From Tony Soprano to Don Draper: Why bad boys make for great TV

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First aired on Day 6 (27/7/13)

Last week, Kevin Spacey was nominated for an Emmy for his portrayal of Frank Underwood, the corrupt U.S. congressman in the Netflix TV series House of Cards. Underwood is just the latest in a long list of anti-heroes to appear on television in recent years, including Don Draper of Mad Men, Walter White from Breaking Bad and Tony Soprano, from The Sopranos. In his new book, Difficult Men, author Brett Martin argues that these bad boys, and the men who created them, ushered in a new golden age of television. He talked to Day 6 about what makes these characters different, and why viewers find them so compelling.

According to Martin, the trend began with Tony Soprano, as he was portrayed by the late James Gandolfini. "It ushered in this era of heroes that were far more complicated than anything we'd seen before, and played a kind of seductive game with the audience, in which we found ourselves rooting for them, despite the most monstrous things that they could do -- and then of course wondering why that was," he told guest host Kevin Sylvester. "You see that within a few years of The Sopranos the [television] dial is filled with various permutations on that theme."

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So why do we identify with these flawed characters? "Because they're real in many ways. Because they're incredibly well written and well acted," Martin said. "They have multi-faceted personalities, and they have the same kind of concerns that we do. We may not be mobsters, but we know what it's like to have a job and a family that compete for our attention. We know what anxiety is like. We know what needing to provide for your family is like in the case of, say, Walter White of Breaking Bad. We know the temptations of living like you don't have any rules. We know that there's a tremendous amount of wish fulfillment to be a Don Draper or a Tony Soprano, or even a Dexter. "

These characters present masculinity in ways that are markedly different from earlier eras. Martin pointed out that the closing song in the pilot of The Sopranos was Nick Lowe's The Beast in Me, "about a man reckoning with his worst impulses." Martin sees this as "the theme song for the entire generation of television. By and large this television was made by men who had lived through all the dislocations of the feminist movement, and the eras in which what it meant to be a man was suddenly in question."

What it means to be a man is at play in these shows, Martin said, and it's also "an ongoing question in our culture...the success of these shows does seem to indicate that it's still compelling both to men and to women."

There aren't as many women's roles in the same vein, but that is slowly changing. Martin pointed to Mad Men, as an example. Don Draper, the show's "Lothario manipulator," may be the main focus, but "some of the female characters on that show are as vivid and complicated and true to life as any female characters we've ever seen on TV."

He went on to say that "Hollywood has never been as easy a place for women to work as men, just like most workplaces. But it does seem like the era of the exclusive male anti-hero does seem to be coming to an end."

In his book, Martin wonders what shape this "revolution in television" will take in the future. "I do think the most hopeful thing you can say is that the circumstances haven't changed that created it," he said. "The appetite for these kinds of stories has been proven in the audience, you still don't need a huge number of viewers to make them successful, and there's of course always talent. I like to think that even if we've gotten past the first, explosive phase, that we're going to have good television for a long time to come."

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