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'Better Call Saul' And 9 Other TV Shows With Compelling Anti-Heroes

For viewers who prefer the complex over the mundane
by Karl R. De Mesa | Aug 18, 2018
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Ah, the anti-hero: grumpy and moody but often misunderstood and often with a heart of gold that beats for the underdog and the downtrodden. Or is that all part of their fabricated mimicry, like chameleons and their camouflage custom-built for survival?

Now that Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s Better Call Saul is back with season 4, streaming on Netflix the day after it premieres on cable channel AMC, let’s look at these loveable, often dangerous, misfits with their flexible morals and often filthy tongues. No fantasy or sci-fi villainy here, just plain old modern day individuals and their, uh, unusually bad habits and contemptible behavior. 


A mix of Hunter S. Thompson, Irvine Welsh, and some Henry Miller for good measure, David Duchovny's tragi-comic rock star novelist Hank Moody thrived in a debauch of drugs, alcohol, and sex with underage girls (or mature women, he didn’t care) with some occasional writing thrown in, throughout 7 seasons (yeah, 7!) in the titular California playground that was riveting for its range of complete mayhem, touching moments of family, and plenty of attempted cures for writer's block. Who knew Mulder still had the charm in him? And who knew copious substance abuse, fawning over Natascha McElhone, and a trial for statutory rape could be so entertaining? Uh, just ask the real literary spin-off of Moody’s book from your fave bookstore aptly titled God Hates Us All (and zero apologies to Slayer).

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A level up in anti-heroism is the doctor sans a sense of humor or a bedside manner. He’s often portrayed as a fumbling sociopathic mess that is at turns adorable and enlightening but—trust us—if you had a brilliant but total dickwad like House on your medical case you’d get a second opinion—stat! But there are of course many (aka the Hippocrites who watch THIS show) who declare that saving many lives excuses you from being an asshole and prop up House as the standard to which all physicians should aspire to—to we, say, this douche should have coffee with our kinda, sorta polite friends, Dr. Strange and Dr. Lecter.


How could you go wrong with a character like Dexter, whose premise of being trained to hunt down serial killers to satisfy his hunger to murder is like a custom-built narrative for murder fans and sympathizers? As a prototypical anti-hero, Michael Hall’s on-screen portrayal of Dexter is nuanced, multi-layered and worthy of the acting plums he’s gotten because, well, we all know the argument about only evil being able to defeat bigger evils. 

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In a long line of ordinary, decent gangsters from Michael Corleone to Tony Soprano, Michael Scorsese’s epic historical drama about how the beachside business of Atlantic City became giant is a modern TV spectacle. Primarily fueled by Steve Buscemi’s rascal charisma as played out in the story of Malachi Thompson, there’s everything here from human trafficking, alcohol, gang violence, and graft but Buscemi somehow makes us care about this skeletal, ugly, and utterly remorseless man who dreams of a New Jersey standing on its own feet clutching gambling money in one hand and an bottle of illegal moonshine in the other.  


How were the Sons of Anarchy led astray and what could be done to put them back on the straight and only slightly narrow? This is the dilemma of Jax Teller and his gang throughout 7 seasons of biker gang outlaw life. As the son of the motorcycle club’s founder and its eventual leader, Jax is forced to rely on the old tools of the SAMCRO gang like brutality and arson, but he is also often the solve voice of reason and level-headedness which colors his heroism in many shades of grey. Do good intentions count when you’re burning down rival gang firearm warehouses or requisitioning whores from a local mafia’s strip club? Maybe the long road has the answer. 

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Let’s face it: career politicians are a despicable and selfish lot, and you should never trust one as far as you can throw them. But, boy oh boy, do Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright sell the (in)humanity behind the reins of power in this political epic of what it takes to rise to the halls of office and keep yourself there. While Spacey is currently the most-loathed man in Hollywood, we find there’s a certain aptness to these current events and how he’s portrayed the cruel Frank with such animal cunning. Meantime, when the 6th season returns in November, Robin Wright takes the spotlight as the new President Underwood—a role she’s already won a Golden Globe for and bagged 5 Emmy nominations.


Russian spies living as sleeper agents in Cold War-era America? In the hands of lesser writers and lesser actors the story of Liz and Phil Jennings might have been a complete catastrophe, but the high level skills of showrunner Joe Weisberg (a former CIA officer, mind) and his crew, and the mad thespianism of Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys bring this to life and make the Jennings supremely interesting characters who may or may not be nationalists or traitors. As we witness the deep, paranoiac rot in America start to expand during the 1980s, the phenomenon also makes us root for a couple who’s clearly a prototype for what’s virtually the modern terrorist sleeper cell. How about that trick of sympathetic storytelling? 

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If you ever wondered why Better Call Saul (the spin-off to this series) was so successful, then look no further. Also, if you haven’t watched Breaking Bad, do yourself a favor and binge through Season 1. At the start, Bryan Cranston is just an embattled chemistry teacher with a paucity of money and some pretty severe cancer. The transformation of this mild-mannered educator into “The One Who Knocks” is not only the current benchmark for TV storytelling, but we think the primary litmus test for how far audiences will willingly give their sympathy to and make excuses for someone clearly, utterly evil.   


Is the war veteran and military hero Nick Brody a traumatized soldier returning from a long captivity or a turncoat jihadist, secretly working for the people who were once his torturers? While the 6th season has lost the power and gravitas of its previous writing, all 5 seasons before that were a potent stew of hard questions about US foreign policy, the drone war, the fringes of nationalism, deep surveillance, religious intolerance, domestic espionage, and the question of “what is a terrorist?” Claire Danes’ CIA agent Carrie Mathison and Damian Lewis’s Brody’s on-screen chemistry could set off nuclear bombs and have us searching for uneasy truths in the fragments of the aftershock.   

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“You know why god made lizards first before lawyers? He needed the practice,” declared Bob Odenkirk's increasingly amoral lawyer Jimmy McGill. As a new season of this prequel to Breaking Bad drops its episodes weekly, we are reminded just how riveting and fun watching someone like Jimmy eventually become the jive-talking mafia lawyer Saul Goodman. While anti-heroes are only as good as the people who love them, the first episode of Season 4 sees Rhea Seehorn, as Kim Wexler, and Michael Mckean as Chuck McGill are in for opposing fates. So far, we've only watched two episodes of this new season, but the twisting storylines of mob boss Gus Fring and security consultant Mike Ehrmantraut are already set to collide with Jimmy and Kim, as well as Mexican cartel soldier Nacho Varga and his exit plans for leaving his gang: the Salamancas.

“Better Call Saul” Season 4, streams a new episode every week on Netflix. 

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