12:00 pm EST, November 9, 2014

‘Downton Abbey,’ ‘Captain America’ and why we love the good guys

In time for the Downton Abbey season 5 finale, we consider the changing characterisation of “good guys” in TV and movies lately.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve gotten into a new relationship. I’ve fallen in love with a young man called Atticus Aldridge, and it’s time for me to go public about it. He’s my new TV boyfriend. He’s recently gotten engaged to someone else, but not to worry. He’ll come around eventually. They always do.

Seriously though – the introduction of Atticus, played by Matthew Barber, as Lady Rose’s new beau in season 5 of Downton Abbey, has knocked me for a six. I love him. I’m utterly endeared by him, I’m impressed by him, I’m fascinated by him… and it’s lead me to ask myself – why? What about this character – a somewhat minor one so far – has bewitched me so?

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I don’t want to count my chickens before they hatch, because this is Downton, where nothing ever goes to plan with a wedding and characters make terrible choices every five minutes, but Atticus is strangely wonderful. He’s more than just “nice.”

He’s good-natured, he’s respectful, he’s gorgeously earnest, he’s progressive, and he’s clever, as proved in last week’s episode, when he solved the mystery of Edith’s whereabouts with some plain logic without making everyone else around him feel like morons.

He treats Rose as an equal. He stands up for himself, and others. He has an interesting backstory. He faces prejudice but isn’t painted as a victim. He’s generally lovely, and in just a few scenes he’s become very real and very dear to me.

Thinking about Atticus has gotten me thinking about male characters in general (for better or worse, I view female characters less divisively), and how, in recent years, we’re seeing more of this – more characters who don’t need their goodness to be hidden in order to be interesting.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the Sherlocks, the Tony Starks, the Jaime Lannisters, the Jesse Pinkmans, the Prince Zukos of this world. Abrasive douchebags exposing their beautiful inner souls, morally grey heroes, cynics, angry loners, or “evil” characters become decent are all still emotionally wrenching for me.

Hell, pretty much my favorite fictional character was always Spike from Buffy, and on most days I’d tell you that Thomas Barrow is one of Downton Abbey’s best and yes, most loveable characters, but I’m wondering – is this trope an easy out? Is the whole “I’m intolerable, but I’m secretly a big woobie” thing something that writers are falling back on because they know it works so well?

Or should the question be – why have the “genuinely solid dude” characters (avoiding the phrase “nice guy” because that has a whole other implication these days) that we’ve seen in the past been dismissed as boring? To bring this back to Buffy for a moment, who here was REALLY Team Riley? That’s right, no one – though Riley did end having some pretty sketchy stuff going on, potentially losing his solid dude status anyway.

The point is, in my world, nice and good equalled bland and boring. It sometimes equalled dumb – the sweet oaf who was never quick enough to keep up. It sometimes equalled conservative. It, very often, equalled lacking in depth, it equalled sanctimonious and it equalled annoying.

Men like this were usually juxtaposed with, or set against, a rude or morally grey but enigmatic character, and it always felt like you weren’t really meant to root for them. If we fell for a lighter character, it was generally the funny guy, the sidekick, who was usually still, to be honest, a bit of a jerk. The boring old good guy only became interesting when something caused him to fall – when something dragged him down.

I know I’m not the only person who felt this way – I’ve been in fandoms for a long time and this has always been the reaction to gentlemen whom D&D fans would categorize as Lawful Good – dull, stupid, wooden, groan-worthy.

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But it seems, to me, that lately, things have started to feel a bit different. Atticus Aldridge isn’t the first character I’ve noticed like this, not by a long shot, but he’s gotten me thinking – what’s changed? Has public or fandom opinion altered, and affected the way I view characters? Have I changed – am I empathising with different personality traits? Am I just tired of watching people be horrible to each other? Or has the writing changed – are people creating better characters?

Guys who don’t have to fit the old mold, who are interesting while being “good” without having to be torn down from any sort of pedestal, who are inherently likeable and flawed and real, and who are just as fascinating as their high-functioning sociopath or former murderer counterparts – but more appealing to grab a beer with.

I took this matter to my Hypable cohorts, and on the next page, find out some of our current favorite characters who fit the bill for this theme. Instead of calling them “Natalie’s TV Boyfriends,” we’ll call it the Unapologetically Solid Dude trope.

Inspired by the ‘Downton Abbey’ season 5 finale: Our top five Unapologetically Solid Dudes:

Sam Evans – ‘Glee’

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We’ve just hit season 2 on our “Glee Chat Flashbacks” rewatch, and I’m once again overwhelmed by the goofy, noble, blonde, quietly confident perfection that is Sam Evans and all that he stands for.

Sam arrives at McKinley already lacking the prejudices that other characters had to unlearn, something we see immediately in his first interactions with Kurt and Finn. He takes care of his family when they fall on hard times – and isn’t ashamed to resort to sex industry work to do it, a choice which he later defends. He’s a great boyfriend to his various ladies and a fantastic best friend to a gay kid who has a crush on him – a plot that mirrors the show’s earlier unhealthy depiction of a crush where the sexualities just don’t line up.

He’s confident without being arrogant, with a flip side of insecurity verging on body dysmorphia, and he isn’t afraid to cry. He’s a free spirit with no shame about doing whatever makes him happiest – whether that’s getting his junk on the side of a bus, singing Barry Manilow, or doing Matthew McConaughey impressions. At his core, he’s probably the best human being in Lima, Ohio.

