Americans love their bad boys. In the last few years, television audiences have swooned over Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Weeds, and Orange is the New Black – shows that elevate and celebrate anti-social behavior. One could argue that we love these shows because they are well done and great entertainment. That’s surely true, but the real reason we feel such a strong attachment to violent anti-heroes is much deeper rooted. It’s driven by what’s happening in America today.
We are living in an era of epic disempowerment. Ordinary Americans are outflanked and outgunned, in economic terms, in ways that we haven’t witnessed in over a century. The future looks bleak, so we find affinity with thieving, charming sociopaths. They at least know how to get what they need.
In contrast, Americans are frightened and angry. Maureen Dowd commented about this phenomenon in The New York Times, citing Andrew Kohut of Gallup and the Pew Research Center, who called the mood of America “chronic disillusionment.” Dowd said, “The old verities seem quaint. If you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll lose out to those guys who can wire computers to make bets on Wall Street faster than the next guy to become instant multimillionaires.”
Dowd is halfway to the truth. Today, if we work hard and play by the rules, we face a greater chance of starving to death in the street than any generation in American history. Employer loyalty is gone. Employment is being outsourced and offshored in vast moves that have emptied the continent of viable industries. Midlife and late life layoffs are the norm. Pensions have been eliminated. Government retirement and health programs are targeted for eradication. Where does that leave the average American? All manner of fixes are in and they aren’t helping the majority of us. So, we fantasize about stealing from the greedy takers.
Shows like Breaking Bad are empowerment fantasies. They expose our anger and resentment at an economic system that no longer serves our interests. And, anti-social as they are, they actually present a solution. Tony Soprano and Walter White take responsibility for themselves and let little stand in the way of getting what they need in life. They are self-empowered in ways that most of us can only dream about. We don’t want to do what they do, but we want that kind of empowerment.
Our affection for Mad Men reveals the flip side of the same story. Outdated as the sexist, white-maleism of the show may seem, Mad Men takes us back to an earlier era when authority structures were easier to understand and the “work hard and play by the rules” ideal seemed more attainable. Americans today are panicking about their futures. Anti-heroic escapism and nostalgia for the bad/good old days of white male patriarchy are seductive, but they are not a solution. Only a genuine return to fairness and empowerment of working Americans will make a difference in this most difficult economic climate.