Lengthy Interactions with Hideous Men: Walter White and the Serial Poetics of Television Anti-Heroes



In his collection of short stories Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, David Foster Wallace creates a resonant implication between the two adjectives in his title — if we’re going to spend time in the company of hideous men, it best be brief.1 Most fictional television abides by this implication, where distasteful and unpleasant characters are treated briefly, whether as unsympathetic figures on an anthology programme like The Twilight Zone (CBS, 1959–1964) or single-episode villains emerging in the course of a procedural’s police investigation or medical case. But as I argue elsewhere, serial television is distinguished by the long timeframes it creates, and thus any interaction with hideous men found in an ongoing series’ regular cast will last quite awhile.2 One common trait shared by many contemporary serialised primetime programmes is the prominence of unsympathetic, morally questionable or villainous men at their narrative centre, a trend typically identified by the character type of the anti-hero. The rise of serial television’s anti-heroes raises a key question: why would we want to subject ourselves to lengthy interactions with such hideous men?3


Relative Morality Social Intelligence Serial Killer Serial Television Crystal Meth 
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    David Foster Wallace, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2007).Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    See Amanda D. Lotz, The Television Will Be Revolutionized (New York: New York University Press, 2007)Google Scholar
  3. for an account of these industrial transformations, and Amanda D. Lotz, Cable Guys: Television and American Masculinities in the 21st Century (New York: New York University Press, 2014), for an analysis of the rise of anti-heroes in the wake of new business models.Google Scholar
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    See Murray Smith, ‘Gangsters, Cannibals, Aesthetes, or Apparently Perverse Allegiances’, in Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion, eds. Carl Plantinga and Greg M. Smith (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 217–238, for more on this strategy in film.Google Scholar
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    The term ‘parasocial’ interaction refers to the seemingly personal relationships created between television personalities/characters and television audiences. See Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl, ‘Mass Communication and Parasocial Interaction; Observations on Intimacy at a Distance’, Psychiatry 1, no. 19, (1956), 215–229.Google Scholar
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    Quoted in Melissa Locker, ‘Bryan Cranston Talks Malcolm in the Middle, Breaking Bad and the Meaning of Underwear’,, 28 October 2011, Scholar
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    For more on Breaking Bad’s slow-burn narrative style, see Anthony N. Smith, ‘Putting the Premium into Basic: Slow-Burn Narratives and the Loss-Leader Function of AMC’s Original Drama Series’, Television & New Media 14, no. 2 (March 2013), 150–166.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Jason Mittell 2015

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