Sam, like every single other character on Glee, has suffered from moments of bad writing or lack of continuity (the show unfortunately took his initial honest admission of dyslexia and turned it into “cluelessly dumb about everything” at random moments when it suited them,) but he’s very perceptive about human behaviour, and his season 5 storyline, facing the pressure of filling Finn’s shoes as a leader, was heartbreaking. Cross your fingers that good old Trouty Mouth gets a satisfying ending in Glee’s upcoming season 6 – he’s earned it.

Al ‘Mac’ MacKenzie – ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’

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Like Atticus on Downton Abbey, Mac is a new character to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. this season, but from the moments of screen time he’s been getting so far, he’s definitely shaping up to be a contender for the Solid Dude crown.

One of several new characters introduced in season 2, Mac’s main contribution the show has been as a friend to Fitz, who’s struggling after his near-death experience last season left him brain damaged and alienated from the rest of the team. Right from the start Mac works with Fitz to help him recover, and where the rest of the team walks on eggshells around him, Mac provides a sense of normality and stability, helps him get back to working effectively, and has his back when Fitz’s reunion with Simmons doesn’t go too well.

We don’t know too much about Mac yet, but his incredibly decent relationship with Fitz, his tendency to be a calm and steady presence compared to other people on the Bus, and the fact that unlike the majority of the team, he isn’t a super-spy with a million hidden agendas – these things all give him a lot of potential to be one of the few uncompromised good guys of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – something the show sorely needs.

Plus, if we’re talking about solid in the literal sense of the word, the guy is huge! As has been pointed out by Fitz-as-Simmons more than once…

Barry Allen – ‘The Flash’

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When The Flash’s Barry Allen was 11, his mother was murdered and his father was convicted of the crime. You’d think that would cause him to grow up into a dark, brooding vigilante fighting injustice on the streets.

But no, Barry Allen is a geeky, perpetually late Crime Scene Investigator who looks into weird criminal cases in the hope of finding a clue to freeing his father. He’s kind and thoughtful, sincere and sensitive, and far more emotionally well-adjusted than any superhero on television or film ever seems to be. His best friend is a woman he has feelings for, but he supports her relationship with another man because he respects her agency and her happiness. He’s not afraid of expressing emotions or being vulnerable either, and he gently handles his loved ones’ vulnerabilities in return.

When he gets superpowers and dons a costume, Barry becomes a hero not because he’s a superhero fanboy or because he wants notoriety, but because he wants to help – not only that, but he feels a sense of responsibility to help because he has the means of doing so. The red streak of Central City is the hero we all deserve.

Scott McCall – ‘Teen Wolf’

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As a host of Not Another Teen Wolf Podcast, I’ve spent over 200 hours talking about every intricate aspect of the Beacon Hills world, but Scott McCall, our Teen Wolf himself, really is the be-all and end-all of the entire situation, and for good reason.

Scott is an extraordinary character, a person who’s grown from a clueless kid into a natural leader. In the violent world he’s found himself in, he’s refused to resort to killing, even when the opportunity is presented to him, even when not choosing that path is the easier option in terms of getting rid of potential trouble. He takes responsibility for his mistakes, and for other peoples’, he accepts everyone, and he’s damn good to his mother.

The dorky highschooler Scott struggling with his lacrosse stick is never too far away from grave and commanding presence of pack leader Scott, and it’s the coexistence of these elements, neither one less sincere, that make him so special.

Scott’s merit was proven when he became a True Alpha, the most powerful and pure sort of werewolf, gaining his status by the strength of his character. If that’s not tangible evidence of an Solid Dude, I don’t know what is.

Steve Rogers – ‘Captain America’

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There’s no way I’m going to be able to adequately express to you how I feel about Steven Grant Rogers in the allotted word count of this article. It can’t be done. But it’s important to note that Steve doesn’t just fit into this trope – he’s pretty much the official mascot.

To someone who doesn’t pay quite enough attention, Steve might look like an ideal representative of the old guard – he’s from the 1940s, he’s a blonde-haired, blue-eyed image of righteousness. His codename is Captain freaking America and even he’s aware of how dumb that sounds. People look at Steve without giving him a chance and assume that this is a boring, square, conservative, block-headed upholder of The American Way, and that he’s a classic example of manpain. But he’s not.

He’s sort of the exact opposite, and the Captain America movies – The Avengers less so, and Joss Whedon’s take on Steve’s characterization is actually a source of consternation for a lot of Cap fans – take great pains to subvert the idea of what Captain America appears to be and show us who he actually is.

This article has a fantastic take on what makes the Captain America movies so interesting, deep and harsh without compromising Steve’s moral code, and I can’t say it much better than that. Smarter folks than me have been analysing Cap for decades. But Steve is reckless. He’s troll levels of sassy. He’s progressive, even for his original era. He acts without thinking. He’s depressed. He flirts badly. He loves painfully. He’s so angry, but he doesn’t let it control him. He won’t allow himself to be used as a pawn.

We’ve seen, in recent Age of Ultron footage, that he doesn’t have a dark side. He’s honest about who he is and he doesn’t lie to others, or to himself. He’s a ridiculously good person, but also an incredibly ruthless one.

He’ll call you on your BS and make awkward conversation with your mom. Steve Rogers is arguably the most interesting and complex Solid Dude that exists in current media. I’m really holding out for Captain America 4: Puppies and Ice Cream Dates, because I want to see that guy have a good day more than I want most things in life.

We’ll have to see if Atticus Aldridge earns his place in the true Solid Dude ranks on tonight’s 90 minute Downton Abbey season finale – I’m pinning all my hopes and dreams on him, so I hope he doesn’t let me down.

Are you a fan of any of these great characters? Who’s your favorite Unapologetically Solid Dude?

Caitlin Kelly and Michal Schick contributed to the selection of characters for this feature.

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