In popular entertainment, we love the freaks. Here’s why.
Scrolling through Emmy winners, or just reflecting on your own favorite TV shows, you’ll notice that pretty much every character that grabs our interest is, well, flawed. The most dynamic and engaging plots revolve around conflict: no one wants to watch a bunch of good Samaritans sit around and jerk each other off. And that doesn’t just apply to TV. Try to name a half-decent movie or book where the best characters aren’t low-key freaks, weirdos, outsiders or all three. Even in your age-old good-versus-bad deal, the best bits are when you’re not really sure which way it’s going. The greatest heroes are antiheroes.
Beginning with a classic, Homer Simpson is arguably the most loved character of western television in the 20th and 21st centuries. And yet, the rotund yellow bald man is consistently mediocre, eternally sidetracked and frequently duped out of whatever the given goal may be in his 22-minute existence. It speaks for itself, really, when someone’s catchphrase is “Do’h!” Homer rarely gets it right the first time, if at all.
More recent all-star favorites, Walter White of Breaking Bad and Omar Little from The Wire are both violent criminals and yet arguably some of the most adored antiheroes of the noughties. The drug world ain’t exactly a bed of roses (more a trailer of test tubes), yet despite their violence and profiting off other people’s misery, they have the charisma and intrigue that make for record-breaking viewing. Moreover, they aren’t alone in the narco camp — think Tony Soprano, Piper Chapman or even recently Escobar himself. Really, the more violent or illegal, the more we coo and drool.
“All in the game, yo. All in the game.”
All that said, not a single one of these bad guys holds up to my favorite antihero. Sociopathic, power-hungry and bigoted Eric Cartman is truly a modern antichrist. Take the time where, in “Scott Tenorman Must Die,” after a failed attempt to train a donkey to dismember the episode’s namesake, Cartman tricks the guy into eating his own parents. This is vengeance of truly Shakespearian proportions, worse than Richard III, Titus Andronicus and King Lear combined.
So why do we love the freaks? In our culture of celebrity royalty and Silicon Valley billionaires, why do we seem to get so much more out of these much-less-than-perfect, poster-child outsiders?
In many respects, the answer is simple. For most of us, that’s not our world. How many of you spend your time Segwaying from the Legos room to the bar at Google HQ, and how many red carpets have you walked down — not including the one in the hallway to the IRS waiting room? Failure, mediocrity and mishap are pretty run-of-the-mill 99 percent of the time for us 99 percent, so the characters we love are always going to represent this fact because we identify with it. I don’t mean we’re all necessarily alcoholic nuclear safety inspectors, stickup boys, meth cooks or wobbling, racist fourth graders — just that we see something in these characters that helps us confront ourselves and our obstacles. We don’t have to empathize with the exact circumstances (though I love cooking meth as much as the next guy); sometimes it’s just the shape and feel of the journey or a single aspect.
Homer Simpson cracks us up and gets us awwing because we relate to him on a very personal level. The Simpsons isn’t a stern political drama; it’s a family comedy about the irony and absurdity of everyday life. Though you could hardly describe his life as anything less than surreal, Homer stands for the simple and universal truth that sometimes shit hits the fan and you can’t always have your donut and eat it too. The Simpsons is about crazy things happening and frequently going wrong, and more often than not it’s the big guy’s fault. However, for all intents and purposes, he is a decent person with his heart in the right place, and more often than not he’s the solution as much as he may have been the problem. Sometimes failure just happens, and in the show (as it should be) it generally doesn’t have too dire consequences. Just don’t mess with anyone called Frank Grimes…
“Simpson, do you know who chewed my…”
Omar and White are a different kettle of fish. The point with them isn’t so much that we feel good, or that they tell us how much we suck, but rather that they say something about the society we live in. Again, they’re essentially decent people — as Omar says, “A man’s gotta have a code” — and it’s primarily their circumstances that cause them to do what they do. They’re whistleblowers on what’s wrong in the world. They defy the clan who want you to just mindlessly absorb and reproduce fearmongering and ignorance. They’re like the red pill, maan.
But seriously, The Wire and Breaking Bad are great examples of the “don’t hate the player, hate the game” situation. They’re two guys who stand, albeit painfully, between morality and necessity. Walter White is a post-’08 chemistry teacher with terminal cancer who wants to leave behind enough money for his family. A young Black dude, Omar is born into an impoverished urban environment in a country that’s pre-BLM. If you think things are bad now, you can imagine how that is. The odds of him succeeding are, how shall I put it…slim?
Both characters and their respective contexts ask you to consider whether judgment is best directed at the individuals or the socioeconomic positions they’re thrust into. And funnily enough, you tend to opt for the latter. You see what happens when the “conventional” system is so broken that you don’t even have the privilege of being crushed trying to change it from within; you just get crushed outside it instead. So there’s that.
“Oh, the tears of unfathomable sadness.”
And then there’s Cartman. The fat kid’s a straight-up satire of everything that Omar and Heisenberg communicate in an otherwise more subtle, long-game way. Cartman is pretty much the embodiment of every sociopolitical, cultural and economic issue you’d care to think of. He’s a fanfare of what we all know is wrong but are either too PC to voice or too complicit to see. In Cartman, Trey Parker and Matt Stone take problems and personify them. Cartman is our own Shakespearean jester, holding up a Snow White mirror that answers back.
But that’s why we love these characters: because they’re true. Or rather, they’re entirely untrue. These freaks, weirdos and outsiders call out the BS of popular perceptions of how the world works. With Homer, it’s the fact and existence of failure. With Omar and White it’s institutional and in-built inequality. And with Cartman, well, it’s anyone and anything — no one gets out alive. And what’s more, if you’re offended, you’re implicated. The joke’s on you. Everyone knows there’s no such thing as “big boned.”