The Rise of the True Hero on Fall TV

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Mike Vogel in NBC’s The Brave. Photo: NBC

When the Mad Men series finale aired in 2015, it officially marked the close of TV’s “difficult men” period, an era in which the most praised and culturally influential dramas — The Sopranos, The Shield, Breaking Bad, Dexter, The Wire, Matthew Weiner’s advertising-industry period piece — skewed tonally dark and centered around guys with compromised moral compasses.

As Don Draper and his ethical ambiguities were leaving television, there was a sense that television was shifting in a new direction, if it hadn’t already. “In the last five years, TV has finally started to slough off its antihero malaise and dig deep into stories about characters who long for empathy, who attempt to understand others, but who crumple in the face of genuine intimacy,” wrote Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff in a piece that ran two years ago, as Mad Men was in the process of closing up shop. He also pointed to the increase in ensemble-driven shows that tackled issues related to social justice, and/or captured the perspectives of women and people of color. “The message seems clear — if the 2000s were all about breaking shit, then the 2010s are going to be about putting everything back together.”

It’s now 2017, and anti-heroes still have prominent placement on our screens, courtesy of dramas like House of Cards, Better Call Saul, Ray Donovan, Claws, Mr. Robot, and Ozark, not to mention the many comedies with protagonists whose understanding of right and wrong is murky at best. (You’re the Worst, Friends From College, BoJack Horseman, Difficult People, and Veep, among others.) But as I look at the list of new scripted series slated to debut between now and Thanksgiving, I also don’t think that VanDerWerff was wrong about television becoming a source for stories of repair and renewal. It just may be happening vis-à-vis idealized characters, rather than more conflicted ones. While the anti-hero is hardly dead, I see an increasing emphasis this season on true heroes: TV protagonists that are easy to root for, often blessed with tremendous talent, who possess qualities (bravery, self-sacrifice, a desire to serve the greater good) that are unequivocally noble and inspiring.

On the fall schedule, the true hero is most common on TV shows that fall into two categories: dramas (or dramedies) about people (usually male) with extraordinary gifts, and dramas about the military.

Three new series fall in that second subgenre: NBC’s The Brave, which follows a special ops team on their dangerous, undercover assignments; CBS’s SEAL Team, starring David Boreanaz as the leader of an elite team of Navy SEALs fighting terrorism; and the CW’s Valor, about a pair of Army helicopter pilots attempting to rectify mistakes made on a botched mission to Somalia. While they don’t necessarily reflect post-election politics, all of these shows certainly seem eager to tap into a sense of patriotism that network decision-makers may have sensed would resonate in the “Make America Great Again” era.

The characters in these series aren’t necessarily without flaws; Valor, in particular, focuses on members of the Army involved in some regrettable decisions. But when you watch shows like this, the audience implicitly understands that they are supposed to root for the men and women of our military. Just look at the way The Brave is being pitched to the public. The summary of its premise on the NBC website uses a form of the word hero — “heroes” and “heroics” — twice. Its trailer literally wraps the show’s title in the American flag. There’s no mystery about whose side you’re supposed to be on, nor any ambiguity about who the good guys are, at least not for American audiences, anyway.

That other category of true-hero series — shows about people with extraordinary gifts — covers broader narrative ground. The new scripted fare that fits under this wide umbrella includes ABC’s The Good Doctor and CBS’s Big Bang Theory spinoff Young Sheldon, whose pilots emphasize the genius-level skills of their autistic protagonists; new additions to the superhero genre like The Gifted, a Fox program made in conjunction with Marvel, and Marvel’s Runaways, which will stream on Hulu; and shows in which superheroism is thrust upon an unsuspecting normal person, such as Hulu’s Future Man and ABC’s Kevin (Probably) Saves the World. That last one qualifies as a true-hero story because, even though Kevin (Jason Ritter) starts out as a depressed, not-always-kind soul, the show’s purpose is to illustrate his effort to become a better person.

