My mother brought home this article from our church bulletin (read it here:http://www.johnxxiii.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/107187_Bulletin050513W.pdf) for me to read and, seeing Dexter Morgan’s picture front and center, I had to read it right away. I'm a huge fan of Dexter, and really of any series that strays from the typical "good vs evil" and presents us with something grittier and not so black-and-white. The article really made me think, and spurred an in-depth conversation between my mother and I about the quickly plummeting morals of our society.
Now, I’ll be the first to agree that my and future generations are in trouble, but I don’t think the protagonists of primetime TV are to blame. I see why you’d argue that, sure. Dexter is a serial killer; modern-day vampires sparkle and swoon over teenage girls, but at the end of the day still have to battle their base instincts to tear their throats out. These are mortal sinners who, according to most religions, won’t be seeing the pearly gates when they pass on.
The flaw with your article is assuming that, just because these characters are “good guys” simply because they’re the protagonists. I’ll use Dexter as an example, not only because I love the show but because – as is it’s intention – this is the series that sparks most ethical debates. Yes, Dexter is a serial killer. And yes, as the protagonist of the show, we are on his side (most of the time). However, if anyone were to ask me if Dexter was a hero or a villain, I would say “villain.” His villainy is often offset by the fact that he regularly hunts down bigger, badder villains, but it does not change what he is.
Protagonist does not always equal good, you see. The protagonist of a story is not always, as you put it, “on the right side of the moral question.” Dexter’s morals are certainly not ones the show (or even the character himself!) encourages anyone to emulate. A protagonist is simply the leading character, whose story we follow. Dexter is the protagonist because he’s the main character. Seriously, that's it. Most people are just fooled by seeing “pro” at the front of the word, and they immediately assume they must be good; and while it’s true that “hero” is a commonly used synonym for protagonist, there are tons of instances in film and literature where that is not the case.
Let’s go back to one of the earliest protagonists in literature’s history: Oedipus Rex – who is in fact considered a “tragic hero!” Oedipus Rex was not a “good guy.” He kills his father and sleeps with his mother – a mortal sinner of the highest caliber – and his reasons for doing so aren’t exactly pure. However, we root for Oedipus, just like we root for Dexter and the handsome vampires. Why? Because in each and every one of us there is the capacity for great good and great evil. We can relate to these characters and their moral struggles – not to the same degree, perhaps, but still. We want to see them overcome their darkness. Stories like these are usually meant to be lessons for all of us to learn from.
This is what makes good writing, what makes compelling television shows that we want to tune in every week to watch. Not only do we question the protagonist’s morality and decisions, we also question our own. And I don’t think anything that makes us question our own ethics should be criticized or labeled as bad.
Instead of blaming fictional characters written primarily to entertain us, I think we should look instead for the real “bad guys” in our modern media. The people our children are idolizing and emulating in everyday life. Because seriously, when was the last time you heard the neighborhood kids saying they wanted to play “Dexter” with their friends? I’m betting it’s a lot less frequently than you overhear them singing along to songs that debase women, and glorifying “idols” such as Chris Brown. Rather than reading too much into characters that are realistically little more than words on paper (or make-believe images on a screen) we should be questioning a media that works so hard to raise our real-life "idols" on their pedestals to begin with.