Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Unlikely Super Heroes

We have all seen the flood of super hero films released into theaters over the past several years as well as a resurgence of super-hero TV shows.

But I want to look at how the super hero premise has been used with very non-traditional and even unlikely subject matter, in two TV series, specifically.

Firstly, I like to define the term super hero very broadly, not just someone with incredible strength or the ability to transform themselves physically, or even a being who harnesses science or technology to evolve themselves (whether intentionally or as is often the case, through some accident) but any individual who has a unique talent that can be used for good or ill and that involves great moral responsibility. Other traits include a nemesis, and often a mentor figure, as well as the necessity to hide his or her identity from the World at large.

That said, I now want to point out how these traits can exist outside of the mainstream super hero world that we have come to know.

The show that got me started thinking about this topic in the first place is the Showtime series Dexter.

Loosely based on a series of novels by author Jeff Lindsay and starring Micheal C. Hall in the title role, Dexter Morgan is the survivor of—and eyewitness, at the age of three—to the violent murder of his family by a serial killer. The premise of the character is that somehow witnessing these killings has so traumatized Dexter Morgan that as he grows into adulthood he becomes a serial killer himself.

Yet Dexter is no brute, but rather a highly intelligent, courageous, and compassionate individual. What is so wonderfully creative about this series is that it elevates a personality who traditionally has been a force of evil and abhorrence in movies and TV and makes him a sympathetic character and a strong protagonist, in other words someone that we can cheer for every week. I think its fair to say that before Dexter, the only other time that such a feat was accomplished was by Hitchcock, in his film Psycho.

With Dexter Morgan, the real brilliance is that in each episode the writers have him pitted against killers and brutes who have no conscience or moral center—while Dexter possesses both.

Dexter's uniqueness, his power, is not that he is super-strong or the product of a scientific mishap or some genetic engineering gone awry, but rather his extreme intelligence and self-discipline along with, and in the wake of, his killer instincts. He is a man who knows that he harbors the characteristics of a vicious killer but who has at the same time made a conscious decision to direct his violent impulses toward ridding the World of those who kill without conscience.

While he is different from the traditional super hero per se, Dexter is similar in that he too finds his uniqueness a curse rather than a gift and is constantly struggling to direct it and to resist the temptation to use it for destructive ends.

Dexter owes much of his persona to his mentor figure, his foster father Harry, the ex-cop who actually rescued him, as a small child, from the scene of the horrific murders. Even though Harry (played by James Remar) is long dead at the time the series takes place, he frequently appears as a ghost-like manifestation and gives Dexter advice and moral guidance to help steer him in the right direction when his darker side comes calling.

Additionally, like other super heroes, each new season, Dexter is presented with a new nemesis—someone who also possesses incredibly dangerous and vicious tendencies and who seeks to either co-op Dexter to his side or to destroy him.

And, like the tradition SH model, Dexter has a day job (as a forensics investigator, an irony as much as the perfect cover for what he really does) where his friends and colleagues—and even spouse—are totally unaware of his true nature and internal struggle, except on rare occasions where he comes close to being exposed but through his own guile and resourcefulness is able to keep his secret intact.

The bottom line is that this approach works very well and Dexter gives us is a very non-traditional super hero, with Dexter Morgan, the genre has been re-envisioned.

While you can argue that Dexter is in many ways unique as a TV show, I feel that we will likely see more of this kind of premise—the every day super hero who springs from the mundane and the unlikely circumstances.

While Dexter is a highly successful, high profile TV show, I think its important to point out another, lower budget, much less known example; the very well made, albeit very short-lived, British series from 2001 called Second Sight. While this BBC show adheres much less to the SH conventions we've already discussed, I feel it really merits a nod because of how much it does pull off.

The series stars a then almost unknown Clive Owen in the role of detective inspector Ross Tanner, head of an elite urban murder investigation unit who, while an already rising star on the police force, is diagnosed with a rare retinal disease which he is told in the pilot episode will leave him completely blind in a matter of months and which causes him frequent bouts of near total temporary blindness which he cannot control.

In the process of trying to conceal his illness so that he can stay on the force as long as possible, since this the only career and life that he has ever known—the show begins with him being estranged from his ex-wife and young son—Tanner discovers that these bouts of blindness give him unique insights into the people and situations that he is investigating each week, putting him into an almost Gestalt-like state of being.

What is also really great about this show is how convincing Owen's performance and the show's scripts are at depicting his attempts to conceal his blindness, to the point of his learning the layout of the squad room blindfolded so that when he experiences his attacks of lost sight, co-workers do not suspect. Also, Ross Tanner, like other traditional super heroes, must enlist the help of a small circle of confidants to assist him in keeping his police superiors from finding out.

The believable premise is maintained all the way to to the end of the series in which Tanner finally succumbs to permanent blindness—yet Tanner ultimately feels that this experience has been more of a gift than a disability. In many ways, Tanner is a much better person, husband, father, friend, than he was—career-driven, workaholic— before his transformation.

I really recommend that everyone check out both of these shows.

I feel that other genres are being stripped down and re-envisioned in this way—film noir most notably.

Next time I want to discuss how FN is finding new expression in TV in the form of the FX series,
The Shield, along with AMC's show Breaking Bad.