“For us, the show really is about hope, because I feel like right now on television, there [are] more shows about dystopian possibilities than there [are] about people actually learning to be kind to each other,” Tara Butters, co-creator of the series, recently told The Hollywood Reporter. “At the heart of our show, [the message is]: ‘Don’t be an asshole.’” Watching someone try not to be an asshole is, to oversimplify matters a bit, the opposite of what audiences did when they watched The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, or Mad Men. (Fine, on The Sopranos and Mad Men, Tony and Don tried not to be assholes, they just pretty consistently failed. As for Walter White, he embraced his inner asshole until it completely overtook his personality.)

While the characters in the “extraordinary gifts” subgenre may not be as obviously sacrosanct as someone in the military, their defining qualities are similar to ones we associate with heroes: intelligence, a willingness to step forward when others will not, persistence. That doesn’t mean the central figures in these narratives are never “difficult.” In different ways, for example, The Good Doctor and Young Sheldon convey the degree to which autism can make both Shaun, the young medic portrayed in the ABC drama by Freddie Highmore, and Sheldon seem off-putting to others. But the point of view on both shows, at least in their initial episodes, is that the characters’ extraordinary talents are what matter more. “He sees things in ways we can’t begin to understand,” says Richard Schiff’s Dr. Glassman about Shaun in the pilot of The Good Doctor. This series wants us to understand right away that this character operates on a higher plane than most humans and should be saluted for that, most likely at least twice in every episode.

So why are there so many new series that skew more heroic than anti-, and more toward the optimistic than the pessimistic? That’s a question with more than one answer, and a couple of caveats.

For starters, it’s important to remember that we’ve primarily been talking about new shows that will air on the broadcast networks, which, compared to their streaming and cable brethren, tend to lean toward material that’s less ambiguous in its intentions. That doesn’t mean there are no fresh network shows this fall that tackle dark themes (the Law & Order Menendez brothers mini-series on NBC and Ten Days in the Valley on ABC come to mind) nor that even some of the classic superhero shows are always aiming for uplift. (Gotham, Legion, Jessica Jones, and the upcoming Runaways, among others, keep at least one foot in the shadows.)

Still, every major network has at least one classic-hero-type show on its fall schedule, and I think that may have happened, in part, as a response to the cultural climate. The real world — you know, that place where we have to exist in between binge watches — is a place where shit not only keeps getting broken, but also doused in gasoline and lit on fire. While some shows are confronting Trump-induced feelings of anxiety both indirectly and very directly at the same time (The Handmaid’s Tale, American Horror Story: Cult), the true-hero genre is addressing them by giving us upfront permission to trust its main characters, a.k.a. its leaders. Seasons of television in which people regularly step up and do the right thing may have more appeal than ever right now, simply because they restore a sense of faith in humanity and do so while still providing an escape from current events. There’s a famous quote from Mr. Rogers that often circulates during national tragedies: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” A lot of these new true-hero series are about the helpers, as are some preexisting ones, like every NBC drama with the word Chicago in it.

Network executives may have picked up on that public thirst for role models. But they probably also picked up on the fact that the most prominent network TV success story of the past year was This Is Us, the Emmy-nominated drama that isn’t about people with extraordinary gifts, but certainly honors the goodness in people. The Brave, SEAL Team, The Good Doctor, Kevin (Probably) Saves the World: None of these are about family in the same way that This Is Us is. But, to the degree that I can gauge at this very early stage, they may appeal to similar audiences. The things that many people enjoy about This Is Us — the likability and dignity of its characters, the fact that it’s realistic but not too much, that watching it can be emotional without feeling too heavy — seem to be embedded in the DNA of these soon-to-premiere programs.

I don’t expect the TV landscape to be completely overrun with great American heroes any time soon, and frankly, I hope it isn’t. That would become incredibly boring, incredibly quickly. But if some of these new shows find sizable audiences, I wouldn’t be surprised if, a year from now, we’re seeing even more exceptional, heroic characters on television, the kind who save lives and fight for our country, while rarely doing anything shady that makes us wonder if they’re really as decent as they seem.

The Rise of the True Hero on Fall TV