“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” goes Leo Tolstoy’s famous opening line from Anna Karenina. The same applies for successful and unsuccessful shows: For those that work, the reason is always the same — all elements magically came together. For those that don’t, there is a usually a host of factors for each individual demise. But there have been a slew of ill-fated broadcast dramas recently that shared one thing — an unlikable antihero at the center. Two of the biggest flops of the past few years, Fox’s Lone Star and NBC’s Do No Harm and The Playboy Club, had that in common. That also applies to Fox’s newest drama entry Rake, which has been doing poorly, opening low and sliding to a 1.1 in its third airing last Thursday, despite solid reviews and a likable star in Greg Kinnear.
The Shield‘s Vic Mackey and The Sopranos’ Tony Soprano ushered in the era of the antihero, which has dominated cable ever since with such series as Showtime’s Dexter, Shameless and now Ray Donovan, AMC’s Breaking Bad and Mad Men, and FX’s Rescue Me and Sons Of Anarchy. Most have been commercial and critical successes.
While thriving on cable, dark antiheroes have had a tougher time on broadcast despite the lines between the two blurring these days with crossover successes like The Walking Dead, American Horror Story and Duck Dynasty. Audiences seem to embrace protagonists that are flawed, scarred and imperfect, but there has to be nobility to them. Two broadcast drama hits, Fox’s House and NBC’s The Blacklist, were built around a central character — Hugh Laurie’s Dr. House and James Spader’s Red — that are dark and certainly qualify as antiheroes. But no matter how mean Dr. House is and how many pills he popped, each episode he saved a human life and that overshadowed all his personal demons. Similarly, Red, an unapologetically bad guy, helps get guys far worse than him off the street, saving innocent lives in the process. In contrast, there were few redeemable qualities about the protagonist in Lone Star who was living a double life, deceiving two women; the sleek attorney with ties to the mob lead in The Playboy Club; or Rake‘s title character, who often represents horrible people, including serial killers, and is a lousy dad too. None of these shows were panned by critics but none of them connected with viewers either.
To put things in perspective, those struggling broadcast antihero shows often have ratings comparable or higher than their cable counterparts, at least in the early going, as not all of the dark cable series took off right away. Breaking Bad, for instance, started very low and took years to grow into a monster hit. That is something the broadcast networks can rarely afford.