Sunday, June 21, 2009

On Television Antiheroes

In the New York Times article "Get a Life, Holden Caulfield," Jennifer Schuessler suggests that today's teenagers don't relate to the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye anymore. Teacher Julie Johnson remarks:

"In general, they do not have much sympathy for alienated antiheroes."

This line stuck out to me, since the television landscape is littered with the "alienated antiheroes." From Tony Soprano, Larry David, Jimmy McNulty, Gregory House, and many, many more, popular television series seem to center around an antihero protagonist: appealing, charismatic, fascinating, yet immoral (or amoral), mean, antisocial. We like these characters, even as they grate against society (its conventions, its institutions, its rules, its people), sometimes from their natural personality, sometimes from a philosophical stance of indifference or cynicism. These are adult shows, and I find myself wondering: if teenagers today are not sympathetic to these alienated antiheroes, will they either come to like them as they grow into adult cynicism, or is the alienated antihero a generational phenomenon? Are we currently watching a bunch of adult versions of Holden Caulfield (is House's "Everybody lies" the adult version of Holden's disgust of "phonies"? I'm not asserting a direct influence, but suggesting the kind of teenager who finds Holden Caulfield appealing will be the kind of adult who finds Gregory House appealing)? And does that mean years from now television will feature a bunch of adult versions of Harry Potter?

The alienated antihero has a long history in literary tradition, of course, but his (he's usually male) popularity in contemporary television is distinct. But this too will likely pass, as a new generation of viewers finds a different sort of protagonist appealing (and watch for it--the trend may already be happening).

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