The recent passing of James Gandolfini made me think about how likeable his Tony Soprano character was and still is. Since the start of ‘The Sopranos,’ there have been several shows with many likeable (and sometimes loveable) villains who the audience cheers for.
I have put together a top 10 list of TV bad guys that I know we all love. Antiheroes like T-Bag (Prison Break), the Trinity Killer (Dexter), and Nina Myers (24) don’t equate because they were evil to their core, with no redeemable qualities. So there is no misunderstanding, characters that make this list must be: 1. True bad guys, 2. know they’re bad guys, and yet 3. have some good qualities. Apologies to the Victor Newman, Avon Barksdale, and Enoch Malachi “Nucky” Thompson characters, there just wasn’t enough room on my list. Enjoy!
“Well here’s an idea: why don’t we take a gun, point it to his big toe and send that little piggy to the market… And if he still doesn’t want to tell us, move on to the roast beef. Why don’t we do that?” – Sawyer (‘The Economist’ (4.3))
There’s no doubt in my mind that Ben (Michael Emerson) was the most entertaining bad guy, and The Man In Black was ultimately the most important bad guy, but Sawyer was hands down the loveable. Before we actually met the “Others,” Sawyer was the group’s resident scoundrel; bugging and terrorizing the entire cast through fear, manipulation, and unending mind games. He became more of a human being towards the end of the series, but his trademark wit, nicknames, and one-liners remained constant throughout the series.
10. (Tie) Gustavo “Gus” Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) – ‘Breaking Bad’
“You are a wealthy man now. One must learn to be rich. To be poor, anyone can manage.” – Gus Fring (‘Abiquiu’ (3.11))
The character is only listed in 26 episodes, but his impact is at least as big (if not bigger) than Walt’s sidekick Jesse (Aaron Paul). There’s just something about a guy who hides in plain sight and moves in silence (the definition of a true gangster). He was very mysterious, psychotically meticulous, and highly successful. I found myself wanting to see Gus’ empire succeed right up until he met his demise. He also owns the best visual death in television history.
9. Patricia “Patty” C. Hewes (Glenn Close) – ‘Damages’
“I’m not looking to destroy you. We attorneys survive: it’s the clients that come and go.” – Patty Hewes (‘I Hate These People’ (1.11))
In the beginning of this series, it seemed as though Patty was the good guy, but like all respectable TV villains, her look was deceiving. She did anything (lie, cheat, steal) to win a case, or the fictional war she believed she was in. She even tried to have her protégé Ellen (Rose Byrne) killed, but that didn’t stop a large portion of the audience from wanting to see her succeed. By the end, she turned out to be worse than the original enemy Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson).
8. Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) – ‘Justified’
“Truth always sounds like lies to a sinner.” – Boyd Crowder (‘The Hammer’ (1.10))
What has the world come to when a racist, church-bombing psychopath can make this list? Truth is, this show wouldn’t work without the witty repartee and distinct Southern accent of Mr. Crowder. His character reminds me of a villain from a superhero comic. He’s bad… but not that bad… and somehow it might not be his fault that he’s so bad. Plus, he really seems to love Ava which probably enhances his appeal with the audience.
7. Victor Samuel “Vic” Mackey (Michael Chiklis) – ‘The Shield’
“I’m Armageddon. Say hello to the hounds of hell.” – Vic Mackey (‘Enemy of Good’ (5.2)”)
There seems to be a sub-industry catering to the “flawed cop” and this character takes the cake. In pursuit of power and riches, he killed, lied, stole, cheated, and betrayed his way to the bottom, and fans loved every minute of it. This series ended with Mackey sporting a wry smile on his face seemingly on his way to stir up more trouble. This was a very apropos ending for this evil genius.
6. Russell “Stringer” Bell (Idris Elba) – ‘The Wire’
“You taking notes on a criminal f–king conspiracy?” – Stringer Bell (‘Straight and True’ (3.5))
Mr. Bell never made it out of season three, but his legend is talked about as if he were a real person. I believe his lovability came from his ability to escape the trap of cliché. Most television shows portray drug dealers and gun-toting Neanderthals who can’t even spell politics, but he was a man whose ideas (trying to make sense of the “drug game” by running it like a legitimate business) and vision got him killed. He did his business in a cool and calm way that I believe was endearing to fans of the show.
5. Walter Hartwell White Sr. (Bryan Cranston) – ‘Breaking Bad’
“I am not in danger, Skyler. I AM the danger! A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks!” – Walter White (‘Cornered’ (4.6))
It’s been a wild ride watching Walter White transform from being in the teaching business to being “in the empire business.” His appeal probably stems from his early motive of selling drugs to make sure his family would be taken care of after he died of cancer. He outsmarted Gus Fring (#10 on this list), amassed a small fortune, and for a time did his illegal work right under the nose of his DEA brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris). No matter how low Walter gets; how bad he “breaks,” fans can’t get enough. It’s a shame that the series will be ending this year.
4. Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) – ‘Dexter’
“There are no secrets in life; just hidden truths that lie beneath the surface.” – Dexter Morgan (‘Crocodile’ (1.2))
Who doesn’t love a guy who kills criminals the justice system can’t seem to corral? This series found a place for sociopathic serial killers in our (TV) society. Dexter doesn’t really have a personality, so appeal is derived from his ability to escape sticky situations. Every season he got himself into trouble, and every season he managed to find his way out. The series will end soon, and I suspect this loveable bad guy will finally get his just due.
3. Omar Devone Little (Michael K. Williams) – ‘The Wire’
“I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. It’s all in the game though, right?” – Omar (‘All Prologue’ (2.6))
A person who robs drug dealers has to be likeable, right? He’s a semi-gangster with a Robin Hood complex who happens to be homosexual… very complex. He really was only a bad guy because he broke the law (that last statement doesn’t make sense), not because of his moral character (again, doesn’t make sense). It’s not fair to only include one quote from him, since almost everything he said was impactful. When asked how he is able to stay alive as a person who robs drug dealers for a living he simply said, “Day at a time, I s’pose.”
2. John Ross “J.R.” Ewing, Jr. (Larry Hagman) – ‘Dallas’
“A marriage is like a salad: the man has to know how to keep his tomatoes on the top.” – JR Ewing (‘Family Plot’ (13.24))
1. Anthony John “Tony” Soprano (James Gandolfini) – ‘The Sopranos’
“What kind of person can I be, where his own mother wants him dead?” – Tony Soprano (‘I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano’ (1.13))
What a character. Tony Soprano ushered in what I call the “Era of Evil.” He killed people, cheated on his wife, robbed, conned and cheated almost every person he dealt with, yet he seemed to be a caring father. Getting to see him discuss his life during his therapy sessions definitely lightened the audience’s perceptions, and allowed fans to see a different side of this ruthless gangster. Setting aside his evil deeds, this character was funny, engaging, and dynamic. I just wish James Gandolfini got the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of his labor a little while longer.