Why do we love to watch bad people in the media we consume? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself more and more over the past few weeks, especially considering the plotlines of some recent smash hit television shows.
Succession, the current ‘it’ show (created by Jesse Armstrong), is about a family of exorbitantly wealthy media moguls with a severe lack of manners or morals—all fighting for control of their media empire amidst numerous scandals. The Great, an “occasionally true story” which recounts the life of Russian empress Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning), features multiple characters who in their more charitable moments could be described as oblivious to their own immorality and awfulness. Recent blockbuster The Suicide Squad was a second go around for the franchise whose entire premise rests on vicious and violent supervillains saving the world—and maybe learning to be better along the way should they survive the, uh, suicidal mission they are forced to accomplish. Even my most recent gaming obsession, the critically acclaimed Disco Elysium, has you stepping into the shoes of an amnesiac cop with a potentially questionable past (how questionable is, in part, up to the player to decide for themselves).
Of course, not all media is like this. One of the more recent success stories for Apple TV+ is Ted Lasso, a heart-warming show whose protagonist is relentlessly kind and wholesome. Many of the biggest blockbusters that grace the big screen feature far more traditional conflicts between good guys and bad guys—looking at you Marvel movies. There’s plenty of shows which fit the “wholesome entertainment” vibes. But it’s also fair to say that over recent years it can feel like Hollywood has taken the classic line “It’s good to be bad” to heart.
And make no mistake, the characters on our screens are bad. From the tyrannical, abusive Logan Roy (Brian Cox) whose malicious actions are the heart of Succession, the self-absorbed martial rapist Peter (Nicholas Hoult) in The Great or even the brutish, arrogant Peacemaker from The Suicide Squad and his upcoming self-titled show; many of the protagonists in our modern media stretch the very definition of the term. Some might be considered sympathetic villains while others are just straight up evil characters. Even more straightforward narratives have been dipping their toes in the field of moral ambiguity. It’s easy to cheer on John Wick in his films as we see him dispatch villain after villain, many of whom we have recognised to be despicable characters; but we do so in spite of his past as a trained assassin and gun for hire, not because of it.
Of course, this is far from a new trend. Many would point back to the HBO’s crime classic series The Sopranos or AMC’s drug-based drama Breaking Bad as starting points of this trend—both of which have continued recently via The Many Saints of Newark film and spin-off television show Better Call Saul respectively. For more than two decades, some of the most critically and commercially acclaimed media has built its success on the back of characters that are, to put it charitably, not very good people.
It isn’t necessarily a bad thing that we enjoy this entertainment either. It would be myopic to imply that we should only consume media which features characters who embody our worldview or represent the perspectives we hold. And it’s long been said that it’s more fun to write about villains than heroes. Personally, I find myself glued to my screen every Monday night, trying to guess how the characters in Succession are going to sink to a new moral low—and often being surprised by the answer. But the question remains—why is this so entertaining . . . and what can our enjoyment teach us? Ultimately, I think there are two possible answers to this question.
We are all Shiv Roy
One of the most humorous comments I have seen regarding Succession was the idea that one of the show’s main characters, Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook), has “the opposite of imposter syndrome”. The overconfident, power-hungry only-daughter of abusive family patriarch Logan Roy, Shiv is consistently shown to have a feeling of entitlement towards almost all aspects of her life. Her marriage to Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), her job and the role she wants in their media empire “Waystar Royco”—she expects it all while failing to put in any work herself. The least qualified member of the family besides perhaps her brother Connor Roy (Alan Ruck), she still steadfastly believes she is the most entitled to succeed her father, but is not willing to go through the steps required to do so. Ironically enough, the one thing she is constantly working towards and desires most—her father’s love—is denied to her, even though it should be freely given.
All this works to make Shiv a controversial character—with some describing her as the child most like her father—but also one which I unfortunately relate to.
I’d be lying if I never said I felt entitled to something. It may be relatively small, something like “I deserve that last cookie”, or it may be something bigger: Why didn’t I get that job or that publication, or whatever you may feel like you rightfully deserve. In the same way, I can see aspects of myself in Kendall Roy’s (Jeremy Strong) overeager attempts to position himself as an ally to the oppressed despite his social status, Greg Hirch’s (Nicholas Braun) consistent ability to say the most awkward thing in any situation or the narcissistic tendencies of Peter in The Great—cringing at their interactions with those under them causes me to reassess things about myself.
Like other media, part of the persistent appeal of these shows is the relatability of the characters. But unlike other shows, the character’s qualities which we can often relate to are rarely positive. As one journalist and media critic put it on Twitter, “It’s not ‘I’m a Shiv today’, it’s ‘ohhhhh noooo I’m Shiv today’”. When I bury my head in shame because I see myself reflected in Shiv’s actions, it’s a reminder to not be constantly looking out for myself, but instead others— “The last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). When I realise my words have inadvertently made me into a Greg, I can use the opportunity to remind myself that “By your words you will be acquitted and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:37).
