As the season ended for a number of series on both primetime and cable recently, it seems the verdict is squarely in: it is not cool to be good on TV.
From Hank Moody (Californication), Dexter, and Walter White (Breaking Bad), to Nurse Jackie, Nancy Botwin (Weeds) and Frank Gallagher (Shameless), we are bombarded by TV characters that are just so... bad. Amoral. Dysfunctional. Criminal. Pathological. Irresponsible. Alcoholic. Promiscuous. Drug addicted. Downright stupid. And, in some cases, the Absolute Worst Parents in the World. Even The Big C's smug, saintly Cathy Jamison nobly kicks cancer's ass by doing drugs, doing guys, and doing every devil-may-care cliché the writers could possibly think of. She needs to be interesting and so she's... bad! Network after network, station after station, show after show; they just can't get enough of bad, right down to the bone.
I'm bored with bad.
I love me a good villain, I do. Cranky, complicated evil can be fascinating. And there's lots of fun to be had watching a really good bad guy work the crowd, pull the levers, and make the monkey dance week after week. But when the Badness Bar gets raised (lowered?) to such a point of ridiculousness as to be off-putting and these characters go from understandably conflicted to inexplicably criminal and abusive (think any episode of Weeds these days), it gets harder to actually like them. And we kinda gotta like them to want to stay with the show, don't we?
The cultural message being communicated by the critical mass of all this badness is that there is no way a good character can be water-cooler interesting. Impossible for someone of honor to be nuanced or compelling enough to build a cutting edge series around. Television producers and writers seem bound by the belief that the only characters worthy of such creative exploration are the kind none of us would actually want in our lives. The kind healthy people divorce, send to rehab, call Child Services or the police on, or avoid like the plague as advised by our Alanon sponsors. Frankly, I think too many of us actually do have too many of these hyper-dysfunctionals in our real lives and, in that context, it turns out they're not very entertaining. Or interesting. Or funny or lovable. They're predictable, destructive, and hurtful; they destroy marriages, families, and the kids who'll surely need therapy by the second season of life. I myself knew two doctors, excellent family men and wonderful physicians, who died from accidental overdoses of drugs obtained from their facility pharmacies... which makes the wink n' nod gaiety of Nurse Jackie's consequence/death defying escapades a little less hilarious.
What are we to do? Just accept that the only good characters in drama are to be found in cookie-cutter procedurals with their cartoonishly-defined Good and Bad Guys? Family fare with good characters that bounce between pabulum and tears? Music dramedies that give us every good (and bad) archetype known to man and then some? I mean, come on, even the late, great, very cutting edge Tony Soprano was a conflicted, nuanced, many-layered Bad Guy. Nowadays.... naw. They're drawing 'em with crayons and the lines are too broad for anything in between.
Then... AMC's The Killing came along. And we were saved. With its eerie, atmospheric tone, complex 3-ring storyline, and roster of multi-dimensional characters who straddle so many fences we're not sure what color hat they wear, it was irresistible. And most compelling is its lead character played by the wondrous Mireille Enos, who is as shaded, enigmatic and -- dare I say it? -- cool as any of the aforementioned bad gals, yet one bound by integrity and a heart so compassionate she can't figure out who needs her most. This show grew on the audience, quietly and with little fanfare, and it was only when the water cooler/Twitter trending chatter tsunamied across social media after the much-debated season finale that it was clear The Killing was onto something.
Anytime a show's finale creates a brouhaha big enough to cause the producers to come out and (unnecessarily, in my book) apologize for, perhaps, misgauging the audience's willingness to take the mystery into the second season, you've struck a nerve. This was television at its best: great storytelling with twists and turns that roller coastered the audience on a weekly basis and characters that defied prediction and easy judgment. Enos's Sarah Linden is one of the most unique female characters on TV. With her ever-present Nicorette gum, her visceral weariness, her tug and pull with a not-so-patiently waiting fiancé, her beleaguered parenting and her deep emotional attachment to the outcome of her case, she is that character you don't necessarily know but want to. You want to protect her; you want her to win. You admire her integrity and doggedness and you hope she gets the personal part right. You're invested in her outcome.
And... she's cool. Premium cable cool. Cutting edge cool. Showtime/HBO cool. And a good character we can root for. How unique is that? She doesn't make us cringe, roll our eyes, or throw socks at the TV. She's saving television.
The Killing is saving television.
And commensurately, television has had the wisdom to save The Killing. We'll look forward to seeing what these complicated, mysterious characters get in and out of in the seasons to come. We'll finally know "who killed Rosie Larsen." And we'll watch to see how Enos's honorable Sarah continues to evolve and engage us. It's sure to be interesting: one season and she could already teach Jackie, Nancy, Hank and Walter a thing or two.
[For additional thoughts on Californication, please check an earlier Huffington Post article of mine on the topic: The Carnal Carnivorous Californication.]