In the age of Netflix where streaming entire shows is now possible, it seems like television binging is replacing a lot of book reading. I know at least I've fallen victim to this ploy. Generally speaking, the last thing I used to do at night would be read a chapter or two in a new book. Now, I find myself with my iPad in hand, beneath a flood of covers while soaking in every minute of the final season of Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones.
Don't get me wrong, it's not bad. We're being entertained, aren't we? That's all we can ask for and, generally, I love every minute of it. As an author, I learn nearly just as much about my craft and storytelling as I do through reading. But, recently, I've grown a bit frustrated with the characters these shows are telling me I should pull for. And I've found that, frequently, action and mystery have come to replace character development.
From HBO's The Leftovers and Boardwalk Empire to Netflix's Hemlock Grove and House of Cards, I find very few characters I pull for. That's not to say I don't enjoy watching. Well, excluding Hemlock Grove... don't get me started. But anyway, in modern television it often feels like the vintage, literary flawed hero has been vanquished and replaced by... well, just the flawed.
I LOVED The Leftovers. I found it heart-wrenching, engaging and universally applicable to anyone who has experienced loss. But I only realized I loved it in the final episodes because it took that long for the main protagonist, Kevin Garvey, to actually truly show he was worth pulling for. It took that long to see what Kevin Garvey's core motivation was (his family). Honestly, 3/4ths through the series, I wasn't sure what he REALLY wanted.
I could go down the line... House of Cards' Frank Underwoodnever bothered to mince his motivations to viewers; power and greed. The show is EXTREMELY well done, but imagine pulling for a Frank Underwood that is actually human from time to time (SPOILER) outside of reminiscing on past college love affairs with other men. I guess, to me, that's part of the point of House of Cards, though. I've seen very little posted about the topic, but Francis Underwood is a sociopath. He fits the bill to the tee and to show him as anything else would be inconsistent with his character. So I let House of Cards slide.
But the others? Boardwalk Empire has some gripping action, but that series doesn't give me even the inclination to pull for anybody. Leading man Nucky Thompson's core motivation, much like Underwood's, was never masked; power and greed. But if Thompson died in the next episode I saw, I'm not even sure I would bat an eye. Honestly, I'm not sure I'd even be that surprised... But maybe that's just because of Game of Thrones.
But, since you brought it up, Game of Thrones actually does a phenomenal job of getting you to pull for their characters. That is before George R.R. Martin kills them off. But at least you can reminisce on the good times you did have with those characters - executing vow breakers, fondling prostitutes and cursing the gods.
As ironic as it may sound, AMC's The Walking Dead, a show about a zombie apocalypse, is more character driven than any of the above shows. It might sound strange because the synopsis would make it seem that the program is reliant on action, but we have countless characters to love, to hate and to want to sink our teeth into because TWD, to me, isn't even about zombies. At all. Its about people and how people interact when the world has gone to shit.
At it's core, TWD is about character development, evolution and interaction. The character's motivation? Something we can all agree with; survival.
I can't say enough good things about another one of AMC's shows - Breaking Bad. Some could argue that the series gives you no one to pull for either. After all, leading man Walter White is a murderer, drug dealer and hypocrite. But look at it from its core; Walter White's underlying motivation is a deeply-rooted, relatable drive that we esteem; his family. We pull for Walter White because life has pushed his back up against the wall and he fought back for it. Do we agree with all of his actions? No, but that's why he is flawed. His core motive is why he is a hero.