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Grey And Gray Morality / Live-Action TV

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  • Game of Thrones: Many characters are morally ambiguous, ranging from light grey to black. Sympathetic characters are often depicted on both sides of conflicts, such as Tyrion and Davos being on opposite sides of the Battle of Blackwater. However, this does not count whenever irredeemable sociopaths such as Joffrey Baratheon, The Mountain and Ramsay Bolton are involved.
  • Yes, Minister: On one side you have Minister Jim Hacker, a hot-blooded but clumsy career politician who idealistically sets out to right the wrongs of the system, but more often than not doesn't know what he is doing, and is not always prepared to put ethics before expedience. On the other side, there is Sir Humphrey Appleby, his seasoned and sleazy civil servant secretary who is constantly busy playing the system to his own fun and profit but is at the same time following his own - deeply cynical - ethos of right and wrong. More often than not, the conflict between the two men boils down to a disagreement in ideology, not good and evil. The narrative is very careful to not portray either man as consistently in the wrong. And there are also some instances when Hacker and Sir Humphrey have to work together against a common enemy...
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  • All My Children: Regardless of being designated heroes and/or villains, very few characters in this series - or any soap opera - could truly be considered clear-cut good or evil, especially since most of these characters have often committed quite a few crimes, even the heroes (some of whom are anti-heroes). Alone, both Erica and her daughter, Kendall, have committed enough crimes (both individually and together) to pile-drive them into prison for a long time. Janet even lampshades it in 1995; when everyone in Pine Valley is ostracizing her and shunning her for her crimes after her release from prison, she calls the entire town out for it, calling them a "sanctimonious, self-righteous bunch of hypocrites" and reminding them that everyone present has committed despicable deeds.
  • Torchwood has numerous examples of good guys (Jack in particular) being less than good, and 'bad' guys just acting within their nature. Witness the Children of Earth miniseries; the faceless, completely evil aliens are the plot's driving force, but the meat of the story is what the government and Torchwood are willing to do to deal with it. It's hard to say if anyone wins in the end...
  • Sometimes crops up in Doctor Who.
    • It was common in the show's early historical episodes. "The Crusade" shows both Richard the Lionheart and Saladdin to be honourable men.
    • "Doctor Who and the Silurians" is a textbook example as both the humans and the Silurians are shown to be equally aggressive and honourable, with even the Brigadier committing atrocities to win. Motive Decay results in them being more villainous with each reappearance, but the new series brings them back to their roots by reintroducing a new batch in a story that's a Spiritual Successor to the original episode (down to not having a happy ending, unfortunately. However, after this, individual Silurians are good more often than not, with one, Madame Vastra, becoming a recurring ally.)
    • "The Caves of Androzani" depicts a brutal war between the military forces run by a well-meaning but ruthless General whose willing to execute civilians when ordered even if he believes they're innocent, and Jerkass Woobie Sharaz Jek, a lechy drug runner whose been driven mad by the treachery of his former partner Morgus and helps the Doctor in the end.
  • The Vorlons and the Shadows in Babylon 5 — eventually. The conflict is definitely black-and-white for the first three seasons but then swerves into grey-and-gray shortly before the war ends.
    • JMS pointed out in first season commentary that he was proud to have pulled this off when the Vorlons were just as prone to blow stuff up with no real justification.
    • JMS also stated that the actors who played Londo and G'Kar were asked to flip a coin to see who would be the "good" one. He was immediately asked: "Who won?"
      • The joke makes a lot of sense in hindsight given that Londo and the Centauri are initially portrayed almost wholly sympathetically, while G'kar and the Narn are portrayed very much as villainous. By the end of the second season, however, both the characters and audience's sympathies have completely reversed (in part thanks to Londo making a Deal with the Devil). By the end of the fourth season, it's no longer clear who's the hero or the villain in the perpetual conflict - which was almost certainly the intention of Stracyzinski from the very beginning.
  • By The Sword Divided. There are some obviously 'good' characters, but none of them are perfect, while no one is shown as an out-and-out villain either.
