With so much talk about how we’re living through the Golden Age of television, it’s not often pointed out that we’re also in the Golden Age of television writing. For good or ill, depending on your perspective on relaxation and escapism, it’s become impossible to watch without filtering that experience through the written word, whether you’re just an appreciator on a comment thread, or a professional recapper.
Speaking of the latter, the Wall Street Journal looked into the rise of the TV recappers this weekend, writing “Recaps have emerged as a cornerstone of TV culture in a phase of major transition. For networks, they are indicators of buzz at a time when traditional Nielsen ratings don’t tell the whole story.”
Yet the rise of recaps has most to do with the transformation of the TV audience at large. Not only are viewers more inclined to sound off online about the minutiae of their favorite shows, many are also looking for insights about a growing number of serial dramas with complex and sophisticated storytelling. The best recaps serve a dual purpose: guiding fans of a show through subtleties (or entire episodes) they might have missed, and serving as fixed hubs of discussion for readers whose viewing patterns are staggered by time-shifting.
Among the most heavily analyzed shows is, of course, Breaking Bad. Wired has a comprehensive breakdown of some of the more alluring (and outlandish) theories about where the show is heading, and the meaning of its symbolism.
Throughout teacher-turned-meth-cook Walter White’s intense five-season journey on AMC, fans have deconstructed the show’s potential layers of meaning with the dedication of Talmudic scholars. Color meanings have been catalogued, visual cues have been analyzed (what did it mean that Hector Salamanca sat in a chair made of wooden wheels before he was wheelchair-bound?), each moment pored over in an attempt to determine if it foreshadowed some momentous event.
All of which is well and good when it comes to TV’s most compelling anti-hero, let’s just stop referring to everyone else by that increasingly meaningless designation, says The New Republic, who write that “More than a decade after Tony Soprano cried about ducks and several weeks before Walter White completes his infernal transformation, this word is perhaps the most overused in all of pop culture.”
What, exactly, does “antihero” mean? Merriam-Webster traces its first appearance back to 1714 and murkily defines it as “a protagonist or notable figure who is considerably lacking in heroic qualities.” Some books on the subject claim that the term has its roots in the idea of the Byronic hero, though this is a far more concrete and specific type: Byron’s leading men are melancholic loners with a distaste for authority, struggling to overcome their own dark pasts. In Hollywood, the concept has been around at least since films of the ’40s and ’50s began exploring the new post-war cynicism, and an action film actually titled “Anti-hero” appeared in 1999.Britannicacites as some early antiheroes Satan in Paradise Lost, Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights, and Don Quijote, none of whom are particularly useful analogues for the wretched, morally bankrupt leading men of cable drama. And the men of HBO and AMC are not as similar in their sinfulness as they have been made out to be. Walter White is by now less an antihero than a straightforward villain, a macho foil for Hank. “Antihero” implies that a character encourages a conflicted sympathy; Walt forfeited our sympathy long ago.
He may have forfeited our sympathy, but not our careful attention, whatever you want to call him. It’s a good time to be watching TV. It’s an even better time to read about it.