Skip to main content

Ranked: The top antiheroes in TV history

Not quite heroes, not quite villains, these are the characters everyone loves to hate and hates to love

The Sopranos (P621) "Made In America"
HBO

Humans are imperfect creatures. We make decisions that aren’t always morally right. Sometimes they’re selfish choices, and other times they’re made without any consideration of the consequences down the line. Because of its long-form format, TV is the perfect medium to dissect the blemishes of the human condition. We can really get to know characters and their motivations, and sometimes we even sympathize with characters who represent values we don’t connect with.

Enter antiheroes. These character archetypes were particularly popular in the middle of the 2000s and into the 2010s, and that is credited with creating a Golden Age of Television on cable TV and streaming services. We want to celebrate the importance of the antihero throughout TV history by counting down our 10 favorite good bad guys (or maybe they’re bad good guys?).

Omni Man Vs Invincible Full Fight

11. Omni-Man (Invincible)

Based upon the graphic novels series of the same name, Invincible became one of the best shows on Amazon Prime when it premiered in 2021. Perhaps the best protagonist/antagonist of the first season was Omni-Man (J.K. Simmons), an extraterrestrial superhero from the planet Viltrum. Omni-Man passes himself off as the hero who will save humans from any danger on Earth, but viewers know before anyone else that he has a much more villainous side than he originally let on. Omni-Man is actually on our home planet to invade it and conquer it for Viltrum. His harrowing conflict with his son over the morality of doing such a deed creates one of the heftier scenes in adult animation in recent memory. Omni-Man showed he has some good left in him when he left Earth still somewhat stable at the end of the first season, and we are unaware where the show will go from here when it picks up in late 2023.

Plankton Being The Second Most Relatable Character In SpongeBob Squarepants For About Over 5 Minutes

10. Plankton (Spongebob SquarePants)

Antiheroes don’t just exist in the world of live-action television. They also have become part of the cartoon and animation sector, and no character better represents the antihero trope than Plankton from SpongeBob SquarePants. Plankton wants to steal the Krabby Patty secret formula; not just because he wants a successful business, but also because he’s lonely. Plankton wants what Mr. Krabs already has: A loyal set of employees and occupational validation. These are both desires that many of us can relate to when watching beloved children’s cartoons on Nickelodeon.

24 Best Scene - Jack Bauer Body Armor

9. Jack Bauer (24)

Fox’s 24 was one of the last great network dramas before cable and streaming took over the TV landscape, and this is mostly due to Kiefer Sutherland’s multi-layered performance as Jack Bauer. This special agent didn’t always play by the rules, and he often used unconventional methods to succeed in the criminal world. Bauer is a great extension of the dirty cop trope that has appeared on TV for many years.

Ozark - Marty Byrde Meets With FBI Bosses - Marty Byrde Negotiates For Navarro

8. Marty Byrde (Ozark)

The head of the Byrde family seemed like a little bit of a knockoff of some other famous antiheroes who came before him, but as Ozark developed its own unique tone throughout its four seasons, Jason Bateman was able make Marty stand on his own two feet. The money laundering master is resourceful and calm in the face of adversity, but he never seems to know when it’s time to pull out of the drug game he’s gotten his family into. Marty doesn’t have the ego of some of the other antiheroes we love, but he certainly has the demeanor it takes to succeed in the criminal underworld.

|Sons of Anarchy| Jax threatens agent Kohn

7. Jax Teller (Sons of Anarchy)

The leader of a motorcycle gang in a small California town, Jax Teller is constantly grappling with the morality of his club’s actions and how they fit into his desires as a father and a husband. Actor Charlie Hunnam’s good looks sometimes shield the audience from the heartache boiling over inside the character’s soul. Jax’s decision-making and morally gray recklessness go off the rails frequently as the show progresses through its seven seasons.

'Confession to Doakes' Ep. 11 Official Clip | Dexter | Season 2

6. Dexter Morgan (Dexter)

Even during the height of the antihero movement, Michael C. Hall’s portrayal of the lovable serial killer Dexter Morgan reigns supreme in the minds of many TV fans. Dexter has a dense backstory and a complicated inner dialogue narrated in the first-person point of view in every episode. This gives an extra bit of perspective every time someone gets put on Dexter’s infamous table to meet their demise. Some people may think Dexter romanticizes violence and sympathizes with psychopaths, but this only adds to the lore of the character.

Walking Dead Negan Kills Glen and Abraham Scene - Glen And Abraham Deaths Scene

5. Negan (The Walking Dead)

Some fans feel that Negan’s entrance into the world of The Walking Dead was the shot in the arm the show needed, while others feel it was a jumping-of-the-shark moment. No matter personal sentiments, there’s no doubt that Negan is one of the darkest, yet most hilarious characters in recent memory. Actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s line delivery and chemistry with the rest of the cast even led to a spin-off, The Walking Dead: Dead City, which started airing in June 2023.