  • The new Battlestar Galactica started off with the Cylons nuking the entire twelve colonies (ostensibly in retribution for the human's mistreatment of them before the first Cylon War) and the surviving Colonials running and trying to find Earth in a rag-tag fleet. However, as the seasons went on, the Colonials were shown more and more as people who could compromise their morality to survive, ultimately culminating in the arrival of the Pegasus and Admiral Cain, who not only allowed torture but allowed her sole Cylon prisoner to be raped over and over again. Near the end of the second season, the episode "Downloaded" also showed a different side to the Cylons - some even thought the destruction of humanity had been a bad thing. This eventually resulted in an Enemy Civil War and the end of the fourth season saw an alliance between the Colonial Fleet and the Rebel Cylons.
  • In various seasons of Survivor, the final two (three in more recent seasons) was often seen as this, both (or all three) people pretty much annoyed the Jury and they wound up voting for who they viewed as the lesser evil.
    • Marquesas is perhaps one of the best examples of this trope; Neleh admittedly didn't start playing the game until Day 24 and glided through on other peoples' shoulders, while Vecepia flip-flopped enough times to make everyone question where she stood, and won because everyone was mad at Neleh.
    • Thailand - Brian was a cold emotional sociopath who barely even spoke to the other tribe, and was accused of sexism and backstabbing among all things, while Clay was accused of racism and generally being a lech. Brian won only because he had enough people who respected him on the jury.
    • All-Stars: Rob and Amber were both blasted by the jury with Rob being viewed as a manipulative snake and Amber as a coattail rider. Amber ultimately won by one vote because of how mad the jury was at Rob.
    • Samoa is another example. Most of the jury was indeed angry at all three, who either rode coattails to the end without contributing much on their own and saying they deserved it in real life, (Mick), rode coattails and played dumb (Natalie), or wantonly bullied their way through the game and bragged about how awesome they were (Russell). Ultimately the vote was overwhelmingly towards Natalie - not for her strategic play or physical prowess, but because the jury thought she was a legitimately nice person.
    • South Pacific - Albert was seen as a sleaze and someone who nobody liked or respected, Sophie was seen as a pretentious and condescending brat, and Coach was accused of using religious hypocrisy and breaking his word several times over despite claiming to play with "honour" and "integrity". Ozzy laid it out in his opening jury speech - the jury did not want to vote for any of them.
  • In Lost the issues are so complex and the characters so murky that no one seems to be pure good or evil, although there are definite shades of gray (Hurley for instance is pretty light while hell, even Ben is getting truly gray.)
  • Dollhouse. While what the Dollhouse and the Rossum Corporation do is clearly nightmarish, and Paul Ballard (and earlier, Caroline) must be right to want to bring them down, Ballard is prepared to do very dubious things to do it, while Caroline is irresponsible and quixotic. Meanwhile, the people who work for the Dollhouse seem to really believe that they're doing good by "giving people what they need", and the dolls are all volunteers...
    • DeWitt's house, at least, seems to recruit people in desperate straits and helps them establish new lives after their term is finished. Whether this is rescuing them or preying on those with no options is an exercise for the viewer.
    • The episode where we first see Tudyk's character, Alpha, really shows the G&G. The start of the episode shows Echo saving a young girl from a downward spiral and helping her get over her traumatic past, while Ballard sneaks into the Dollhouse after finding it, accidentally bringing Alpha with him and causing problems while trying to help.
    • For added gray bordering on Fridge Horror, consider Boyd's stated reason for harvesting Echo's spinal fluid. If the antidote he could have synthesized was used properly it could potentially have saved thousands of people from being wiped, imprinted, bodystolen, and killed and may have severely mitigated the eventual downfall of civilization depicted in the season-ending episodes.
  • Farscape will be like this when it's not in outright Black-and-Gray Morality mode.
