I worked in record stores for years, right before they began to be threatened by online pirating: The Golden Age of Record Stores. This was the late '90s and early aughts, the height of sarcasm and snark. Irony had gone mainstream, and we saw it on the T-shirts, trucker hats, and Ween albums of our customers. My co-worker was disgusted by all this, and swore that we had to be headed for a major cultural shift: The Age of Sincerity. I'm still waiting for that one.
Instead, our entertainment has delved deeper into darkness, TV especially. The antihero explosion brought on by The Sopranos gave way to shows like The Shield and eventually the ultimate antihero, Dexter.
Netflix has thrown its billion-dollar business model chapeau into the antihero ring with House of Cards, the Golden Globe-winning D.C. Beltway drama loosely based on a British show of the same name. The British version, which starred Ian Richardson, was riddled with vivid parliamentary scoundrels and reprobates. It had a brisker pace and a bit more whimsy than its American cousin, though Kevin Spacey's character does break down the fourth wall and address the camera with sly grins and asides here and there. Spacey plays ruthless congressman Frank Underwood, who becomes a ruthless vice president, aided and abetted by his equally feral wife, Claire (Robin Wright). The first season was indeed great, but I kept waiting for Underwood to become as underhanded as Richardson's ghastly character — a man so awful he threw a woman off a building.
Thankfully, season two of the U.S. House of Cards has finally decided to get down and dirty. A scene from episode one has an event so surprising and awful you will want to play it over again immediately. The second season debuted on the 14th of this month, and Netflix has already green-lit a third season.
The real question is: Will we ever tire of antiheroes? Is this a fad, like sitcoms about the '50s were in the '70s, or game shows, or variety shows? If saggy pants will never die, why should demonic protagonists?
What appears to be changing is the nature of the beast. And by "beast," I mean whatever sociopath is being portrayed. Tony Soprano went into the family business, and if he didn't have some sort of conflict with his decision, he never would have ended up in therapy. Dexter Morgan realized he was a sociopath but had the moral fortitude to only kill other sociopaths. Frank Underwood, however, has made all of his decisions solely for himself and his drives. He headed to the place that nurtures his sort of pathology, Washington, D.C. He has little interest in actual politics, just power. Everyone who gets in his way is treated as some foreign antigen and vigorously attacked by his henchmen antibodies or, as in the case of this season, himself — directly and violently.
The difference between his character and the others I've mentioned is that I am not rooting for the Underwoods. Instead we are asked to sympathize with the journalists who are trying to expose him, or the underlings beneath Claire who are ruined by her sadism.
So what's happening is really quite fascinating: The "good" heroes of old are now ancillary characters, yet their presence is required to keep me watching. We are still, at heart, cheering for the good guys. The bad guy being front-and-center lets us do that with even more bravado than we would for an altruistic central character. Pretty sneaky, sis.
So maybe my co-worker was right... if antiheroes become the norm, then surely the opposite of the antihero will arise again, since we tend to flip things entirely every few years. Maybe it will eventually a popular-yet-culturally-counterintuitive move to have a "good" protagonist again. Maybe we really will head into an age of sincerity, where the good guy with pure intentions is embraced; a time where the bad guys are just two-dimensional bastards. It's okay, you know, to have a villain that you don't understand, or whose motivations baffle you. When the Penguin put Batman and Robin under a giant swinging ax that slowly lowered toward them, I didn't stop to wonder if his mother had prostituted herself with a bird colony in front of him as a child.
He was just bad, and that was good.