December 16th, 2010 / 12:59 pm

Three things I’ve watched recently and loved plus one, or, the rational love for immorality

I’ve been watching a lot of television lately. Television off the internet. This is a preferable way to watch television. For one, I don’t have to deal with commercials. Also, I can watch a whole season at a time, and being naturally obsessive, I can’t deal with the suspense of waiting an entire week—much less a whole year for a new season to start—to find out “what happens.” That being said, I have to wait on two shows now, which brings me great displeasure and discomfort.

I’ve seen a few things recently, and I’ve struggled to understand what makes them enjoyable, what compels me to keep on watching. After all, if I weren’t watching television or movies, I could be reading. (Though to be fair to myself, I spend my days trekking through fairly dense geographic texts, so by the evening, I like to relax with my partner and our two cats, “turn off” so to speak, even though I know my time could be spent in a more “productive” manner.)

But even as I’m “turning off” and letting myself get tangled in television or film, I remain critically alert. And in the end, I realize the reason I love watching what I’ve watched is because through these particular shows and films, my morality is challenged and I not only empathize but also desire the success of immoral characters. It is not unlike the experience of reading Crime & Punishment, where the reader rallies for Raskolnikov, even though he is a murderer. We don’t want him to get caught. We want him to be ok. We want the best for him. And in the end, as his consciousness fractures under the weight of his lawfully unpunished crimes, we want him to be physically punished, just to alleviate the psychological punishment.

But back to the things I’ve watched and loved.

1. I have this incredibly soft spot for serial killers. This past summer, I wrote a novel about a serial killer, a novel I’ve wrestled with for the better part of the last six years. So it comes as no surprise that when I started to watch Dexter, I instantly fell in love. The eponymous Dexter is a blood spatter analyst by day and serial killer by night. Like many serial killer “super heroes,” he only kills murderers (and with the newest seasons, rapists, though they were also responsible for the deaths of the women they raped so I guess he was still fulfilling his code). The show is told in first person. We hear his thoughts, which I thought would be annoying, but it’s ok.

I love this show because as a viewer, I get to experience his life vicariously. The first person narrative offers viewers a peek into his motivations. We get to think he thinks and do what he does. He is always on the brink of getting caught, even though he is obsessively meticulous. It is easy to see why a writer would like his character. He is rich with nuance and morally immoral. He is the embodiment of contradiction.

(I have to admit though: this show is a little heavy-handed at times.)

2. I’ve also been watching Breaking Bad, a show about a fifty-something chemistry teacher who, upon being diagnosed with cancer, starts manufacturing meth. Like Dexter, Walter White is a morally questionable character. He makes meth because his family needs the money, sure, but there is something more sinister in it: he likes it. He enjoys the “thrill” of doing something wrong. Walt, at the beginning of the show, is a stand-up citizen to the point that the viewer assumes he’s the kind of guy who would never even cheat on his taxes, or cheat on anything at all. He’s the perfect citizen to a fault.

Then, he gets cancer and everything changes.

Ultimately, we’re not supposed to like the old Walt. He was boring and “too good.” Through the first season, we see a complete transformation in Walt from decent but boring guy to a murdering, meth manufacturing kingpin. Ok, so kingpin is too strong a word, but it’s a close approximation.

And yet, we love it. We practically salivate when he does something morally reprehensible and then, because of the excitement and thrill of it all, goes home to his ignorant, pregnant wife and fucks her wild.

3. Yeah, so I know it’s kind of cliché and all, but I really loved the Steig Larsson trilogy. Well, the films. I haven’t read the books. The second two films (The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Next) were fairly uneven and not nearly as powerful or provocative as the first (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), but I enjoyed them nonetheless. What is perhaps most enticing to me about these films is the “translation” (read: overt name change) from Swedish to English. Larsson’s title was Men who Hate Women. Now, obviously, for an American market, that seems like a big, scary title. The title change and marketing are two big facets with my love for these films.

That, and the sexy but androgynous protagonist is morally suspect. Whereas she has experienced rape and abuse, her reactions are violent. She affects anger. She’s a computer genius-hacker and uses her skills to become a vigilante.

Like Dexter and Walter White, Lisbeth is extraordinarily intelligent. It is their savant-charm that makes their immorality so poignant. They can easily distinguish between right and wrong, but they all logic themselves into immoral behavior. That is, they get to behave in ways that their viewers wish they could but don’t.

