An excerpt from Adam Kotsko’s Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide To Late Capitalist Television in The New Inquiry:
My greatest regret is that I’m not a sociopath. I suspect I’m not alone. I have written before that we live in the age of awkwardness, but a strong case could be made that we live in the age of the sociopath. They are dominant figures on television, for example, and within essentially every television genre. Cartoon shows have been fascinated by sociopathic fathers (with varying degrees of sanity) ever since the writers of The Simpsons realized that Homer was a better central character than Bart. Showing that cartoon children are capable of radical evil as well, Eric Cartman of South Park has been spouting racial invective and hatching evil plots for well over a decade at this point. On the other end of the spectrum, the flagships of high-brow cable drama have almost all been sociopaths of varying stripes: the mafioso Tony Soprano of The Sopranos, the gangsters Stringer Bell and Marlo of The Wire, the seductive imposter Don Draper of Mad Men, and even the serial-killer title character of Dexter. In between, one might name the various reality show contestants betraying each other in their attempt to avoid being “voted off the island”; Dr. House, who seeks a diagnosis with complete indifference and even hostility toward his patients’ feelings; the womanizing character played by Charlie Sheen on the sitcom Two and a Half Men; Glenn Close’s evil, plotting lawyer in Damages; the invincible badass Jack Bauer who will stop at nothing in his sociopathic devotion to stopping terrorism in 24—and of course the various sociopathic pursuers of profit, whether in business or in politics, who populate the evening news.
On a certain level, this trend may not seem like anything new. It seems as though most cultures have lionized ruthless individuals who make their own rules, even if they ultimately feel constrained to punish them for their self-assertion as well. Yet there is something new going on in this entertainment trend that goes beyond the understandable desire to fantasize about living without the restrictions of society. The fantasy sociopath is somehow outside social norms—largely bereft of human sympathy, for instance, and generally amoral—and yet is simultaneously a master manipulator, who can instrumentalize social norms to get what he or she wants.