In this article written for TIME, James Poniewozik questions the average viewer’s need to sympathize with the protagonist of a TV show, even when their actions are disagreeable. He introduces this idea by examining audience responses to HBO’s Girls, specifically to creator Lena Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath. Poniewozik writes that many negative reviews of Girls focus on how selfish Horvath is, and criticize the show for expecting the audience to approve of her. However, he argues that Girls’ attitude towards Horvath is more ambiguous than clear approval/disapproval, and suggests said ambiguity to be a source of critical dissent. This comes as no surprise to Poniewozik, as he recognizes that central characters in TV shows are typically made to be liked. Sure, they may have flaws, but shows tend to project a positive attitude towards them.
Another example Poniewozik uses of a lead character with questionable morals is Tony from The Sopranos. This show was, in Poniewozik’s words, the “watershed for TV antiheroes”, because it had a protagonist “whose goals you did not relate to, whom a decent person would, by and large, not cheer for”. Tony is a sociopath, and the show often depicts him doing cruel, selfish things; however, the viewer is also given intimate details about Tony’s life, some of which seem to provide context for his actions. The show doesn’t let the viewer comfortably hate him because, on some level, they understand him.
Much like when Hannah Horvath stole $20 from a maid, many people were very critical of Tony’s actions, and thus panned The Sopranos entirely on the grounds that it wanted you to approve of his crimes. Poniewozik says this response likely came from the assumption mentioned earlier in the article, that the main character is always who the viewer is supposed to root for. He suggests that the intended response is more nuanced than that–just because the viewer understands some of Tony’s motives doesn’t mean they have to praise his behavior. You aren’t supposed to sympathize with him most of the time, and though you may relate to him on various levels of the human experience, you aren’t supposed to be on his side.
Poniewozik writes that this constitutes the basic notion of the “antihero”, a trope which he claims has been extensively retooled and tinkered with over the years. Shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men have their own versions of antiheroes, characters who behave nobly at times, yet continuously incite violence and manipulate others. While Hannah Horvath may not be as morally compromised as Walter White, Poniewozik argues that Girls resembles a “cable antihero drama” in how its characters are depicted. In certain situations, Hannah can be very caring and perceptive, and in others, she lacks the conscience not to steal from a housekeeper. Poniewozik argues that this kind of ambiguous characterization is still new territory for many comedies, as unlikeable characters are often more explicitly readable in funny TV shows. He writes that Girls is less about liking or approving of Hannah, and more about wanting to see her grow.
This idea of wanting to see characters grow reminded me of another HBO show, Six Feet Under. The show follows the lives of the Fisher family, who manage and inhabit a funeral home in Los Angeles. They are extremely dysfunctional, and the viewer is given a detailed view of their grievances with each other and interpersonal fallouts. They hurt each others’ feelings on numerous occasions, and their relationships are fraught with deep conflict. Though they all act on hot tempers, the viewer is aware of each one’s personal trauma, and in very poignant instances, gets to see them bond over it. There’s a payoff that comes with watching them grow closer, and it’s those moments of true connection that keep the viewer invested in their lives. Sure they’re bitter much of the time, but in the end, you want to see them become a happy family.