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The TV Bad Guys We Can't Help But Love


Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, two kids, split level in the Virginia suburbs. They're on a travel agency and drive a big boxy Oldsmobile - a typical American family in Ronald Reagan's America, except for their other job as Soviet spies.

Last Wednesday night, when "The Americans" debuted on FX, an FBI agent moved in next door, which prompted Phillip, played Matthew Rhys, to suggests to Kerri Russell's Elizabeth it might be a good time to defect.


CONAN: And of course they don't defect or we wouldn't have a series, a show where the central characters seek to subvert truth, justice and the American way. Washington Post's TV critic, Hank Stuever, noted that the deeply flawed leads are more and more popular on TV these days - a meth maker in "Breaking Bad," a mob boss in "Boardwalk Empire." So who's the bad guy you find yourself rooting for on TV? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation at our website as well. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And Hank Stuever joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on the program.

HANK STUEVER: Thanks. Always glad to be here.

CONAN: And in your piece about "The Americans," you wonder if Elizabeth and Phillip might spend some more time in front of their own TV - they're on the program - so we could get a good idea just how much TV has changed since the 1980s.

STUEVER: Right. You know, the show is set in 1981. And if these KGB agents were, you know, we presume that they are in every regard fully American, they would be sitting in front of "Hart to Hart," "Dallas" and - where you used to know who was bad and who was good. I mean, you know, throughout the history of storytelling, every hero has a flaw. But the way you launch a television show now is to start off with somebody who is morally corrupt. And really the arc, the plot will always be about how much further can they go before it all comes crashing down.

CONAN: And it going to come crashing down any second, it seems like.

STUEVER: Right, right. A sense of doom is point A in a TV show now. You know, Phillip and Elizabeth on "The Americans" - it's really a feeling of, how long will it be before their neighbor figures them out?

CONAN: Or the Soviet Union collapses.

STUEVER: Or the Soviet Union collapses. I don't know if they can hold out eight years. They've got a pretty crafty neighbor who's an FBI agent, who is very much like - in fact, one of the editors at the paper said they should have called the show "Breaking Vlad"...


STUEVER: ...because it's just - in a way it's just like "Breaking Bad," in which Walter White, the high school chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin, is, you know, we've watched that show for five years now, waiting for his brother-in-law, who works for the DEA, to find him out.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And well, before that, we had "The Shield" and, well, there are all kinds of complicated characters on "The Wire." But that's, you know, cable is different from HBO, which is certainly, they're all different from network TV.

STUEVER: True, but I think the broadcast networks are more and more launching shows in which even the person that you're supposed to pay attention to as the hero or the heroine comes with all sorts of complications now that makes you just like them.

CONAN: Yeah. A CIA agent in the old days, well, you know, was pretty uncomplicated. You were fighting those KGB officers.


CONAN: These days it's "Homeland" and a very intriguing character.

STUEVER: Right. And on "Homeland," you know, it's two characters who have a lot of problems, one of whom may very well be a terrorist, or we were led to believe, or could still be.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Why is that? Boy, it's complicated.

STUEVER: And a CIA agent who's broken every possible rule, including divulging her mental health so, yeah. People are bad now.

CONAN: People are bad now. And I - is that the - why? I mean, why is it so popular, do you think?

STUEVER: It's been a long journey. You know, if these people in "The Americans" were watching TV 30 years ago, it would've been more clear cut. I think this, you know, I think we're just so accustomed now to our heroes crashing down. There are very few extremely popular celebrities or political figures, presidents, who get out unscathed and whose deepest flaws are not revealed to us somehow. Sports certainly, recently. All of our heroes fall now. So I don't know. I think we derive an - there's a pleasure in the anxiety of watching someone fall apart.

CONAN: So are you proposing a show about painting called "Feat of Clay"?



STUEVER: Right. That's better than "Breaking Blat"(ph).

CONAN: No, it's not, but go ahead.


STUEVER: You know, they just - I mean, I watch shows like "Breaking Bad" and "Homeland" from a place of anxiety, almost where I almost wish I was prescribed some sort of medication for that part of Sunday night where I do have to go to bed because I think so many of us get so wrapped up in the horror of watching someone continue down a downward spiral, even the truly fictional shows like "The Walking Dead." They're just predicated on an anxiety of which, who is dead next. Soon, they'll all be dead, you know? And nobody's good in that show either. Nobody is purely heroic in that show.

CONAN: Well, all right. Who's the bad guy you find yourself rooting for on TV? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. The obvious one first and a very good one, too, Betsy in Sterling, Virginia: The TV bad guy I most love: Tony Soprano.

STUEVER: And this was the show that changed it all in so many ways, but certainly trained American TV watchers now to enjoy and prefer a show in which the good guy is the bad guy.

CONAN: And he's also incredibly vulnerable. A mob boss who's going to the psychiatrist.

STUEVER: Yeah. Yeah. The whole range of neurosis and problems.

CONAN: Let's see. We go next to Courtney(ph), and Courtney is on the line with us from Tucson.


CONAN: Hi, Courtney. Go ahead.

