles, and later MI5, are developing a big following and have been hugely praised by reviewers. These include The Cold Cold GroundIn the Morning I’ll Be Gone and his latest, Gun Street Girl. Here, he reveals his favourite TV shows, characters and authors…

Adrian McKinty

Your favourite British crime series or thriller on TV?
Can I cheat and have a tie between two? Well I’m going to anyway: I really enjoyed The Fall, even though I had real reservations about the denouement of season 2! It was nice to see an ordinary crime drama set in Belfast, with brilliant acting and a tight economical script. My other favourite is Broadchurch. What a terrific bit of writing that was – unpacking the threads from an entire society with great little subplots and an ending that – although I saw coming (and which strangely involved zero detective work) – was very powerful none the less. Great stuff (and I LOVED the creepy psychic).

Favourite US crime series or thriller on TV?
True Detective. I so didn’t want to watch this when I heard it involved an alleged conspiracy of satanists, which is a pretty hacky premise. But then I watched the pilot and was blown away by its audacity: three timelines, the philosophy of pessimism and entropy, extraordinary acting and cinematography… And then the series only got darker, deeper and better. Wow.

Do you have a favourite Irish TV crime series?
I’ll throw The Fall in there too.

Top TV cop?
Gotta be Columbo. Outwitting the rich and famous with the power of his mind alone.

Which unfilmed book/character should be made into a TV drama?
I’m shocked that they haven’t made Ellroy’s Underworld trilogy into anything…

If one of your novels were filmed, who would you cast to be the hero? 
Fassbender would be a great Sean Duffy.

What’s your guilty pleasure on TV? 
I don’t believe in the concept of guilty pleasures to be honest. I like what I like and I don’t feel any shame or guilt. One thing I like that no one else seems to like in my family is the programme Mighty Ships? Heard of that? Didn’t think so. Could just be a niche interest there.

Least favourite cop show/thriller? 
Not a fan of British nostalgia mystery shows set in the 1950s or 40s when there were no black people and poor people knew their place…

Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad

Do you prefer The Wire orThe Sopranos
Haven’t seen The Wire and I – gasp – think The Sopranosis over rated. All those tedious scenes with Carmela and the priest or the annoying kids… I’ll say Breaking Bad.

Marple/Poirot or Sherlock Holmes? 
Marple. Despite the answer I gave two questions ago. I love cops who solve things with that big gray muscle between their ears and Miss M does that in spades…

Wallander – BBC or the Swedish version?
Gotta go with Ken Branagh. Love him.

US or British or Euro television crime dramas?
They are quite different animals but nothing I’ve seen recently on Brit or Euro TV can compete with True Detective and Breaking Bad…

Your favourite crime/thriller writers?
Rankin, Ellroy, Peace, Neville, McGilloway, Woodrell.

Have you read a crime novel that’s really knocked you out lately?
I’m reading a sci-fi crime novel called Great North Road that I’m very much enjoying, set in a future Newcastle…

Favourite non-crime/thriller author?
Adrian McKinty, Gun Street GirlJG Ballard or Angela Carter.

Favourite crime movie or thriller?
Miller’s Crossing.

You’ve been framed for murder. Which fictional detective/sleuth would you want to call up?
I’d want Marple. I think she has the best brain of all of them.

• Adrian’s latest Sean Duffy novel, Gun Street Girl, is available from Amazon. His blog is also an interesting and enjoyable read, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life

See also CrimeTimePreview’s Q&A with Ian Rankin

Best Crime Dramas of 2013

1 Breaking Bad

AMC
The series that was a hit by virtue of word-of-mouth rather than huge ratings or, in the UK, even being

broadcast by a national channel. In the US, of course, makers AMC showed it, but in the Britain such was the anticipation for the concluding fifth series of Walter White’s journey from decent chemistry teacher to methamphetamine-manufacturing gangster and all-round monster that Netflix showed it soon after its US broadcast. With powerful performances from Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul and Dean Norris, BB became a cultural phenomenon, setting the social networking world alight and taking up acres of print columns. It was at times surreal, dark, horrific, hilarious, tense, but always compelling. In terms of ambition and daring, it was a series that showed the best US television is in a different league to British drama.