  • The first three seasons of Merlin (2008). The boy wizard himself and Arthur are definitely good guys, but they support a Knight Templar king who would execute Merlin if he knew the truth, often against designated villains with a legitimate grievance, and Merlin often makes some questionable choices to balance his nature against his support of the king. Why? In Arthur's case, family loyalty; in Merlin's, it's just Because Destiny Says So ("destiny" in this case being a dragon with a fairly major grudge against Uther himself). Hence, when Morgana decides to side with Morguase, it's very hard to see it as a Face–Heel Turn, and the script doesn't really make much of an attempt to present it as such. Season’s Four and Five however mostly shift away of this (but not always entirely).
  • The Wire is one of the finest examples of this trope in any medium. While you may arguably root for the cops to make their case, it's impossible to see even most of the cops as good guys. And the criminals get far too many humanising moments to possibly be considered bad guys. Creator David Simon said he wasn't interested in doing good vs. evil anymore; the results were as far in the opposite direction as can be done. While the politics remain consistently gray, as do the inner workings of the police department, in the conflict on drug kingpins, whenever Marlo Stanfield and his crew are involved, the show arguably crosses over into Black-and-Gray Morality.
  • Dexter, especially when it comes down to Dexter vs. Doakes in season 2. In the words of the man himself:
    "Am I evil? Am I good? I'm done asking those questions, I don't have the answers. Does anyone?"
    • He also points out that he essentially does Doakes' job but "at no cost to the taxpayer", and says that Doakes only knew he was a killer because he was one himself.
  • In stark contrast to other Trek series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is pretty much built on this trope, with the protagonists being A Lighter Shade of Grey. Hell, just watch "In the Pale Moonlight"... or listen to Kira talk about her days in the Resistance.
    • "In the Pale Moonlight" is closer to an example of Black-and-Gray Morality, combining I Did What I Had to Do with The Extremist Was Right in the face of losing a war against an Omnicidal Maniac empire.
    • In a fifth-season episode, "The Darkness and the Light", someone is targeting members of Kira's former resistance cell. She finally identifies the killer a Cardassian servant disfigured in one of their bombings. He claims, persuasively, that she killed innocent people whereas he never did-such as a bomb she set taking out not only a brutal Cardassian war criminal but his entire family too, along with anyone in the immediate vicinity-whereas he goes out of his way only to target them, and even spare the life of the unborn child she's carrying. Kira retorts that every Cardassian on Bajor during the Occupation, even if they just ironed shirts instead of carried a weapon, was equally guilty and were all legitimate targets. True, she's talking with a calculating, cold-blooded killer, but it drives home that, yes, Kira was a terrorist, and from his point of view he is the "light" to her "darkness". Kira's only real reply is the old idea that the one cannot exist without the other, or as she says "the light is brightest in the dark."
  • During its first three series, The 4400 featured several distinct factions (NTAC, the 4400 Centre, the people from the future, the Nova Group, Jordan Collier and his followers, Dennis Ryland's company), all of which are shown as in some way sympathetic, with good intentions. It's not until series four that we finally see some unambiguously bad guys (The Marked, who want to stop the 4400 and bring about the apocalypse just to make sure they stay on top of the pile).
  • While Fringe often presents wholly evil villains of the week, the war between parallel universes has oodles of this trope. The person most directly responsible for starting the conflict is Walter, our loveable Mad Scientist good guy, who kidnapped his Alternate Universe counterpart's child: the subsequent actions of Walter, William Bell, Walternate and both Fringe Divisions are attempts to defend their home universes from the other side's "attacks". Neither universe is depicted as "evil" or malicious. Walternate's ruthless, but he's faced with a world that's collapsing due to Walter's actions and believes it's the result of a deliberate attack by "our" universe. Also, Walter conducted experiments on children, a line Walternate was unwilling to cross.
  • La Femme Nikita — the 1997 Canadian series, not the reboot — Everyone is compromised, no one has clean hands, the intertwined layers of greater and lesser evil get extraordinarily complex, and the hero (or anti-hero) manages to embody the trope to near perfection. Even the luminous, golden-haired heroine fits the trope by the middle of the first season. Signaled conveniently by the all-black dress code for most characters.