4. Finally, I recently saw The Town.

I liked it ok. For those who don’t know about this movie, it’s the newest Ben Affleck directed (and starring) flick. It’s about a group of bank robbers and their downfall. The beautiful Jon Hamm (aka Don Draper) plays an FBI agent hunting the Affleck-led robbers. This film has all the elements of film that would ordinarily make me love it. It has pretty actors, and I have an unnatural love for bank robber/heist movies. The film manipulates the viewer into sympathizing with the morally corrupt robbers and wanting the best for them while hoping the “good” (though this questionable because of one scene of unabashed violence) FBI agent fails at catching his criminals. And yet, I thought it was ok. I mean, I wanted to really “respond” to the film. I was looking forward to seeing it. It got good reviews. But in the end, my belief was not suspended enough for full viewing pleasure. I couldn’t disconnect Jon Hamm from Don Draper from FBI agent. And Ben Affleck was kinda just Ben Affleck. This seems like a silly reason to have a luke-warm response to a movie, but it is what it is.

Concluding thoughts: As I’ve written this, I’ve tried to think of morally sound characters (from either books or moving pictures) that I love and I’m at a loss. I wonder, now, if it is immorality—or at the very minimum moral wavering which signals complexity and nuance—that makes characters memorable. Do you love any good characters? If so, why? I want to be convinced. I want to believe I’m a good person who likes good characters, but I’m increasingly convinced I really just love serial killers and the corrupt. After all, it’s not real life. Maybe that’s why. Let us hope. Let us hope.

Tags: , , , , , ,


  1. Abdab

      You watch too much television.

  2. Abdab

      You watch too much television.

  3. Trey

      I watched the first season of Dexter over the last couple of days. It was pretty OK, I agree.

  4. Dadba

      You don’t watch enough television

  5. mjm

      I find it interesting, that many writers who solely write, lets say poetry or fiction, turn off my going to a film or watching tv or listen to music or something. Whereas multi-discipline artists turn off by doing all these things, though they never really turn off. I wonder if they are a little more insane than the rest…

  6. Guest

      I really don’t care about the “morality” of characters–that sounds like something from a John Gardner book on fiction.

      The only “morality” I care about is whether or not characters are interesting and dynamic, and I don’t buy the notion that reading is like eating spinach or supposed to make us better people.

  7. christopher.

      I’ve not actually watched Dexter at all, but I’ve watched the opening sequence a half-dozen times, and every time, I’m amazed by it.

      As for the morality of a character, I go in fits. Of course I like the complexity of the characters you mention here. But sometimes, I just want a damn hero. Last year, I picked up the Chronicles of Prydain for the first time since I was a kid, and just ate them raw. I knocked out the entire series in a week, and just felt good about life. I wanted to believe in that sort of thing, honor and heroism and nobility and all that shit that’s just unwaveringly good. I don’t always want that out of my fiction. But sometimes, it’s a good reminder.

  8. Layne_R

      I mean, there are characters that are “morally immoral,” as you’ve stated, that I adore, but I can’t think of any goody two-shoes ones that have had any significant impact on me. Not only do I not find them interesting, but I think it’s hard for me to consider them safe. A character who’s squeaky clean isn’t an inviting entity into whom I can invest emotion – sloppy, uncomfortable, embarrassing, vulnerable emotion.

      Ramble/tangent: I think it’s an intriguing/disturbing thing that mainline evangelical Christianity makes Jesus the squeakiest clean character imaginable, who can allow you and the people you love to experience the worst possible suffering indefinitely, yet says he alone (as one with God) is the one entity with whom you can (and should) be completely vulnerable. Jesus, who here is ultimately divine judge, is about the least emotionally inviting character I can imagine, but accepted doctrine says not engaging in such vulnerability is moral perversion deserving of Hell.

      What I mean is, moral clusterfuck. And thinking/talking about the morality of characters is super-interesting to me pretty much all the time.

  9. Trey

      I thought the opening sequence was cool the first time, but now it’s like dang hurry up I want to see this episode.

  10. Guest

      I checked out during the whatever season Dexter hunts John Lithgow. The corny narration + ghost dad showing up giving whatever advice the plot needed to get going was just too much.

  11. lorian long

      breaking bad is the shit. that show makes me sweat.

  12. Kevin

      One of the things I love about Breaking Bad is how excruciating it is watching these guys get into one awful mess after another. And why do I like that? It’s not a good feeling. You get nervous and almost can’t put up with it. But, yeah, you don’t want them to get caught – even when they’re doing the most wicked shit imaginable. All the lying, I mean.

