Contemporary culture often views a drama’s moral complexity as an indicator of its quality. The Sopranos is, I think, one of the best examples of that. We point to how Tony was sympathetic and recognizably human despite the fact that he was a murderous mobster as evidence of the show’s sophistication. Ethical shades of gray have become shorthand for artistic merit, and that’s reasonable, I guess, to a point. Progressing beyond cookie-cutter characters and recognizing the fallibility of heroes require some degree of maturity.
But that line of thinking can easily be oversimplified and perverted. Merely trying to turn an villain into a hero isn’t in and of itself a marker of quality, and using patently archetypal characters doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of depth or value. I thought about that latter point, in particular, as I watched the 2005 BBC adaptation of Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Dickens is so broad by today’s standards—with saintly, self-effacing protagonists and vile, duplicitous antagonists—and yet Bleak House is a skillfully told, thoroughly absorbing tale. I sped through eight hours’ worth of Victorian melodrama as quickly as Netflix would send me the next DVD.