Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Salon asks, Where are the heros? It's a good question.

So maybe those of us who have been asking this question for the last few years aren't alone per say, but rather we are ahead of the curve. Salon Magazine author Willa Paskin asks in her new column the exact question. Just where are all the Heroes in TV. She states, rather effectively in my opinion, that we have the Sopranos to thank for much of the shift in television. Obviously, the Sopranos cannot be responsible for all of it, but they certainly shoulder a good bit of the blame.

The first wave of antihero shows acted as a statement of purpose about television’s new, serious ambitions. If historically, TV had been a medium designed to sell you soap, to entertain and distract you, a vehicle for commercials, the antihero thoroughly upended that. If you watched Tony Soprano, Vince Mackey or any of the corner boys, cops or drug kings on “The Wire” like they were characters you had seen before, heroes in waiting, you were going to get sucker-punched and devastated over and over and over again. An antihero was an aggressive way to short-circuit viewers’ expectations, to show them they were watching something brave and new. TV could be challenging, thorny, difficult, and there was no better way to convey this than through the challenging, difficult, thorny central character.(Paskin)
I think this quotation is extremely telling, and rather vindicating. I've felt frequently as if I've been shouting into the wilderness when explaining just what my central concern was with so called "Grimdark" fantasy. It isn't that it, or The Sopranos, exists which is the problem. It is merely that it garners so much publicity that it overshadows everything else. It's not as much of a problem now as it was this time last year, before Leo Grin's now infamous essay was published, but at one time it seemed the only authors I ever heard about or saw reviewed were authors who peopled their worlds with variously shaded gray-scale denizens. There is definitely room for those sorts of books and characters, but I feel the point I and so many of the rest of us were trying to convey is, they shouldn't be exulted to the point of ignoring more traditionally heroic characters.

But we are well past the place where thinking people doubt TV’s artistic potential, and well into the territory where the antihero is a cliché. And yet he still flourishes, in shows both good and, increasingly, not so good, even as series like “The Good Wife” and its cynical worldview, or “Friday Night Lights” and its dazzling, wonderful Mr. and Mrs. Coach demonstrate, yet again, that the antihero is not necessary to ambitious television.(Paskin)

If even the watchers of TV are catching on that this has become a cliche I think it might be safe to stop calling it a Hypothesis and start calling it a Theory. But at the same time, Fantasy Literature already has begun to show signs of shifting away from it, even as authors like Bakker, Abercrombie, Morgan, et al continue to write the same, or even darker, books than they were previously. The worst thing these authors could do is ignore the possibility of occasionally having a heroic character and instead beginning to make use of the perpetual novice hack trick of splashing more blood, gore and guts onto the page. 

Further, I think several of the comments on the topic illustrate the more specific problem, that, frankly it's the fault of the reviewers who refuse to look to the more classically heroic programing due to risking their highbrow status by doing so who are to blame. If it weren't for reviewers making a fuss over these sorts of books then likely they wouldn't have gotten quite as popular as they did. Simply put though, these authors were and are providing something different, and typically different is conflated with progressive or some other such term which makes people feel that by reviewing them they too can be progressive or cutting edge. In the end we wind up with a lot of E-Ink being expended to discuss the books which have now become a cliche in and of themselves.

Ultimately I think the lesson that can be learned from this whole thing, now having been on going for years, is that the reader should read what they like, and certainly shouldn't trust a reviewer that something is good just cause.

I'll continue to ignore The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and the rest of Grimdark TV just as I do Grimdark novels. I will continue to go and see Superhero movies, read my boring contrived repetitive farmboy-goes-on-quest books and try to take a few minutes away from the 'Real world' every so often, I don't have space in my life to allow my entertainment to try and drag me down too.


Brian Murphy said...

I think this phenomenon is partially the fault of an overanalytical, hypercritical circle of critics. Aragorn can't just be good, he's a symbol of Tolkien's backwards conservatism. So new authors come along to "deconstruct" the old.

Readers and viewers are responsible, too. Moral responsibility and love of hearth and home are now passe', it's much more "fun" to revel in misery and characters with no compunctions about killing or screwing anything on two legs. So people seek out stories featuring Jamie Lannister instead of Sam. Maybe the pendulum will swing back, maybe not.

The Wasp said...

There are times I want something dark and cynical. I love KEW's Kane and Glen Cook. Heck, I even I like The Second Apocalypse books even though I suspect Bakker's got some serious issues and Kelhuss is pretty much all Mary Sued out. But only at times.
The real world isn't as dark and bleak as some fantasy authors portray it so why would I want to read it all the time? It's much more simplistic to see the world in only shades of gray than to look for real good and evil. I'm just not impressed by authors whose only claims to importance seem to be nihilism and misanthropy.

David J. West said...

I am very inclined to think the pendulum will swing back.

In part because I do think we tend to go in cycles. I look back at the 70's action films which were generally all about the anti-hero, then Star Wars burst onto the scene and changed everyones expectations.

I do think when things have run their course in fantasy fiction-when Grimdark is just "business as usual"-we will be primed for a classic retelling of the Hero myth-and whomever is able to tell the same tale, yet be just different enough (and it won't hurt to have the right marketing savvy behind it) will take the throne.

Ty Johnston said...

I agree with David on this one, it comes and goes in cycles, though admittedly we live in what is likely one of the most cynical ages of all time, thus feeding further into the readers' urging toward the antihero.

However, I think pointing a singular finger at modern dark fiction (of all stripes) misses a lot of issues and conflates the notions of "new and modern" with "the unfamiliar," even when those pointing that finger do not mean to do so. Antiheroes have been around for a long time and were popular. Go back close to a century and Conan the Cimmerian was an antihero. Look back half a century and Clint Eastwood built much of his career on being an antihero. Even looking back thousands of years to Homer, Achilles wasn't exactly a white-knight even by the standards of the time "The Iliad" was written (though from an earlier oral tradition).

I don't think the writers have changed as much as they are responding to what the readers seem to want.

Lagomorph Rex said...

I certainly think all of you have some great points which need to be considered when approaching this issue.

All to frequently the conclusion is lept to that if the studios/networks/publishing houses would just stop publishing "Crap" then it wouldn't be popular. Instead of the just as likely answer that it's becuase it's popular that more and more of it gets made.

Certainly I think these sorts of things are popular, But I'm not sure if they are popular because they are the only good things on TV. NCIS is packed with Heroes but I wouldn't say it was riveting drama either. But it's a hell of a lot more fun to watch, At least for me, than Game of Thrones is.