When TV heroes need to become villains

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Great television – heck, great literature – requires something crucial: Characters must change. Good guys can grow bad, bad guys can become good, but if they just stay the same, well, then they aren’t characters. They’re cardboard cut-outs.

The best TV shows play with the viewers' sympathy. They know that you’ll be rooting for the main characters — and so they sometimes make them truly despicable people. It’s a risk. They may lose a sympathetic, likeable character. Viewers may revolt. But it’s usually necessary to make the show take the leap from entertaining to thought-provoking.

Two good shows, constantly flirting with greatness, are in that spot right now.

Sons of Anarchy is the most talked-about. It’s taken Clay Morrow, the club president of the Charming chapter of Sons of Anarchy far over the line into villainy. He’s become involved in drug trading. He’s lied repeatedly. He’s beaten his wife. He’s killed more than one club member in cold blood.

As a result, Sons has become an intriguing show in a way that it hasn’t been for over a season. The big question critics have been asking: Do they have the guts to follow through with Clay’s arc? Do they allow the club members to kill him? Or do they put him in prison, or have him lead a splinter gang, or somehow absolve him of his sins, re-establishing the status quo?

There’s the risk with creating a villain out of a hero. The status quo becomes unacceptable. At a certain point, a hero-turned-villain becomes unredeemable. Sons can’t use Ron Perlman the same way it used to. It was a necessary choice for the show — daring, if they follow through — but a risky thing for the show’s commercial success. Will viewers abandon Sons if Clay is killed off? Will the club’s interplay work as well?

At the same time, The Good Wife seems to be looking toward a similar arc. For two seasons, it flirted with having the female lead, Alicia Florrick, abandon her (reformed?) scoundrel husband to pursue a relationship with her just-missed-it high school sweetheart (now coworker) Will Gardner. The Season 2 finale finally hooked the two up, in a development that may have excited other demographics much more than my own.

But recently, The Good Wife seems to be considering making Will Gardner a villain. A special prosecutor has been investigating his past, alleging judicial bribery.

So The Good Wife has two choices: Keep Will a hero, and have him turn up innocent. This is the boring choice. Or: reveal Will to be a villain, and have him be guilty of something. This would be a more interesting choice. It would keep with the show's underlying cynicism and tendency to shift alliances. It would be, in awful television promo speak, a game-changer.

A show in its third season needs to do something like this. It needs to surprise viewers and force them to begin rooting for different characters. Otherwise, ingenuity quickly becomes formula.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that a show on a network like CBS would ever turn a sympathetic hero — practically a lead — into a villain. The Good Wife, in other words, isn’t Buffy The Vampire Slayer.For starters, it has much better ratings than Buffy ever had. Maybe an unwillingness to take large risks is why.