Friday, May 05, 2006

Dangerous Characters

This week Thief ended its initial season on FX.

I hope there will be a second season...and a third. I don't say that about many TV shows.

There is a certain trend to antiheroes. People like to see and read stories about guys who get away with things that people normally don't get away with, like murder and stealing. Some call this sort of thing "glorifying criminals," but I call it something more like morbid curiosity about darker sides of human nature.

Laws are really made to keep honest people honest. Like me. I could be a master criminal, bump off everyone who ever wronged me, steal with a high life on the Riviera with my ill-gotten gains made through a life of thievery, playing con games or by being a hit man for hire. But of course I don't. I'm paranoid (that is the theme of this blog, in case you hadn't guessed it by the title). I don't want to ever go to prison. I don't want to spend even a minute in jail. Besides that I also have a conscience, empathy, all of those good things that keep people from going out and wreaking murderous havoc on fellow human beings.

When I was growing up there was an unofficial rule of fiction: You can make a story or movie about a bad guy, but he has to get his comeuppance at the end. That unwritten rule seems to have vanished into unwritten rule limbo.

Thief is a good example. The main character, Nick, is a criminal mastermind who presides over a professional gang of burglars, pulling off big jobs. He also isn't afraid of killing someone, as he did in the first episode of the series, when he took out one of his henchmen who had become a liability.

In the last episode of this current season, although he had in turn been ripped off, he drove off into the sunset, uncaught and unrepentent.

Another FX series, The Shield, has as its main character a corrupt policeman who also has no problems with stealing and killing. And who, in several seasons now, hasn't been put away.

It goes practically without saying that the spiritual goddaddy of these series is James Gandolfini's superb portrayal of a murderous Mafia boss in The Sopranos. He's a Mafia boss who is also a likable family guy. Both of the main characters in Thief and The Shield share that trait.

Before any of these TV series there were novels about amoral criminals. I have my favorites.

In 1955 Patricia Highsmith began her brilliant series of novels about Tom Ripley, criminal, murderer, conman, with The Talented Mr. Ripley (made over the years into some great films!)

In the 1960s Donald Westlake, using the pseudonym Richard Stark, began his series of novels about the thief and robber, Parker (one name only, like Cher or Madonna).

The difference between the characters of Tom Ripley and Parker from characters like Nick in Thief, Vic in The Shield, or even Tony Soprano, is that Nick, Vic and Tony have some redeeming qualities, mainly love for their families and loyalty to their friends. Ripley and Parker are both conscienceless sociopaths who don't care who they hurt or what they have to do to get what they want. Reading about them is a real guilty pleasure, literally...because I know when I read about them I am enjoying books about people who I'd run from in real life.

Ciao for now, El Postino

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