COURTNEY: Hello. I just think of Nancy Botwin from "Weeds", and that's on HBO.

STUEVER: Showtime.

COURTNEY: But it's - yeah, it's on Showtime. Yeah, that's right. It's such a great show. She's a great heroine. She's a mother that's blames, like, she does - she sells weed. I mean, and then blames that she's doing it for her children. Her husband just died, and she ends up running this whole Mexican, like, drug cartel, and it's crazy. And then she ends up almost getting shot in the head.

STUEVER: Yeah. I stuck with "Weeds" the whole way. I loved it. I thought it was almost (unintelligible) epic.

CONAN: I have to say I kind of ran out of gas after a while.

STUEVER: Yeah. You know, I had a friend who oppose - he loved "The Sopranos", and he - and I've been to many movies with him where people get shot point blank in the head. He has no problem with violence and abject awfulness in media content. But he couldn't watch that show because he couldn't - this is so sexist too. He couldn't get - he just could not get behind the idea of a mother who deals drugs. It was just abhorrent to him. And it's funny. People do draw a line still, like, that I can't watch a show in which somebody does XYZ. But I can watch "The Sopranos" or 'Weeds". It's weird how people draw their lines.

CONAN: Well, it's going to be interesting to see - thanks very much for the call, Courtney - if people are going to be able to watch a show in which opens with a man strangling a dog.

STUEVER: Right. Right. Yeah. "House of Cards."

CONAN: I think this is the new one. This is the new Netflix. It's going to be interesting to see if they're going to watch it at all.

STUEVER: Well, or watch all 13 hours at once. This is the new show on Netflix, Netflix only. It's starring Kevin Spacey. It's a remake of a British series, novels and series, a mini-series; if that makes any sense. Kevin Spacey plays the House Majority Whip. Yeah, and in the opening scene, he strangles a dog and then tells the camera, you know, how cruel and pointless life really is.

CONAN: Let's go next to Colleen. Colleen with us from Grand Rapids.

COLLEEN: Yes, hi.


COLLEEN: And that's exactly the one I was calling for, was "House of Cards" with Kevin Spacey.

CONAN: How many have you seen?

COLLEEN: Oh. We are pacing ourselves. I believe we're on either episode seven or eight. But our boys...

STUEVER: That's pretty good.

COLLEEN: ...who are all in high school are just, every single night - can we watch it?

STUEVER: Oh, wow.

COLLEEN: So we all love Kevin Spacey in general, but just he plays such a great evil guy.

STUEVER: Can I ask you? Is there anyone on the show who you're - are you rooting for him as an evil guy? Is there anybody on the show that strikes you as a good guy?

COLLEEN: Everyone on the show has an agenda, I think. And they just - they play it so well. I'm almost starting to think we're at the episode where it's - there's a homeless guy outside of Kevin Spacey's wife's office. I'm almost starting to think she'll be the ultimate good guy.


COLLEEN: Yeah. But it's just I don't see a clear cut good guy anywhere because everyone has an agenda.

STUEVER: Yeah. It's very dark.


STUEVER: And then that's the point. But good for you. You're eight episodes in. You know, this is a whole new territory for people like me now. When are we aloud to discuss certain plot points in these things where...

CONAN: When they're - you could've seen all 13 of them on Friday.

STUEVER: Right. Right.



COLLEEN: Right. Great.

STUEVER: But that's more Miss Manners department if she ever want to (unintelligible).

CONAN: And I haven't even started it yet, but I did know there are no good guys. So don't give anything away, Colleen.


COLLEEN: Good. Good because I was worried. I hesitated when I started saying that. I'm like, uh-oh, some people haven't seen it yet.

STUEVER: Oh, well.

COLLEEN: But, no. It's great.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

COLLEEN: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email, this from Mark in Ellensburg, Washington. Bad guys I love on TV: Bryan Cranston as Walter White on "Breaking Bad." We've mentioned that earlier. Andrew from Hallandale Beach in Florida: The bad guy I loved was a girl. Donna Mills as Abby on "Knots Landing" was bad because she couldn't help herself. She loved money to the point of neurosis wonderfully played by Ms. Mills and her barrels of eye make-up.

STUEVER: Yeah. I remember her. Yeah.


STUEVER: And - but she was consistent. You know, they brought her on as a baddie and she stayed a baddie the whole time. Yeah.

CONAN: Stayed baddie, didn't flip and...

STUEVER: Yeah. But, you know, soap operas, you know, have certainly traveled that territory where someone goes from good to bad back to good, back to bad, you know, over 10, 15, 20 years.

CONAN: We're talking with Hank Stuever, the TV critic of The Washington Post about bad guys who seem to be getting all the good parts as usual on TV. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And we'll go to Beth. Beth with us from Stillwater in Oklahoma, of course.

STUEVER: Oh, OSU. Great.

BETH: Yeah, that's actually where I go to school. Yeah, but, well, I just wanted to bring out Gregory House in, of course, the TV show "House." I think that show kind of a catalyst for that sort of antagonistic protagonist, you know, the one who's character is pretty much his own worst enemy. And he falls towards for, you know, drug abuse and loses all this fun. But even towards on the season, goes into a mental asylum. And as much as you want to root for him, he's still shooting up every show. So, yeah.