  • Covert Affairs: While there are some definite bad guys, a lot of their enemies are decent people that simply happen to be working for their particular country just like Annie and her friends in the CIA are working for their particular country.
  • As The Borgias takes place during the power struggles between the rival Italian states and factions of the Renaissance, it fully embraces the moral ambiguity of the period, with few genuine heroes or outright villains. The Borgias don't shy away from using deplorable means to secure their power while continuing to do sympathetic things. Their enemies are not much different and are defined as villains more for opposing the protagonists of the series than much exceptional vileness compared to the Borgias.
  • On Salem, the conflict is of dark witches versus brutal witch-hunters. This could even be Evil Versus Evil, with innocent people such as Bridget Bishop and Giles Corey caught between the "grand rite" of the witches and the zealousness of the witch hunters.
    • John lampshades this in his last conversation with Cotton.
  • The Christmas special in the Norwegian sitcom Mot i Brøstet has Karl set up as the bad guy because he insists that they should celebrate Christmas in the old fashioned way, much to the other's displeasure, but the rest are wishing expensive gifts from him since he earned a lot of money on the stock market.
  • Orphan Black. Our main protagonist is Sarah, a thief and responsible mother, who starts the series off by impersonating a dead woman and trying to steal her money. Then you've got the organization who created the clones in the first place, who were perfectly willing to make peoples' lives a science experiment, perform medically invasive medical procedures without their consent, and set trusted "handlers" to spy on them- but at the same time, simply want to improve medical science and potentially life-saving technologies. There are people who want the clones killed, but only because they believe them to be against God's will.
    • Even some of the other, more innocent clones, such as college student Cosima and caring mother Allison have had to do darker and darker things for their own lives and freedom. Up to, and including, murder.
  • With very few exceptions, everyone on The 100 is just trying to ensure the survival and well-being of their people, and they're all willing to commit or condone some pretty horrible acts to make sure that happens. I Did What I Had to Do is a major recurring theme on the show.
  • In Firefly, background information reveals both the Alliance and Independents are quite grey. While the Alliance leadership are shown to be corrupt, they simply wish to bring order and peace to the planets they rule even if the means might be harsh. Furthermore, some Alliance characters are shown to be good people. Meanwhile, the Independents, have a noble goal of fighting the Alliance because they didn't want to be ruled by them. But many Independent planets are Crapsack World where crime and slavery are considered normal with one planet ruled by a sexist warlord who looks down on women and treats them as slaves.
  • Show Me a Hero is about a self-serving politician trying to get a beneficial housing project through a bigoted population while being most concerned with how it affects his future career.
  • All in the Family leans toward this at times. While we're clearly meant to see Archie as a blue-collar bigot with horribly outdated, racist, sexist, and generally socially backward thinking, he's also an overall nice guy who loves his daughter, spoils his grandson, had a troubled childhood that explains most of his nasty behavior, and is generally trying to keep up with a world that's changing extremely fast. On the other hand, we have Mike, who is a liberal and typically stands for everything Archie doesn't like, including positive ideas including the civil rights movement and equal rights for women. However, he can be just as narrow-minded and selfish as Archie, and perhaps even more so, as he tends to claim a moral high ground in every argument (regardless of whether it's justified). The overall theme of the show seems to be that while there are certain things—such as rape or racial profiling—that are definitely wrong, there aren't any easy answers to major problems like war, poverty, and violence, and both sides are represented by people who are equally good and bad regardless of position.
    • Individual episodes of the show had this treatment as well. One Christmas episode saw a draft dodger and a war veteran whose son was killed in Vietnam both at the Bunkers' house simultaneously (though Archie and the veteran didn't know about the draft dodger's status at first). When they find out, Archie reacts with fury, but the veteran responds with kindness and understanding instead of rage.
    • In another episode, the Bunkers' door is branded with a swastika. A local member of a Jewish defense league shows up to explain the situation and expresses the philosophy that sometimes violence is necessary when it comes to fighting back against inequality. Archie agrees, Mike disagrees, and neither is shown as being correct—and in the end, the young man is killed by a car bomb. The final shot of the episode is the Bunkers reacting in horror, as opposed to any further moralizing.
