When word of Michael's desperate mission [to find his kidnapped son] reaches Sawyer - a booze-hoarding, hard-shelled narcissist who in his past killed an innocent man - his reaction is not what you would call sympathetic. "It's every man for hisself," Sawyer snarls.(Jack Bauer of Fox's "24," who seemingly tortures someone every week to get intel on the bad guys, is curiously almost entirely absent from this article, although he is featured in one of the photographs)
Not so long ago Sawyer's callousness would have made him a villain, but on "Lost," he is sympathetic, a man whose penchant for dispensing Darwinian truths over kindnesses drives not only the action but the show's underlying theme, that in the social chaos of the modern world, the only sensible reflex is self-interest.
Perhaps not coincidentally Sawyer is also the character on the show with whom young men most identify, according to research conducted by the upstart male-oriented network Spike TV....
The code of such characters, said Brent Hoff, 36, a fan of "Lost," is: "Life is hard. Men gotta do what men gotta do, and if some people have to die in the process, so be it."
"We can relate to them," said Mr. Hoff, a writer from San Francisco. "If you watch Sawyer on 'Lost,' who is fundamentally good even if he does bad things, there's less to feel guilty about in yourself."(snip)
The most popular male leads of today stand in stark contrast to the unambiguously moral protagonists of the past.... They are also not simply flawed in the classic sense: men who have the occasional affair or who tip the bottle a little too much. Instead they are unapologetic about killing, stealing, hoarding and beating their way to achieve personal goals that often conflict with the greed, apathy and of course the bureaucracies of the modern world.
"These kinds of characters are so satisfying to male viewers because culture has told them to be powerful and effective and to get things done..." said Robert Thompson, the director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.(snip)
Paul Scheer, a 29-year-old actor from Los Angeles and an avid viewer of "Lost," said that not even committing murder alienates an audience. "You don't have to be defined by one act," he said.
"Three people on that island have killed people in cold blood, and they're quote-unquote good people who you're rooting for every week," Mr. Scheer said. The implication for the viewer, he added, is, "You can say 'I'm messed up and I left my wife, but I'm still a good guy.' "[T]he morally struggling protagonist has been evolving over time, [Fox Entertainment president Peter] Ligouri said, pointing to Detective Andy Sipowicz on "NYPD Blue." Sipowicz was an alcoholic who occasionally fell off the wagon, and he often flouted police procedure in the name of tracking down criminals. Like all good protagonists, Sipowicz was also exceedingly good at his job.
As I read all of this, I am struck by the resemblance of the Bush administration to these shady modern protagonists: They lie, cheat, steal and kill, but since it's all for a good cause (War On Terror!), they're still heroes. Indeed, they are even more heroic for not allowing themselves to be bound by the namby-pamby conventions of acceptable and legal behavior. Of course, even that narrative is a lie. The lying, cheating, stealing and killing is an end in itself, or a means to a completely different end from the one they advertised... but their fans don't seem to mind.
So, the question that I have is: Did television pave the way for Americans to embrace the Republican version of morality, or does it simply mirror it? As I outlined in my post about personal narrative, I believe that competitive "reality television" was the phenomenon that introduced this do-anything-to-win mentality into American culture as something truly admirable, something to be emulated. Coincidentally(?), the Reality TV Era coincides almost precisely with the Bush Era, with the nefarious "Survivor" debuting in the year 2000. As I do not believe Bush's presidential "style" was yet apparent when he was elected, I have to conclude that reality TV paved the way for the Bush Era and entered into a symbiotic relationship with it, where real reality and TV reality reinforced each other's expedient amorality.
I don't really want morally conflicted characters to go away; Batman is always much more interesting than Superman. But I would like to see the pendulum start swinging back the other way, to where selfish and amoral behavior is not actively celebrated. And I want to see reality TV go away almost as badly as I want Republican government to. Hopefully, a Democratic victory in 2008 will kill both birds with one stone.