How Do We Reconcile Loving Terrible People on TV?

Photo: The CW
The term "bad boy" no longer exclusively describes a James Dean-type in a leather jacket. Television's bad boys are hardly a cookie-cutter bunch: they can be wealthy or "wrong-side-of-the-tracks," gay or straight, wearing exclusively bow-ties or basketball jerseys. Today, there are two things that make a bad boy: he must be troubled, and fans must adore him despite this.

Here's the problem with the bad boy trope: it means that TV fans often end up caring deeply about characters who have done unforgivable things.

Redemption stories are the stuff TV is made of but, lately, I've wondered whether TV expects us to love people that might not deserve forgiveness for their awful behavior. A bad boy's arc might end in shaking the bad out of their system, but how can we reconcile rooting for a person who has shown us the very worst? Would we have as much empathy if we met this person in real life?

The first person to come to mind when I think of a beloved, awful human being is Gossip Girl's own Chuck Bass (Ed Westwick). When we first meet Chuck, he is a teenage billionaire playboy, one who treats women like conquests and discards of them when he gets what he wants. He's charming, slick, and has buckets of daddy issues that the show uses to explain away most of his behavior. Chuck does go on to become a "better man," one who crawls out of his father's looming shadow and thaws his own frozen heart, but it's hard to forget that, in the very first episode of Gossip Girl, Chuck commits two heinous acts.

In the pilot episode alone, Chuck takes a drunk Serena (Blake Lively) into the kitchen of a hotel and kisses her forcibly, despite her protests. She kicks him and runs out. Chuck later takes Jenny (Taylor Momsen), a freshman at his school, up to the roof to "talk" during a party, even after Jenny tells him she has no interest in hooking up. Chuck then forces himself on Jenny, and continues to grope her even after she tells him — over and over again — to stop. Eventually, Jenny's brother Dan (Penn Badgely) stops Chuck — because Jenny's cries certainly didn't.

TV fans often end up caring deeply about characters who have done unforgivable things.

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Chuck is considered scum for a few episodes... until he becomes leading lady Blair's endgame boyfriend in episode 7. It becomes clear that Chuck's affection for Blair is supposed to make up for the actions he committed in the pilot. This is the narrative that fans are supposed to buy into: that Chuck has some darkness, sure, but he needs saving, not punishment for his crimes.

Throughout the course of the series, Chuck does many terrible things — he famously pimps Blair out to his uncle in exchange for a hotel, to name his most diabolical — but we're always supposed to root for his redemption. We're supposed to care about the reasons for his bad behavior — his terrible dad, his absent mother, his affluenza — no matter who he hurts along the way. In fact, when Jenny confronts him about the assault in season 2 of the series, the moment is jarring. Fans may remember the pilot well, but the implications — that Chuck sexually assaulted Jenny in the first place — seemed like one that the show wanted to forget. Even Chuck's apology for his "actions" that night isn't a reminder of the person he was — only that he's trying to be better.

Television isn't life, and it's nearly impossible to hold characters up to the same standards we would real people. We can take delight in Cersei Lannister's trickery but know that we'd never want her running for office. We can root for Walter White to evade prison while still acknowledging that he's a deplorable person. However, the line becomes blurry when people who have done terrible things are slated as the heroes of our story — when the show forgives them for actions without punishing them or even allowing them time to reflect. Do we "get over" these actions because they live in television land and demand a certain suspension of disbelief, or do we hold these characters accountable?

In more specific terms: is it okay to love Chuck, to cheer when he gets the girl and beats his enemies, despite the fact that Gossip Girl introduced him as a predator?

Maybe what's most important is feeling this cognitive dissonance in the first place. We can enjoy the journey of the worst of the worst, but the next time a series tries to turn a blind eye to their most deplorable actions, perhaps we shouldn't be so easily distracted.

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