  • On Emerald City, no one character is flatly good or evil, with sympathetic and unsympathetic qualities.
  • Better Call Saul has a lot of this going on. Jimmy/Saul, though well-meaning and wanting to help others, is an unrepentant conman whose actions frequently verge into the illegal. His brother Chuck has a deep-seated code, but his obsession with standards and purity leads to him doing terrible things to others. Most of the criminals in the series, including Nacho and Gus, are at least somewhat sympathetic, and even Kim, probably the most upstanding character, still demonstrates Unscrupulous Hero tendencies at times. Mike, a brutal hitman who still boasts a clear moral compass, sums it up pretty well.
    Mike Ehrmantraut: I've known good criminals and bad cops. Bad priests. Honorable thieves. You can be on one side of the law or the other. But if you make a deal with somebody, you keep your word. You can go home today with your money and never do this again. But you took something that wasn't yours. And you sold it for a profit. You're now a criminal. Good one, bad one? That's up to you.
  • Rome is built of this. For instance, Caesar is unquestionably a military dictator who has seized power by force and has his political opponents imprisoned or killed, however, many of his policies would provide help to the poor and bring some equality to Rome's incredibly stratified and top-heavy class system. The main conflict of Season Two is between Mark Antony and Octavian, who spend the season passing the mantle of "slightly more sympathetic Anti-Hero" back and forth.
  • Mr. Sunshine (K-Drama) showed many characters with virtues and faults in the setting of Joseon's final days at the beginning of the twentieth century. Eugene Choi is a marine officer born to a slave family in Korea that gave him little incentive to aid his home country's cause, though generally help people if possible. Even the Les Collaborateurs of Imperial Japan had reasons for their allegiance, many of whom found advancement from their stations not available in Joseon-era Korea. The closest heroic group in the series is Righteous Army, many of whom tried to fight for their country despite their questionable loyalty to the Joseon Dynasty as many had been disillusioned by their blunders and restrictive social structure.
  • Cobra Kai: While it was never black and white to begin with, the initial grudge between Johnny and Daniel (who were the finalists in the tourney shown in The Karate Kid) culminates in the realization that they're Mirror Characters.
  • A French Village: Neither the French nor the Germans are saints. While the French are of course shown as in the right to resist the German occupation, they're also brutal, corrupt, etc just like the Germans.
  • Raised by Wolves (2020): Earth is destroyed in a conflict between the Mithraic, a Knight Templar religion of zealots, versus atheists, a terrorist insurgence that uses child soldiers and suicide bombers. Both are presented as dangerous and flawed.
  • The Umbrella Academy (2019): After spending a few decades alone in the apocalypse, Number Five is recruited by the Commission to become a field assassin in order to figure out how he can time-travel back to his family and save the world. In the process, he becomes the Commission's best fighter. Once Five does make it back, he is so fixated on stopping the apocalypse that he is willing to kill an innocent gardener before Luther stops him. During the second season, he kills the entire Commission board to get a briefcase and threatens to kill Diego if the latter fails to meet up with the others in time before the briefcase expires. When he learns that he had killed Lila's parents while initially working for the Commission, he admits that he's killed so many people and it was never personal. Lila says it was always personal with her, and Five says that's why she isn't cut out to work for the Commission.
  • Being as Oz takes place in the prison, it almost always lapses into this when it's not in Gray-and-Black Morality. All of the prisoners have some redeeming qualities and sympathetic traits, even monsters like Schillinger and Adebisi, while even the nicer inmates like Beecher and Rebadow are all killers. The prison administration isn't any better, being disconnected from the prison and wrapped up in bickering over where the line ends between justice and excessive punishment.
  • In AlRawabi School for Girls, Layan and her clique are vicious and spiteful in the beginning, but Mariam goes to far greater extremes with her revenge, even after Layan's group have stopped bullying her. By the end of the series, it's hard not to feel sorry for both groups.