The field for Best Drama at the Emmys tonight features a wide range of anti-hero protagonists: a chemistry teacher who manufactures and deals meth, an ethically compromised and morally challenged advertising executive, and a politician who will say and do virtually anything to retain power and exact revenge on his political enemies. In this last role, Kevin Spacey has never been better, as the suave and slimy Representative Francis Underwood, in the Netflix series House of Cards. Yet we feel like we need to take multiple showers every time we watch that show.
By contrast, Downton Abbey features a host of protagonists who may not be perfect but are always struggling to do the right thing. One could even argue they may pay too much attention to moral niceties at times. Downton fans: When the financial solvency of Downton was at stake, how many of you wanted to reach through the screen, grab Matthew by the shoulders and tell him “Take the inheritance. The man wants you to take the inheritance”? At the very least, we find it more soul-nourishing and edifying to be struggling with these types of characters than to find ourselves taking voyeuristic pleasure, or even cheering on, the actions of Walter White, Don Draper, or Francis Underwood.
Another morally thoughtful show with protagonists you can root for is The Walking Dead, which earned a couple of technical Emmy nominations but was ignored again in the main categories this year. Its apocalyptic reflection of the economic and moral anxiety many Americans have been facing the last five years, along with its solid storylines, has contributed to its ranking as the No. 1 scripted drama on television for 18–49 year olds, male and female. Something culturally significant is happening when a show ranks as a favorite of not only zombie-culture fanboys, but church worship leaders and their wives.
— Mark Rodgers is the principal of the Clapham Group. Michael Leaser is an associate of the Clapham Group and edits FilmGrace and reviews films and television for World magazine.