08/16/2012 03:02 pm ET Updated Oct 16, 2012

The Mass Appeal of the Secret Life

Dexter Morgan is a mild-mannered blood-spatter expert with Miami Homicide -- and, secretly, a serial killer who channels his compulsions into slaughtering others who have themselves been getting away with murder. Walter White is a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher, and devoted husband and father -- and, secretly, the manufacturer of the finest methamphetamine in Albequerque. Bill Henrickson is a mild-mannered Mormon hardware retailer in Utah, with a wife and three kids -- and, secretly, two other wives and six other kids. Doug Rich is a wealthy banker in Baton Rouge -- but is secretly an outlaw grifter named Wayne Malloy, impersonating Mr. Rich, who is dead. Nancy Botwin is a widowed young suburban-California mom, who, secretly, sells marijuana.

You have doubtless recognized at least some of these TV shows: they are, respectively, Dexter (Showtime, about to begin the seventh of its allotted eight seasons), Breaking Bad (AMC / Sony, currently in its fifth and final season), Big Love (HBO, 2006-2011), The R1ȼhes (FX, 2007-2008), and Weeds (Showtime, 2007-2008).

Obviously, they have in common protagonists who live the American dream in its most respectable form, while maintaining a secret, criminal identity, sometimes with the collusion of their families. However, there are other features that these shows share.

One is sunlight. All five shows are set in the South: Florida, New Mexico, Utah, Louisiana and California, respectively. Besides the prettiness of the settings, the convenience of filming in and around L.A., and both the conservatism and hedonism of the present-day South, these locations also provide the visual theme of the all-revealing sun, always threatening to expose the protagonists' secrets. Everybody else seems to lead a life cheerfully open to public view, while our heroes keep their secrets hidden away -- often literally, in panels behind walls, ventilator shafts, attics, basements, and, in Dexter's case, the ocean floor.

Another theme is, predictably, moral ambiguity. Dexter does the same thing his colleagues do: brings bad guys to justice. Walter White's brother-in-law Hank, a DEA agent, is also a drug manufacturer, legally making beer in his garage. Bill Henrickson alienates some potential business partners with his abstemiousness, but then wins them over by introducing his wives. Grifter Wayne Malloy successfully impersonates a banker because their ethics and methodologies are so similar. And Nancy Botwin lives in a world where virtually everyone smokes weed.

Another recurring theme is the doubling of stress. Most of these characters lead lives that would be difficult enough without the secret criminal side. Many an episode of all these programs features our heroes trying to manage a packed schedule of domestic and professional duties on top of their illegal responsibilities.

The drama and comedy of the secret life is, of course, nothing new. From ancient Greek and Roman comedy, through Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde, to Batman and Spiderman, we seem to have an unending fascination with the concept. However, this new spate of cable-TV dramatic programs, featuring characters whose entire lives are a lie, suggests something currently happening in our society. Clearly these programs strike a chord. Their popularity suggests that many, perhaps all, of us perceive ourselves, at one time or another, to be faking it.

People in power speak of the "impostor syndrome," in which one feels like a fraud, about to be exposed at any moment. The banking collapse of 2008 appears to have been based on our attempts to live beyond our means. The entire advertising industry is about helping us look better off than we are, even (or especially) if we have to go into debt to prove it. The recent documentary film The Queen of Versailles, hailed as an allegory for our society, traces the downfall of one family fortune, built on the shifting sands of time-shares and subprime loans. And we've all become used to scandal stories exposing priests, politicians and plutocrats.

Perhaps the current popularity of characters leading double lives simply reflects a pervasive consciousness that we are all involved in a spiraling project whose purpose is to con each other. We all want to appear more successful, sexier, richer, more powerful and more virtuous than we are, and we probably all conceal a nervous, wormy certainty that we're not getting away with it. This may be the source of the pleasure we feel watching killers, drug dealers, polygamists and con artists barely managing to sustain their own false images.

In one recurring gag that shows up on most or all of these shows, the protagonist -- frustrated, exhausted or merely feeling experimental -- suddenly blurts the awful truth -- and someone else laughs heartily at his joke. We may have come to feel, in this mendacious age, that honesty can be the worst policy, and that if we're getting away with our lies, then those we're deceiving would not believe the truth anyway.