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?).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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