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The new FX show The Americans follows the Jennings family — a typical American family in Ronald Reagan's America, who happen to be Soviet spies. With Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) at the center of the show, viewers will find themselves rooting for the couple that's secretly working for the KGB and against anyone who might blow their cover.
Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever notes that this is just the latest in a slew of TV shows that focus on deeply flawed leads.
"Throughout the history of storytelling, every hero has a flaw," Stuever tells NPR's Neal Conan on Talk of the Nation. "But the way you launch a television show now is to start off with somebody who is morally corrupt. And really, the arc, the plot, will always be about how much further can they go before it all comes crashing down."
The Americans is set in the '80s, but Stuever thinks the plot is much more suitable for TV today. "All of our heroes fall now," he says.
From The Wire to Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad to the new Netflix show House of Cards, we've been reprogrammed to root for bad guys. Stuever thinks the broadcast networks are focusing on these flawed characters so that viewers can relate. "Even the person that you're supposed to pay attention to as the hero or the heroine comes with all sorts of complications now that makes you just like them," he says.
But there can be a downside. Stuever admits the complexity of the characters stresses him out. "I watch shows like Breaking Bad and Homeland from a place of anxiety, almost where I almost wish I was prescribed some sort of medication for that part of Sunday night, where I do have to go to bed, because I think so many of us get so wrapped up in the horror of watching someone continue down a downward spiral — even the truly fictional shows like The Walking Dead." That anxiety can certainly be too much on its own. But Stuever says sometimes, people draw a line and stop watching for moral reasons that seem inconsistent. "Like, that I can't watch a show in which somebody does XYZ. But I can watch The Sopranos or Weeds."
He has a friend who loved The Sopranos but won't watch Weeds, not because of violence, but because of he can't get over the idea of a mother who deals drugs.
"It's weird how people draw their lines."
Who's the bad guy you can't help but love?