Brow Beat

The TV Antihero Wore Out His Welcome in 2018

House of Cards’ find-and-replace feminism versus You’s end-stage toxic masculinity.

Robin Wright and Penn Badgley
Robin Wright and Penn Badgley Netflix

If Kevin Spacey got anything right in the thoroughly creepy and utterly bizarre video he released on Christmas Eve, shortly after the announcement that he would be indicted for indecent assault, it’s that viewers of House of Cards’ final season were, indeed, left with an unsatisfying ending—which is not to say that keeping Spacey around would have made it any better. This wholly unwelcome reminder of Spacey’s deceitful, arrogant, and downright unpleasant character (on and off the screen), seems like a good reason to revisit what’s become of the much-regarded antihero, and more importantly, what may come of it in the year ahead.

The antihero’s appeal has been waning for some time, but in the year of #MeToo he finally wore out his welcome. Although CBS still thrives with shows about obnoxious alpha males, most audiences have grown weary of demonstrably bad men who we’re expected to tirelessly root for. Many shows did away with the antihero altogether, but those that held onto the trope tried to turn it inside out. But while House of Cards simply tweaked the template, leaving us with nothing more than a new face, Lifetime’s You mined it for inspiration then veered thrillingly off-script.

Spacey’s Frank Underwood was always a villain at heart, and his ruthless machinations wore thin over five seasons. But like many, I kept coming back to House of Cards for one reason: Claire Underwood. Even before Spacey’s scandal, the show had positioned Claire to take the presidency from her husband; not a huge change, but a welcome one. Played by a perfectly icy and precise Robin Wright, Claire seemed to possess a depth that the other characters on the show lacked. She was at once a victim and a villain—the perfect antihero. But in Season 6 (where she has taken over Frank’s ability to break the fourth wall), the character’s depth seemed to have all but disappeared. It’s as if Claire were simply plopped into Frank’s ill-fitting and annoyingly still ever-present shoes, leaving us with a female version of her late, unlamented husband. She’s the same cold villain with different tools.

It’s not that House of Cards ignores Claire’s gender; it harps on it, but shallowly. Nearly every act Claire commits which might be construed as a feminist is undercut with a hint that there is no one benefiting from it but Claire herself. In the second episode, Claire is confronted by a soldier, notably a woman of color, who demands, “Do you even have a plan?” After a cold pause, Claire replies, “Would you have asked me that if I were a man?” It’s a question that reflexively incites feminist applause, and yet it’s being used to write off another woman’s valid concerns. Her feminism is leveraged not for the benefit of women, but at their expense.

It’s no surprise that a data-driven company would try this kind of gender find-and-replace.
Strong female leads are trending, why not use one to resuscitate an already dying show mortally wounded by its male lead’s off-screen behavior? To toss a woman in a man’s story feels shallow and inaccurate, but most of all it’s passing up great content.

While Netflix floundered with its tempered tweaks, an unlikely network thrived by diving so deep into the antihero model that it emerged in a new, even darker dimension.

Long associated with women-in-peril melodramas—the kind people who’ve never seen a Lifetime movie referred to as “Lifetime movies”—the network debuted a new approach to scripted TV with 2015’s UnReal, a dramatized series chronicling the making of a Bachelor-like reality show. The series’ protagonists, played by Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer, were as ruthless in their pursuit of success as any male lead, but the conflict inherent in their pursuit of power was layered with the female allyship required to get it. Although its later seasons became increasingly absurd and hyperbolic, in a way it’s the most real representation of the conflicting demands on women I’ve ever seen on television.

In You, which debuted on Lifetime this fall, the network not only twisted the image of the straight, white, male antihero but made a mockery of it. (The first season is now streaming on Netflix, which has picked up the series for second season.) The show centers on Joe (Penn Badgley), a beautiful New York bookseller who falls in love with Beck (Elizabeth Lail), a beautiful New York writer. If you’re gagging a little, you should be. They are both the quintessential leads of the wildly unrealistic love stories that, to the romantic demise of women everywhere, we all grew up loving.

Unlike her intentionally hateable, runway-stunning best friend, Peach (Shay Mitchell), Beck is meant to be innocent, not intimidating, all bright eyes and smiles. She is also infuriatingly empty. Every time she has an actual idea or emotion of her own, she questions it, apologizes, takes it back—which is exactly why Joe falls so maddeningly in love with her.

Raised on the classic texts that line the walls of his bookstore, Joe wants nothing more than a beautiful blank slate of a woman to shape and save. This template isn’t new—in fact, it’s what most love stories are made of. The brilliance of You is that it doesn’t try to change that premise; it rides it all the way to its inevitable conclusion. We’re plunged into the mind of a man who will do anything to be the hero of his own story, and it’s chilling. We watch Joe stalk, torture, and ultimately kill, many times over. And though he admits the occasional murder is regrettable, not once does any real guilt enter his consciousness. In his mind it’s all in the name of saving Beck. We watch him brutally chip away at her life until there is nothing left.

As Matt Brennan wrote in Paste, You makes its audience confront our own antihero obsession, throwing us smack into the minds of the men—the Tony Sopranos, the Don Drapers, the Walter Whites, the Frank Underwoods—we chose for so long to inhabit. We know immediately how broken Joe is, but we’re left wondering if anyone, especially Joe himself, will ever realize it. As Brennan notes, “perhaps [Joe’s] most chilling trait is that he earnestly believes he has Beck’s best interest at heart.” Joe can’t escape his own stubbornly shortsighted perspective, and—aided by the narration of his inner monologue—neither can we.

You certainly has its flaws. In its effort to mock the emptiness of these characters the viewer has to endure that emptiness, and it can be painful. No matter how intentional, the show is littered with cringeworthy lines and jokes that don’t land. But once you understand where they’re going and strap in, it’s a very fun ride.

It’s no surprise that Lifetime is thriving in this moment, when culture is demanding more complicated female stories. Their choices may seem risky, but something tells me it’s more calculated than that.While Netflix churns out whatever variations data demand, Lifetime has been steadily observing and documenting female conflict for, well, a lifetime. And I’d happily trade the trimmings of a self-styled prestige TV show for one that’s taken the time to actually say something interesting.