Broadchurch

ITV
This was a labour of love for writer Chris Chibnall, a series he wrote on spec, without commission, because he had the itch to do it. Which suggests that tinkering from executives at ITV was kept to a minimum and the eight-part series flouished as a gripping, character-rich series. Terrific writing and a great cast – David Tennant, Olivia Colman, Jodie Whittaker, Andrew Buchan among them – lifted this way above your average whodunit. Chibnall is now writing a new version for American TV with David Tennant again starring, and Broadchurch 2 will hit ITV probably some time in 2015.

3 The Fall

BBC2
Another series that was the inspiration of one writer. Allan Cubitt worked hard to create a chilling, realistic serial killer for this five-parter, and Paul Spector (played with icy menace by Jamie Dornan) was unforgettable. The character was far more compelling than the ludicrous genius killer cliches of the Hannibal Lecter type, Spector being a normal family man in a caring profession (grief counsellor) whose secret obsession was murdering women. Gillian Anderson was formidable as the detective who could match his calculating precision and managed to close in on the killer in a cliffhanger ending that will see the series make a much-anticipated return.

Peaky Blinders

BBC2
Quite a few ‘historical’ dramas like to use ‘period’ as a way to pretty-up a series. Shows such as The Tudors and even Downton Abbey are not overly concerned with getting under the skin of the past. But Peaky Blinders takes its setting and time seriously, and is fascinated by the inter-war era of gangs in Birmingham. It merged a little known true story with a tense drama, as Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) tried to build a seriously powerful crime empire in the face of gang rivals and the scary Inspector Campbell (Sam Neill). The drama looked stunning too, and has deservedly been commissioned for a second series.

Utopia

Channel 4
Utopia was different. In a sea of costume crime dramas and whodunits (Foyle’s War, Marple, Poirot, Ripper Street, WPC 56, Father Brown etc etc etc), it stood out. A conspiracy hidden in a graphic novel and a flood of conspiracies designed to hide a real conspiracy certainly grabbed the attention. It was quirky and scary, but kept most of us intrigued through its six episodes. Neil Maskell certainly arrived on the TV radar with his performance as the torturing psycho Paul, and the whole cast – Fiona O’Shaughnessy, Alexandra Roach, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and Adeel Akhtar – kept the drama sparking along. With dramas such as Utopia and Southcliffe, C4 offered something fresh and distinctive this year.

Justified 4

5USA
This year’s season revolved around a rather garbled storyline that was pretty hard to make sense of, kicking off with a prologue about a guy with a defective parachute plummeting to earth and landing with bags of cocaine and an ID for ‘Waldo Truth’. This McGuffin tied-in mafia figures, Raylan’s father, a snake-handling preacher and Wynn Duffy. Despite the messy story arc, on a week-to-week basis, deputy US marshal and cowboy-hat wearer Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) still gave good value for money. The character was the creation, of course, of Elmore Leonard, who sadly passed away in August, aged 87. He left behind some wonderful novels, and this sharp, cool TV series, which has been recommissioned for a fifth series. When so many mainstream US crime series are obsessed with forensic porn and buff model cops, it’s a joy to take the back roads of Kentucky for a sassy, gritty crime saga.

Dexter   

Fox UK
It’s a wrap for Dex, one of the most audacious and subversive dramas yet to emerge during the TV renaissance that’s occurred since the late 1990s and the arrival of the US subscription channels – HBO, Fox, Showtime and AMC. Getting us on the side of a serial killer was a spectacular trick to pull off, but we were there with Dexter Morgan as he duelled with other killers, maintained his front as a blood-spatter analyst for Miami Metro Police, and tried to be a brother to cop sister Debs. This was a high-wire act for the character and the writers, and in seeking to close the drama (Debra dies and Dexter fakes his own suicide) the show polarised fans. But it was still a stunning, if bloody, series, and Michael C Hall and Jennifer Carpenter were compelling to the end.