STUEVER: Right. Right. Yeah. He was a great one. "Nurse Jackie," another - all of the doctors now, you know, the hospitals are rife with anti-heroes. They can't stay away from the drugs. They can't stay away from each other. They cut corners in surgery. There's a new show on TNT now that's all about all the mistakes the doctors make. It's called "Monday Mornings" and it's about the weekly morbidity meeting that they have.

CONAN: Reading your reviews, all the mistakes the writers make.

STUEVER: Yeah, right. It's not terribly good. It's terribly terrible. But...

CONAN: From where did I read - and thanks very much for the call, Beth. It was an interesting piece recently. It could've been yours. I forget, honestly. But it was that Gregory House essentially Sherlock Holmes MD, that he was one of those characters. Oh, this was, I think, in The New York Times last Sunday that - it was about the re-release of "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution".


CONAN: And this was the Holmesian character brought to life. Basil Rathbone finally put to rest, apparently in the grave where they found Richard III. And this is all the Sherlocks who followed, including Greg House.

STUEVER: Yeah, right. Well, no such thing as a new idea. And, you know, in the recent iterations of Sherlock, I mean, though, the emphasis on what a jerk he is. And, you know, sort of in a modern way, we sort of place him on some sort of social disorder spectrum, you know, where he can't relate to people. He's so smart that he can't relate to people.

CONAN: Well, that's certainly the approach of the CBS show.

STUEVER: Yeah, yeah. And the very popular British "Sherlock".

CONAN: The British "Sherlock" is a lot better.

STUEVER: Oh, yeah. Yeah.


CONAN: All right. In the meantime, let's go to Judy. Judy with us from Grover, Colorado.

JUDY: Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

JUDY: Ian McShane's character in "Deadwood," Al Swearengen.


CONAN: "Deadwood." Yeah.

STUEVER: "Deadwood" was human depravity from beginningt to end. I mean, the moral rot was in every frame. But, yeah, a lot of bad, bad/good guys.

CONAN: I'm sure things have changed a great deal. I was in "Deadwood" a few years ago. My favorite sign outside of the storefront was: Fudge and Slots.


CONAN: Judy, thanks very much for the phone call. Let's see if we go next to - this is Steven(ph). Steven with us from Austin, in Texas.

STEVEN: Hi. Yes. I wanted to talk about actually basically any of the vampires on "True Blood." And - oh, I'm sorry.

STUEVER: Go ahead.

STEVEN: Oh, I want to say - but I also wanted to say, I think vampires are probably our first anti-hero because they've been around for very long and we've always been obsessed with them. And even though they're evil or whatnot, because I think has some kind of humanistic ability to it that - signs on our own knowledge and our own area.

STUEVER: Well, they've always been tragic characters. Well, most recently, you know, Anne Rice really gave the sort of heartbreak of being a vampire a whole new dimension that people have been riffing on for 40 years now. Yeah, the "True Blood" vampires, you know, they've - they - to me, that is more like a soap opera than anything else because the vampire was originally good is now the demon beast. He's like literally - well, I better not say because, well, who know who's watched the last season of "True Blood" all the way through. But - and the vampire who was so bad became heroic, and that was Eric, the Norse vampire.

CONAN: Can't say I've been - I don't know.

STUEVER: That one is - I call it "True Blood" improv. It really feels like they're making it up. Its very guest and every scene it just feels like they're kind of making it up as they go along.

CONAN: Thanks, Steven.

STEVEN: All right. Thanks.

CONAN: Email - excuse me, a tweet from Tom Schneider(ph): Bad guy I'm serious to root for, Frank Gallagher in "Shameless." And that's pretty bad.

STUEVER: Oh. "Shameless" is very popular in my household. The American version, yeah, the Gallagher family, each of them scraping by, breaking - sinning. Criminality is the only way to get by in their household. That show - just every week, never ceases to amaze me. That that's to which some of the people in the show will go to because of a situation they find themselves in. And yet, we do root for them. That is a very classic example. There are a couple of more, you know, we haven't discussed women, who are bad. "Girls", which is very popular right now in HBO, Lena Dunham's show.

In the very first episode, she - her parents are staying in New York City. And she goes to their hotel room and they have left the hotel room and they left an envelope with a $20 bill for her, and they left and envelope with a $20 bill for the maid, and she takes both $20 bills.


STUEVER: And I've never forgiven her.


STUEVER: I'm halfway through the second season now. I'm a little bit ahead of where viewers are, and I'm still mad at her about that.

CONAN: Hank Stuever reviews television and holds grudges for The Washington Post. He joined us here in Studio 3 A. You can find a link to his piece about "The Americans." It's second episode tonight on FX at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Thanks very much.

STUEVER: Thank you.

CONAN: Tomorrow, the president's pick for CIA chief sits before the Senate Intelligence Committee. We'll hear some of John Brennan's testimony and some questions from some skeptical senators. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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