Why today's TV needs more old-fashioned good guys
If the Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale benefited from the eerie prescience of airing just months into an administration that treats legislative misogyny like a bloodsport, then the new Netflix series, The Punisher, suffers from an opposing phenomenon: Its grimy valorization of yet another brooding white male anti-hero who is too smart, too strong, too special, to follow society's rules (or, even the basic rule of law) makes it the exact wrong show at the exact wrong time.
Much has been made of the uncomfortable correlation between the title character's balletic precision with guns and the real-life spate of shootings in Las Vegas; Sutherland Springs, Texas; and Sacramento — shootings committed by lone-wolf white men. And the premiere episode of The Punisher — which follows our hero, Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal), as he finishes the righteous killing spree he began in Daredevil season two, then attempts to retire, but is inevitably drawn back into yet another cycle of violence — is a reverie of bloodspatters, heads exploding into car windows, and bodies crumpled on dirty floors.
Of course, the showrunners didn't deliberately schedule their gory story to correlate with one of the bloodiest moments in recent American history, just as the creative forces behind The Handmaid's Tale could never have predicted that they'd be debuting in the Trump age. Still, The Punisher, as Vox critic Alex Abad-Santos writes, is "[a] scrim of bullets, guns, and blood [that] is a raw look at what violence means to men." White men's anger and entitlement becomes the crucible for questioning whether might really does make right (or, at least, righteousness).
But this question — what violence means to men — has been asked, over and over again, by far superior shows (and make no mistake, The Punisher is punishingly bad): The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad (among so many others), pierced through our American delusion with an elongated shiv of a mirror — a mirror that reflected some very raw, very unsettling truths about our collective avarice, consumerism, and narcissism, through some very raw, very unsettling men.
One can acknowledge that this Golden Age of TV primed audiences for more intellectually and emotionally rigorous storytelling, and still see that, at some point (and often despite their creators' protests), its bad men became too slick, too cool, for our own good. How many young men wanted to dress, and drink, like Don Draper, without acknowledging that all Don Draper really had to his name was a bank account and a pickled liver?
Frank Castle has a similarly unfortunate sort of chic: He's almost pornographically hyper-competent at dispatching the baddies, and Bernthal cuts an immaculately muscled figure in his skull-branded tactical wear. Still,The Punisher does come at the cusp of a grand tectonic shift in what we want from our heroes and heroines of the screen. The grand age of the anti-hero is finally, mercifully, ending. The apocalyptic darkness of our current social and political climate — a darkness caused, in no small part, by a locust swarm of angry white men who beat their wings against the promise of progress, an America that was morally good, and not archaically "great," and blotted out the sun — has created a need for what Vulture calls "comfort food TV." Frothier fare like The Good Doctor, This is Us, and Riverdale are ratings Goliaths and social media darlings. Sure, they take a light touch to heavy subject matter — but, at their core, these shows are about fundamentally good people trying to make their patients', their families', and their communities' lives better (and often, working through the proper channels to do it).
Riverdale is the overtly darkest of these three shows, given that this season's main plot arc is about a serial killer stalking the town, purging it of people he believes to be irredeemable sinners — and whose judge-jury-and-executioner ethos is, coincidentally, not unlike the Punisher's. The killer approaches the show's plucky heroine, Betty Cooper — a character who, in her capacity as ace reporter for the school newspaper (which, in Riverdale, has a curiously Washington Post-like influence and prestige), is obsessed with rooting out and righting all manner of injustice — to get the name of the dealer funneling a meth-like drug into the town. But Betty refuses: The dealer is an evil-doer, but even evil-doers are entitled to due process. Every crime doesn't merit a death sentence.
After years of being asked to empathize with characters who garotte their rivals, gaslight their spouses, bully their colleagues, and incinerate the lives of everyone around them so they can burn the brightest of all, it is, frankly, refreshing to watch characters make moral choices, to care about other people, and to actually at least try to learn from their mistakes. It's telling that this year's most celebrated superhero flick, and one of the top-grossing films in the genre, wasn't yet another study in grime-dark: Wonder Woman offered a heroine who isn't motivated by trauma, but a desire to do good for goodness' sake; whose love of ice cream and babies doesn't mitigate her capacity for kicking ass.
The Punisher's cohorts in the Marvel TV universe, Luke Cage and Jessica Jones, might travel to similarly dark terrain, but they prove that a work can still be powerful — that it can be, in fact, more powerful — if it offers the promise of sunshine over scorched earth. Luke Cage deals explicitly with systemic racism and catastrophic street violence, but it is also about a man who stands up and becomes a champion for his community. And Jessica Jones uses the metaphoric language of the superhero genre to portray the nature, and aftermath, of prolonged sexual abuse, with a shattering nuance. Still, it possesses a fundamental optimism: It treats Jessica's fight to overcome her residual anger and shame as an act of valor in and of itself; Jessica becomes a hero not only because she kills the bad guy in the end, but because she learns to care for, and protect, other people. These shows, and the success of a film like Wonder Woman, make The Punisher's casual nihilism feel particularly unnecessary, even passé.
Even if there's rarely a clear, whistling arrow of a correlation between the media we consume and the bad acts we may commit (i.e., Grand Theft Auto, or Marilyn Manson, made that school shooter snap), our entertainment does reflect our cultural preoccupations, the things we're able to tolerate, if not condone. In a sensitively reported piece for Vulture, Abraham Riseman looks at Frank Castle's enduring popularity within the military and law enforcement communities and found that, ironically, it was the character's vigilantism, his willingness to circumvent laws he personally deems too soft or superfluous, that most stoked their appreciation. "Frank Castle does to bad guys and girls what we sometimes wish we could legally do," one man says. The families of Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and Walter Scott (among so many others) might rightfully argue that, for too many officers, the definition of the "bad guys and girls" is far too loose, and decidedly convenient; that they act on what they'd "sometimes" like to do all too often.
Frank Castle's anti-heroic forefathers walked a razor-wire of a fine line between probing the spiritual ramifications of chronically bad behavior and normalizing it, turning it into something we'd simply expect of white men. Today, so many people, especially people of color, especially women, have been broken, or at least fractured, by white men's rage. That anger, that Trumpian bombast and braggadocio and entitlement, has brought us to a particularly perilous and tragic moment in history. There's nothing cool, or edgy, or particularly interesting about it. The constant primetime study of it has yielded, in the end, a lot sound and fury signifying Emmys, but not much else. Not now. Not when there are other stories that deserve to be just as privileged.