Endeavour

ITV
The Inspector Morse spin-off prequel capitalised on its hugely successful pilot by becoming a character-driven series that remained true to the original. Everyone remembers John Thaw’s grumpy, lonely older Morse, but here we got an insight into how he grew into that person by watching Shaun Evans’s gifted, stand-offish younger detective. The cases were suitably challenging as brainteasers for our hero, and the cast, particularly Roger Allam and Anton Lesser, brought the drama alive. A new series is on the way.

Banshee

Sky Atlantic
A bloody, racing, furiously aggressive show with a crazy premise that was nevertheless addictive viewing for anyone who can’t bear cosy mysteries in period costumes or anything resembling a traditional police procedural. Antony Starr is ‘Lucas Hood’ – we never learn his real name – who leaves prison and is immediately on the run from the Russian mobsters he betrayed. He finds himself in Banshee, an Amish town, looking for the beauty with whom he stole the Russians’ diamonds, Anatasia (Ivana Milicevic). The opportunity presents itself for our man to assume the identity of the new sheriff in town, who conveniently is killed in a bar brawl before he can officially take the post. It’s filled with great characters, sex, violence that is wince-inducing and preposterous, and rounded off with a great finale. Fortunately, there’s more to come with a new series for 2014.

10 Arne Dahl

BBC4
Nordic noir continued to cast its spell in the shape of this Swedish crime thriller about an elite team of detectives. It was a shift away from the angst-riven brilliance of Sarah Lund in The Killing towards a more mainstream cop series of the kind made in the US and Britain. But this series, based on Jan Arnald’s novels, had a cast of interesting characters and an intriguing and tense conspiracy to explore.

Series that were worth investigating but failed to make the Top 10: Scott & Bailey, Spiral, Sons of Anarchy, The Americans, Young Montalbano, Top Boy 2, The Great Train Robbery, Lucan, Top of the Lake, Montalbano, The Tunnel, Boardwalk Empire 4, Law & Order: UK

Series that never proved their cases beyond reasonable doubt: The Ice Cream Girls, Mayday, Foyle’s War, Prisoners’ Wives, Hannibal, The Following, Life of Crime, Mad Dogs 3, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher 2, Luther 3, What Remains, Vera 3, Southcliffe, New Tricks, Bates Motel, Case Histories 2, The Guilty, Wentworth Prison, Whitechapel 4, Ripper Street 2, Homeland, By Any Means

Series that plodded along: Father Brown, Silent Witness, Vegas, NCIS, Criminal Minds, Death in Paradise, WPC 56, Poirot, Murder on the Home Front, Jo

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Why Breaking Bad is way better than Downton Abbey: four reasons

Cooking up a storm – Jesse and Walter. Photos: AMC, Ben Leuner/AMC

It’s on the cover of Radio Times, a whole edition of the Daily Mail‘s Weekend magazine was devoted to it and the trailers are all over the internet. The fanfare for series three of ITV1’s Downton Abbey is loud and unavoidable. And America is not immune, with the period drama being the only British contender in next Sunday’s Emmy nominations for Outstanding Drama Series.

It’s so Bad, it’s great
But also in contention is a darker, funnier, more unpleasant and far superior series that is a mystery to most British viewers – Breaking Bad. Now in its fifth series in the US, this crime saga has only had a couple of bouts of exposure when series one and two were shown on FXUK and 5USA, and then hastily dropped.

And why not? It’s a show about a drab chemistry teacher played by Bryan Cranston from family comedy Malcolm in the Middle. He lives in an ugly part of America and is diagnosed with lung cancer. He then turns to crime to provide for his family by illegally producing methamphetamine with an irritating former student of his (Aaron Paul).

‘Worst idea for a show’
The studio honcho to whom the show was pitched described it as ‘the single worst idea for a television show that I have heard in my whole life’.