  13. Ken Baumann

      First show I’ve watched in its entirety since Deadwood is Mad Men. It doesn’t get better than Deadwood, and Mad Men is a lot of fun.

  14. Ken Baumann

      It’s easier to hope & want the good to come out of the mostly evil/neutral. Plus: is charisma is more natural to those who disrespect institutions, norms, the other, etc?

  15. NLY

      It is more obvious in them, I would say.

  16. lily hoang

      I like Mad Men, sure. It’s a very easy show to enjoy. I’ve been meaning to watch Deadwood. It’s that good, eh? That’ll be the next series on my list. Thanks, Ken.

  17. Anonymous

      I don’t watch television much anymore, but did enjoy Dexter for a time. It was cool, but mostly got too repetitive in a large-scale sense. It’s not exactly something I’m faulting the show for, just the reason why I didn’t care to keep watching it. I like that they’re still developing him, that he is evolving from season to season. Although sometimes it’s annoying and heavy-handed, I think it’s the best thing going for the show (not just letting him stay who he is, which will probably always remain entertaining, but actually trying to develop him).

      I can’t get into the Girl Dragon movies enough to actually even think about the character. I was just too disappointed with what I saw as a major failure on the part of the first film (and book?) to achieve the goal of quality mystery/suspense story.

      It’s been a couple years since I watched The Wire, so I’m not sure how I’d feel about it now, but when I think back, it’s a show I would recommend. For me, what’s still intriguing about it is how human and I guess non-archetypal the characters feel. It definitely has the duplicity of character you’re talking about. And at no point (in the first season) did I get the heavy-handed hokey lame stupid feeling I get every time I see more than two seconds of Law & Order SVU. YOu should check it [the wire] out.

  18. lily hoang

      I *did* say it was heavy-handed.

  19. alanrossi

      i couldn’t believe they didn’t renew deadwood. man, the first time i watched that show, i caught myself holding my breath. i remember the scene.


      When the blood slide at the end of one scene faded into a center-framed rose in the next? I almost died.

  21. lily hoang

      Yup, i’ve watched the wire. all of it. very worth the time.

  22. Jeremy Bauer

      I agree, Deadwood floored me. I’m almost glad it didn’t go past three seasons, though. It was too good and I hate seeing a good series slowly rot away or lock itself in some sort of “meh” stasis (The Office, you don’t light me up the same as you used to). Still haven’t seen Mad Men because I get funny about things I hear people I don’t like obsessively talk about (of course, not directed at anyone here). I know I’ll break down eventually, though.

  23. Jeremy Bauer

      I’ve always been more into the seedy characters than the goody ones, but the good ones stick with me too. The seedy ones are more fun to watch and pay attention to. It’s hard to tell how their lives are going to play out and their unpredictability is what really makes them engaging. I grew up loving superheroes. I knew they weren’t real, but always thought that getting superpowers was plausible. Radioactive contact? Alien spiders? I mean, why couldn’t that happen (my childhood thinking)? I remember crying when I finally faced the reality (8 or 9 maybe?) that I’ll never have superpowers, but I always really took the heart the valor of the heroes in my comic books. Still, I appreciated the darker stories and character much more. They seemed more like real people because you actually see different sides of them and knew that they faced temptation as well. While I always took to heart the morality of the goody characters, they all kind of blended into one sort of consciousness or aspect of reality or something. The morally ambiguous were more like real people like me, so those were the ones I kept track of and felt affinity towards.

      Really, I just wanted to slip in comic book talk on here.

  24. DC

      Morally good characters:

      Woland, Master, Margarita: Master and Margarita

  25. Richard Thomas

      Love Dexter. Have you seen Six Feet Under? That’s worth renting/buying the whole show on DVD.

  26. Miss Flesh

      You’re never gonna get a job Lily if you don’t stop writing about TV. Wait–start writing more about TV… yeah, that’s it?

  27. Sean

      You do a good job talking about television. I can never get it, except for sports. I love sports. I also like quotes. So sports and quotes are pretty much direct evidence I am stupid. But I’ll never leave watching sports, live. Live sports, as it is happening. It means more to me than many books. It’s sad. The other TV. It’s like with music, I can’t lock in, usually.

  28. brittany


  29. Ken Baumann

      It’s some of the best drama in any form.