This seems right to me. The dark heroes or antiheroes of TV–and I would go back to The Sopranos for the beginning of this–represent the fundamental fear of the “middle class” losing everything in one fell swoop. Life becomes about the happenstance safety nets we weave for ourselves and the extreme degrees to which we over stretch ourselves in the fear of everything unraveling. [Such being-stretched-in-every-direction I call distension–stretched out to the breaking point.]
Welcome to the new aspirational television, about a 1% that lives with impunity. These series center on brilliant, albeit extremely violent entrepreneurs. Our antiheroes have technical specialties they managed to turn into criminal know-how: on Ozark, money management becomes money laundering, and on Breaking Bad, high-school chemistry instruction becomes meth production.
These shows subtly argue that their protagonists have been forced to become criminals to avoid falling out of the upper-middle class. They are, after all, self-made: there aren’t even rich grandparents or parents to bail them out. And while these series are far from real, they do rest on the bedrock American reality of income inequality – the huge gap between the Axes of the world, or even the Marty Byrdes, and the “little people”.
“There is never a moment that the characters in Ozark relax about money,” Martín Zimmerman, Ozark’s executive story editor, tells me. “The reason for this is there is no social safety net in the US: once you have achieved any economic stability in this country, you live forever with a fear of falling out of it. In the show, the Byrdes can never exorcise the demon of starting out without money.”