Omar Takes The Stand | The Wire | HBO

4. Omar Little (The Wire)

Omar Little is the standout character from an all-time great ensemble cast on The Wire. The late Michael K. Williams tightrope walked between murderer and thoughtful civilian with ease, forcing audience members to ponder how many arrestees and criminals on their own streets may resemble the king of Baltimore. Omar was also one of the first gay characters in HBO history, making him an important moment of representation.

Mad Men - Don Draper Calm & Confidence

3. Don Draper (Mad Men)

Don Draper is one of the most realistic antiheroes ever put on screen. He doesn’t sell drugs, kill people, or work with other criminals in the ways many of the other people on this list do. Instead, Don is the depressive, condescending head honcho of a 1950s advertising firm in New York City. His relationships with his coworkers and his family resemble the struggles of many men in his same life situations in the real world. While this seems dry on the surface, John Hamm can make the audience feel all of Don Draper’s emotions, for better or worse.

Tony Soprano Almost Gets Whacked - The Sopranos HD

2. Tony Soprano (The Sopranos)

Tony Soprano is the ultimate mob boss and the reason why the entire antihero concept works in modern television. By showing every aspect of Tony’s personal and family life, The Sopranos lets viewers see inside the complicated mind of a man who is so much more than just a sociopath. Tony struggles with parenting his children, getting along with his wife, and handling childhood trauma passed down by his mother. James Gandolfini has every acting skill imaginable to bring all of these layers of the character to the forefront. More than two decades since its premiere, The Sopranos is still a powerhouse due in no small part to its main character’s incredibly complicated life.

Walt Outplays Mike | Full Measure | Breaking Bad

1. Walter White (Breaking Bad)

Walter White is the ultimate antihero because he combines complete reprehensibility with an innocuous exterior that still somehow tricks viewers into siding with him. Even after he’s poisoned a child, let a woman choke on her own vomit, indirectly caused the death of his brother-in-law, and completely destroyed the lives of all of his loved ones, he’s still kind of a badass. That’s because Walter White symbolizes the lengths humans will go to when they want to feel alive. After 50 years of toiling away, Walter receives a catalyst — via lung cancer — that catapults him toward his true self. That authentic revelation is nothing short of despicable, but he’s still got a little piece of all of us inside of him.

Editors' Recommendations

Shawn Laib
Shawn Laib is a freelance writer with publications such as Den of Geek, Quote.com, Edge Media Network, diaTribe, SUPERJUMP…
The 11 best Tom Cruise movies, ranked
Tom Cruise is still providing great movies almost four decades into his career
Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick

The term "movie star" is thrown around a little loosely these days. Actors appear in one big blockbuster, and suddenly they're thrust into celebrity status for the foreseeable future. There are very few performers who have stood the test of time and created hits for decades. Sometimes, though, it works out. Tom Cruise fits this definition as well as any actor who's ever lived.

Cruise puts his all into his performances and movies, doing a majority of the stunts himself without a body double and funding his films through his own production company. While he may not have the Academy Awards of Jack Nicholson or Al Pacino, he's been arguably the defining actor of the action genre since the mid-1980s.

Read more
The 9 best movies to watch over Father’s Day weekend
Watch these films together and bond with your dad or father figure
Family watching TV together

In between grilling burgers and brats and checking sports scores, celebrating fatherhood presents a chance for men (and masculine-identifying people) to enjoy the people who appreciate and support them. Bonding over a great story on the big screen that both dads and children can relate to brings the entire family together for some fun!
Sure, they’ll still have to take out the garbage and clean the garage. But when the paternal figures in your life get an opportunity to rest on their day, the best Father's Day gift you can give is quality time. If his favorite hobby is watching movies, then you're in luck! Here are some Father's Day movies to watch with dear old Dad (Gramps, or Freat Grandpa). 

Daddy's Home (2015)

Read more
The White Lotus season 3: Everything we know
Get up to date on everything we know about The White Lotus season 3.
The cast of The White Lotus season 1.

When the first season of The White Lotus premiered in 2021, few could have suspected that it would become one of the best shows on HBO and Max. Even series creator Mike White considered The White Lotus to be a six-episode one-off story. But viewer response to this black comedy miniseries was so strong that White and HBO realized that they had a hit on their hands. That's why the series was quickly renewed, and it premiered on HBO and Max in 2022 just a little over a year after the first season.

The White Lotus season 3 was confirmed in November 2022, but unfortunately, the hiatus between seasons is going to be over two years. Each of the first two seasons featured an almost completely different cast of characters, although Jennifer Coolidge and Jon Gries reprised their characters in season 2 to establish some connections with the previous season. There aren't currently a lot of details known about the third season. Regardless, we're sharing everything we know about The White Lotus season 3, which includes most of the cast, the theme and setting, as well as when fans can expect the show to return.
Who's starring in The White Lotus season 3?

Read more