FRANSEN: Our twisted appreciation for television’s antiheroes

elena fransenNetflix released its second season of “House of Cards,” last week, a political thriller series following the despicable dealings of fictional Congressman Frank Underwood. While he is marked as a scoundrel, there is something about Underwood that keeps one intrigued and waiting to see what he’ll do next. He’s not the only one caught up in a fictional game of deception and manipulation.

Evident in television series’ such as “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos,” villainy has become a trend for male protagonists. In their fictional worlds, they appear to be average men, but what they do behind closed doors is deplorable – and usually illegal. These antiheroes lie, manipulate and ruin lives, but we raise them up as unlikely models for society.

Suave ad director Don Draper, chemistry wizard Walter White, social butterfly Frank Underwood and “family” man Tony Soprano all have this in common. Yet that doesn’t keep us from enjoying their exploits.

Their misdeeds are intoxicating. Draper is a favorite of mine, and with each of his dalliances and corporate power-plays, I get so caught up in this crazy fictional life that I don’t consider the morality of his actions. He is fictional, after all, but if I knew a real-life Don Draper, I would run out the door rather than sitting still and eagerly awaiting another obscure preview for the next episode.

With this thought in mind, I wonder why these antiheroes are still appealing to a mass audience when we denigrate their actions. Do we envy these enthralling and charismatic fictional men and long to be them? Do they contribute anything positive to society, or are they cautionary figures?

Anyone who has loved one (or more) of these shows and watched an entire series in Netflix binge sessions knows the thrill that comes with each new episode and wondering how these guys will handle the hot water they got themselves into. Usually they get out of whatever mess they’re in, but it’s troubling that we celebrate when they one-up an adversary and, once again, come out unscathed.

As someone honest who actually cares about people, I feel like a saint after watching Draper or Underwood for a few episodes. But I am a little uncomfortable with my ability to sympathize with these maleficent protagonists and brush it off by saying “Frank is making things right” and “Don … had a rough childhood.”

These antiheroes are fictional, but we need to be careful about who we portray as models of our time. It is easy to be sucked into the drama of these shows, but we can’t get too involved to the point where we forget these men are not who we want to emulate. I guess we can all enjoy their escapades while they last, remaining cautious of the Don Drapers in our real lives.