From Tony Soprano to Loki, streaming columnist NICK OVERALL says television audiences continue to find the bad guys more fun than the good guys and, with comedy-crime drama “Mr Inbetween”, Australia now has its own answer for the age of anti-heroes.
Streaming on Binge, “Mr Inbetween” follows Ray Shoesmith, a bloke trying to balance his family life with a criminal-for-hire side gig.
In one scene he’s wiping Sydney’s urban sprawl clean of those his shady clients want done away with, in the next he’s taking his daughter out for ice cream.
Yet, somehow, it’s just so easy to root for him.
Much of this is owed to Aussie star Scott Ryan’s dangerous yet charming inhabitation of the character, undoubtedly helped by the fact that Shoesmith was the actor’s own invention 22 years ago for a short film.
Seeing more potential, Ryan has now fully realised the character in this series, which just wrapped up its third and final season with a gripping finish.
“Mr Inbetween” has been able to do what few Australian TV shows can and break through to wider international recognition, especially after it was picked up by a US network.
That’s helped by some great production and razor-sharp writing, but it’s the anti-hero at the centre that seals the deal.
Time and time again it’s the do-badders who win over the hearts and minds of viewers, with some of the most popular television series of all time following a villain instead of a hero.
But what is it about the bad guys that keep viewers coming back?
Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” features two of the most famous anti-heroes of all time: a thane and his scheming lady who are willing to murder anyone standing in their way of the throne.
Four centuries later “Macbeth” continues to be transformed, most vividly seen in “House of Cards” (Netflix) about a psychopathic US congressman and his wife who run amok in pursuit of a seat in the Oval Office.
There’s the creative, yet morally questionable, capers of advertising executive Don Draper in “Mad Men” (Stan), who throughout seven seasons made bad look good in the glossy world of Madison Avenue.
Walter White in “Breaking Bad” (Stan) engrossed millions of viewers in his transformation from everyday man to meth kingpin over six years.
All of this isn’t even touching on “Dexter”, the serial killer who hunts the bad guys, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s cynically hilarious antics in “Fleabag” (Amazon Prime, ABC iView) or the crazy scientist doused in a god complex, Rick Sanchez in “Rick and Morty” (Netflix).
What is it about these villains that’s so intriguing?
Well, there’s certainly nothing intriguing about a morally perfect hero.
That’s because their journey is finished before one gets the chance to come along for it. There’s no room for failure for the flawless champion, there’s nothing more for them to learn and in turn nothing for the audience to learn either.
On the other hand, the anti-hero holds an extreme, yet palpable mirror up to the audience, one where our own motivations, insecurities and desires come into sharper focus.
It works because the anti-hero keeps people guessing. Will they redeem themselves? Will they descend into more selfish behaviour? Will they use their power of influence for good or bad?
Viewers may not be crazy scientists or hitmen, or so one would hope, but that unpredictable journey of the anti-hero is much closer to real life.
Television’s extended storytelling over multiple seasons fits the bill perfectly for an exploration of these characters, offering more time to dig into the nooks and crannies of their psychology.
“The Sopranos” (on Binge) may be the most iconic example, a show where the day-to-day life of a violent crime family boss is interspersed with his visits to a therapist, bringing whole new depth to the Mafia-man stereotype.
Although the show may follow Tony Soprano, in many ways the viewer is more tethered to his therapist: the outsider who gets a peek into both the outer and interior workings of Soprano and the one who gets to pass judgement.
“I’m living in a moral never-never land with this patient,” Dr Melfi says in one episode when explaining Tony.
“Now I’ve judged, I took a position, goddamn it and I’m scared.”
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Ian Meikle, editor