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April 2009 - Assignment for an Arts Criticism class at Boston University

Serial Killer or Mensch: Antiheroes As Heroes Rachel Leah Blumenthal

“Tonight’s the night, and it’s going to happen again and again,” narrates Dexter Morgan at the beginning of each season of Dexter as he sets out to abduct and kill the dregs of society. An unlikely protagonist, Dexter is the likable serial killer who straddles the line between good and evil, killing only other killers who have slipped through the cracks of the legal system. Elsewhere on television, we see Dr. Gregory House of House, an eccentric and sarcastic medical genius known for his rudeness and addiction to painkillers, Tony Soprano, the personable gangster on The Sopranos, and Bart Simpson, our old childhood hero from The Simpsons, always coming up with new mischief. Antiheroes are the new heroes; increasing numbers of television shows feature bad guys as the main characters. While this might worry overprotective parents and media watchdogs, it may actually be a useful trend. In these difficult times, perhaps it’s a good thing that we have some less-than-perfect heroes. They take the pressure off, showing us that good and evil are no longer so distinguishable. It’s possible to be a good person despite some imperfections.

Hard times have hit society over the last year, especially due to the troubled economy. In recent months, there have been several family murder-suicides and shooting rampages committed by gunmen frustrated by a lost job or the economic crisis. In January, for example, a California man who had recently lost his job shot his wife and five children to death before turning the gun on himself. In April, a Maryland man killed his wife and three children before killing himself, and he left behind a note citing difficulty coping with the state of the country. Police also discovered that the family was facing financial difficulties. Also in April, a man shot and killed thirteen people and himself at a Binghamton, NY immigration center after losing his job. In an April interview with CBS4 Miami, crisis counselor Teresa Descilo confirmed the horrifying increase in economy-related murder-suicides. “The stresses of the economy, which almost everybody has felt, are stretching people thin,” said Descilo. As pressure bears down on us, we can look to our television anti-heroes for support: they may have flawed personalities, murderous urges, or a streak of mischief-making, but this doesn’t stop them from leading fulfilling, relatively happy lives. Dexter has a fiancée, a loving sister, and work colleagues that could almost be considered friends; House has a successful medical career and the admiration of colleagues, even if they dislike him; Tony Soprano has children upon whom he dotes; Bart Simpson has a relatively carefree existence with a loving, albeit odd, family.

This isn’t to say that we should all become Dexter copycats committing vigilante justice all over the place, but it’s refreshing to look up to someone that seems more real than the superheroes of yore. While becoming a serial killer like Dexter is not recommended, we can learn from his tenacity and ability to find the silver lining in his bloody existence. In the Season 3 series finale, Dexter married his girlfriend Rita, and they have a baby on the way. Despite Dexter’s sociopathic tendencies, he does seem to feel something resembling love for Rita’s two children, and knowing that Rita and the kids need him is enough to motivate Dexter to cover his tracks and hide his dark secrets as well as he can. “Okay, so we can’t stop this,” said Dexter’s

adoptive father, Harry Morgan, in a flashback scene where he recognizes teenage Dexter’s killer urges. “But maybe we can do something to channel it. Use it for good.” Like Dexter, instead of letting our weaknesses consume us, we can learn to channel them into something good.

Imperfect is the new normal, and instead of stressing out over our flaws, we should recognize this in our television antiheroes and in ourselves. In a September 2008 Boston Globe article about Season 3 of Dexter, staff writer Matthew Gilbert described Dexter as a character “who is surprisingly easy to root for, who flirts with ‘normalcy’ this season. He is, at the end of the day, of all things, a mensch.” In an age where the Boston Globe can dub a serial killer a mensch, it must be acceptable to look up to television antiheroes as the new heroes.

“Television is an invention that permits you to be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn’t have in your home,” said David Frost, the journalist and satirist best known for his interviews with Richard Nixon. Most people wouldn’t want to invite Dexter, House, or Tony Soprano into their home, but antiheroes like these can entertain us and even guide us through difficult times.