Thankfully, he backed it anyway and AMC, who make series such as Mad Men and The Walking Dead, started producing it. Breaking Bad is far more original and brilliant than anything being made in the UK – Downton Abbey included – and has gone on to win 26 television awards, including six Emmys already. Here are the reasons why it’s in the same class as The Wire and The Sopranos.

And the good news for UK viewers is that Netflix is showing it and it’s available from Lovefilm.

Despite all the hardware, Hank is a nice guy

1 Brilliant drama
Breaking Bad is gimmick-free – it’s not high-concept, big budget or full of desperate plot twists. It is simply an engrossing drama about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. The characters resonate with viewers because there is a level of truthfulness and reality about them. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) goes on a journey into darkness with initially good – if not legal – intentions. Diagnosed with cancer, the poorly paid chemistry teacher tries to leave some financial provision for pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and son Walt Jr (RJ Mitte), who has cerebal palsy, by producing high-grade meth. The characters often surprise us. Apart from everyman-turned-mobster Walter, there’s his gormless accomplice Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), whom we eventually see is emotionally damaged but probably more decent than Walter. There’s Walter’s brother-in-law, macho DEA agent Hank (Dean Norris), whom we come to admire as a brave, tender soul. And there are so many fine scenes, such as Walter inappropriately trying to downplay the seriousness of an airliner crash that he’s caused before dismayed teachers and pupils at his traumatised school. It’s a morally complex saga, with good people sliding into bad actions through misguided loyalty and a thirst for survival. Death, birth, tenderness, tragedy, wit – it’s got everything.

2 Visually superb

Business is booming – the Breaking Bad cast

It begins with a man – Walter – in his underpants, yelling and hurtling through the desert in an RV. It’s a typically off-kilter scene in a narrative that flashes back and forwards and makes for a dazzling narrative. Surreal visual touches – a one-eyed plush toy floating in Walter’s pool for several episodes, men crawling along the ground to a shrine – constantly throw the audience off-balance, and some are like premonitions, only explained weeks after initially cropping up. The setting of bland, wide-open Alberquerque, New Mexico, with its crappy malls and fast-food outlets, adds to disorienting, dreamlike quality of the series.

In the dark, but not for long – Skyler

3 Humour amid the darkness
Breaking Bad can induce nervous giggles – such as during farcical episode 8, series 2 when Badger almost incriminates the wrong bald guy on the park bench while hoodwinking the DEA – or horrified guffaws – such as the moment when addict Spooge has a monumentally heavy ATM machine that he’s stolen and been trying to open, tipped onto his head by his angry girlfriend. Then there’s shyster lawyer Saul Goodman, who, as played by Bob Odenkirk will forever define the species. His naked self-interest and cynical legal scams are beautifully played. He’s the kind of guy who ‘knows a guy who knows a guy’, and becomes a great asset to Walter. And when he dumps Jesse as a partner because Walter has re-entered the game, he just says, ‘That’s the way of the world, kid. Go with the winner.’

4 Great acting

Jesse and Walter are now watched over by Fring (Giancarlo Esposito)

Having sold the unlikely prospect of a series about a chemistry teacher with lung cancer to the studio, creator Vince Gilligan (who produced The X Files) then had to convince them that Bryan Cranston – the guy from that family sitcom Malcolm in the Middle – could take the lead in this dark, violent drama. His powers of persuasion are clearly awesome, but were completely vindicated by the shifty-eyed, powerful presence of Cranston. But he’s not alone here as a terrific actor. In the tremendous episode One Minute in series three, Aaron Paul has a blistering scene in hospital when he splutters out how much he hates Walter. But this episode then tops it with a heartrending scene between Hank and his wife, Marie (Betsy Brandt), in which macho Hank apologies for not being the tough guy he always thought he was. And when it comes to menacing,  Raymond Cruz as drugged-up cartel psycho Tuco – oh my god, just don’t go there!

Breaking Bad is not a show for people who want to goggle at pretty costumes and luscious settings. It’s original, artfully directed on 35mm film, edgy and horribly violent at times.

It’s also the best drama on television right now – bar none.

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