Part of why we love these characters is of course the guilt-free indulgence in their horrible antics, but the other part is the ways in which they can place a mirror on our own actions and attitudes—albeit in a highly exaggerated manner.
Their problems are our problems
The other reason I think we find these types of shows so compelling is because their struggles and challenges are our struggles and challenges.
Of course, I don’t mean that I also struggle to balance the running of an empire—be it political, criminal or financial, as in The Great, The Sopranos or Succession. But beyond the superficial, the themes and content of these shows often tie back into the real world which we can relate to. Vox critic-at-large Emily VanDerWerff has noted that despite the trappings of wealth and power that Succession drapes itself in, it’s really about abuse—something which was reiterated in some of the show’s most recent episodes. Similarly, Kathryn VanArendonk has written about the ways The Great’s latest season tells a story about the sense of impending doom present in the show’s core relationships—albeit one filled with excesses of food, foul play and dark humour.
Taken on this level, the shows suddenly become far more applicable to everyday life: abuse and bad relationships are something that many people face on a regular basis. It is a sad reality that this world is filled with injustice, pain and suffering in a variety of forms—and while some may opt for media that is escapist in this way, others may choose shows which reflect the issues we face.
This is one part of the relatability of their problems—on a micro level they are the same that many face. But on the other end of the spectrum—the macro—it allows us to get a (fictional) insight into the lives of those behind many of the larger problems we face.
In the sixth episode of Succession season three (the most recent to have aired at the time of writing), the Roy family is tasked with picking the next President of the United States. The show concedes that the influence of powerful media corporations is large enough that whoever they choose to back is likely to become the next leader, and uses the idea that democratic votes matter as fuel for multiple jokes. It’s an extremely cynical take, but one which resonates with the current political climate in Australia, where calls for a royal commission into the Murdoch press, which constitutes over 60 per cent of the print news media, are becoming increasingly prominent. Perhaps not surprisingly, it has been noted that the Roy family are based in part on Rupert Murdoch himself. Similarly, when Peter casually orders his soldiers to burn the serfs at the heart of a potential smallpox outbreak in order to contain it, we can see echoes of the callous response that some leaders have to those falling victim to Covid-19 (former president Trump’s comments regarding Covid-19’s death toll—“It is what it is”—actually occurred after The Great’s now prescient episode).
Naturally, some may argue that consistently engaging with media which merely shows bad people getting away with bad things would grow to be an unenjoyable experience. I would agree, which brings me to the final point that makes these shows compelling—one which ties the previous two together.
The arc of justice
Martin Luther King Jr famously stated that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice”—something which he spent his whole life campaigning for in ways which were, at the time, deemed too controversial but are now widely celebrated. Less well known is the original quote which King took inspiration from. Abolitionist minister and Christian theologian Theodore Parker originated the quote with one slight difference: the inclusion of faith. In his full quote Parker notes that “The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but a little way. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
Parker and King both, in part, are supported by the Bible in their statements. In Revelation, we are told that eventually “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4). The moral arc of the universe may not complete its curve towards justice under human guidance, but in the end, God will bend it towards His perfect plan.
This theology may seem disconnected from the reasons we continue to engage with these shows that I have written about in the previous stretches of the article, but I would argue that this principle of justice is key to our enjoyment of many of these shows, and is helpful for thinking about how the issues represented within them may be tackled in the real world.
Think about the ending of Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, or Game of Thrones. Walter White’s tragic end is the inevitable result of his descent into villainy. The most outright villainous threats in Game of Thrones—Cersei, Littlefinger, Ramsay and The Night King—all meet their end and the traditionally heroic Starks assume leadership of the land. Even The Sopranos controversially ambiguous ending presumably indicates the death of the titular Tony Soprano. Interestingly, creator David Chase stated this ending was kept ambiguous due to the sympathy the audience may have built with the character despite his moral failings—which highlights another important point behind our love of these shows: they highlight the humanity in those we might typically write off as evil or despicable.
Part of why we enjoy these shows is that we anticipate that they will, in some manner, end in a way which shows justice—or at least hints at the bending of the moral arc towards it. It’s been the case for media starring villainous protagonists in the past and will likely continue to be the case in the future.
While it’s doubtful that Succession will end with all of the Roy family in prison for their actions, it does seem all but inevitable that the show’s conclusion will come alongside a degree of—or at least a hint towards a form of justice—some kind of karma which implies a balancing of the scales for all their deplorable antics.
We may enjoy watching their behaviour in the meantime, but we are ultimately not rooting for the Roys. We are rooting for the moral arc of fictional worlds like this one to show the justice which will come at the end.
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Ryan Stanton is a PhD student at the University of Sydney at the Department of Media and Communications. While he sees bits of himself in all of Succession’s complicated cast, he would ultimately admit that he is probably most like Greg or Tom, a fact he is ashamed to state.