Television drama has become a showcase of evil men doing evil things… and we can’t seem to get enough, writes Michael Adams.
Think back to your favourite 20th century television dramas and you’re greeted by lovable faces grinning across the years. Shows like The Rockford Files, Hill Street Blues, LA Law, E.R. and NYPD Blue were about good guys making the world a better place. But that changed at the turn of the century with the arrival of one Anthony John Soprano. Since then the “new golden age” of TV has increasingly reveled in badassery.
Look at the Emmy nominees in the primetime drama category the past few years. Homeland’s anti-hero wanted another 9/11. Boardwalk Empire celebrated bootleggers. Breaking Bad revolved around meth ‘n’ murder. Game Of Thrones started with its supposed good guy giving someone the chop. Mad Men’s maddest man’s an alcoholic sex addict scam artist. (Downton Abbey’s characters were the exception – they’re usually guilty of little more than class warfare.) And you don’t have to look far past those nominees for more proof that bad guys rule: witness True Blood, Dexter, Sons Of Anarchy, The Walking Dead and Magic City.
Here’s what we love best about this brilliantly bad lot.
1. Dexter Morgan Dexter
Why So Bad? Miami PD’s blood-spatter expert spends virtually every spare moment involved in the cold-blooded murder of criminals who meet his demented “code”. By any standards, Dexter is the most brutal character to ever grace the small screen, having personally sliced and diced about 125 victims.
Worst crime? Dex is bad. His sister Deb is good. But the most recent season saw his evil spill into her.
Why do we sympathise? The people he’s killing deserve it, really they do, and that’s why we kinda-sorta excuse him, despite our better selves. Plus, he’s all kinds of fucked up from his childhood (see also: Don, Nucky, Jax)
What’s next? When the show finishes this year, we don’t really want to see him dead, doing time (or doing Deb).
Words he lives by: “Dad once told me that some people deserve to die.”
2. Tyrion Lanister, Game Of Thrones
For his drinking and carousing, the imp is actually proving a good guy, resolving to do his best to stop the rest of his revolting, murdering and incestuous family.
3. Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, Boardwalk Empire
Why so bad? Atlantic City’s boss is a bootlegger but his sidelines include murdering rivals, shonky land deals and election rigging. Perhaps his biggest sin is womanizing with flappers when he has Kelly Macdonald’s perfectly splendid Margaret at home.
Worst crime? That Nucky takes betrayal very seriously was best demonstrated by his hands-on murder of Jimmy, who’d been like a son to him.
Why do we sympathise? Nucky’s ruthless when he needs to be but basically he’d rather just be doing business. Plus, he’s played by Steve Buscemi – world’s most lovable snaggletoothed weasel.
What’s next? With his enemies dead or behind bars, Nucky’s back on top in Atlantic City – but what does life mean without wife Margaret?
Words he lives by: “We all have to decide how much sin we can live with.”
4. Ike Evans, Magic City
We like Ike – he’s a late-1950s Miami hotel owner with a gorgeous wife and three kids he loves. But Ike’s killed at least one man and he’s on a murderous collision course with his business partner Ben Diamond.
5. Bill Compton, True Blood
Vampire Bill’s gone to the dark side, seemingly for good, which is great because the character’s been a pain in the neck for some time now. Given this show’s increasing craziness, expect him to be revealed as a Merman soon.
6. Jax Teller, Sons Of Anarchy
Why so bad? The President Of Sons Of Anarchy motorcycle club is a doting father, loving husband and loyal comrade in arms – who also happens to be a drug-smuggling, gun-running mass murderer.
Worst crimes: For all the rivals he’s iced, Jax’s way with the ladies is the worst. His influence on, Tara, his wife, has turned her from respected surgeon into a biker moll.
Why do we sympathise? Like Tara – who’s been kidnapped, maimed and jailed on his account – we see that Jax is deep down a stand-up guy who wants to get out of the criminal life and honour his dad’s intention that the MC be more like a hippie commune than a criminal enterprise. But he can’t because, well, the show’s called Sons Of Anarchy, not Models Of Citizenship.
What’s next? Until his evil-er stepdad Clay meets “Mr Mayhem”, Jax won’t rest easy.
Words he lives by: “I’d never turn on my club, or my family. I’m not my father.”
7. Walter White, Breaking Bad
Why so bad? Creator Vince Gilligan wanted this series to be about turning Mr Chips into Scarface and we’ve watched Walt go from high-school teacher to methamphetamine kingpin to murderous megalomaniac.
Worst crime? Season Five saw WW order the simultaneous murder of 10 potential stool pigeons but his worst moment remains letting Jessie’s girlfriend Jane drown in her own vomit. Her death caused her grieving air-traffic controller father to accidently let two planes collide – killing 167 people.
Why do we sympathise? Walt’s alternate life – as a Nobel Prizewinner and billionaire – lingers over who he is now and we’re keenly aware of the role that bad luck, bad health and bad decisions have played in him breaking so badly. But there’s also a sneaky respect for his ability to survive the criminal world by being more inventive and/or ruthless than his rivals. We should hate him. But no-one really wants to see him blown away/jailed in this year’s finale.
What’s next? The M-60 machine gun’s in his car boot. There will be blood.
Words he lives by: “I am the one who knocks.”
8. Don Draper, Mad Men
Why so bad? Mid-town Manhattan’s slickest – and sickest – 1960s ad man is superficially more cad than bad. His evils boil down to awesome cigarette smoking, epic boozing and rampant womanizing.
Worst crime? When he became Don Draper by stealing the identity of a dead comrade in the Korean War. All other self-deception flows from that moment.
Why do we sympathise? Self-deception’s never looked like so much fun – especially to 21st Century gentlemen who’re expected to be faithful to the woman at home after a hard day spent not drinking and smoking in the office. We’d all like to be the handsome devil-may-care Don Draper – except, you know, for those depressing drunken dark nights of the soul when he confronts the hollowness of his existence.
What’s next? Don’s gotta get in on some of that late-1960s free love, surely.
Words he lives by: “I hate to break it to you, but there is no big lie, there is no system, the universe is indifferent.”
9. Rick Grimes, The Walking Dead
Three seasons of zombie slaying has turned this level-headed Georgia cop into a very dark puppy indeed. Rick’s ruthlessness in leaving a fellow survivor to get munched backfired so badly that his wife died. Yowza. When the show returns, we’ll find out whether he can out-bastard The Governor.
10. Nicholas Brody, Homeland
Why so bad? This US Marine returns to the US from Iraqi captivity as the point man in a terrorist plan that’ll kill the American vice-president and a goodly number of top government officials.
Worst crime? Ruining the career of his unstable CIA agent lover Carrie Mathison by convincing everyone she’s nuttier than trail mix.
Why do we sympathise? We understand Brody’s been broken and brainwashed and that his targets have blood on their hands.
What’s next? Unclear, except that Brody’s the world’s most wanted ranga.
Words he lives by: “I’m more alone than I was in the bottom of that hole in Iraq.”