Everybody loves a bad boy (or girl), and TV has a keen way of capturing all of our most innate psychology. When we want to know about ourselves, it’s a pretty reliable strategy to take a good long look at what we watch.
Take, for example, our collective love for the villains, the big bads, the heels and the douches. Sometimes we love a character despite their shady betrayals or murderous tendencies, and sometimes we love them because of it. Other times we love a character even though they are annoying and grating. But we always look to find something endearing about them, because that’s what we do.
No matter the why, the rise of the antihero has shaped the landscape of TV over the last decade (and maybe longer, for that matter), so now, we expect all our good guys to have a little bad boy in them. It just makes a character more interesting. It’s human nature to be suspicious of a character that is too good or selfless. We grow tired of the do-gooders and the Pollyannas, and we crave a little grit and a whole lot of edge.
15 JR Ewing - Dallas
Some of you might be a little too young to remember Dallas’ and its juicy, soapy awesomeness. But even if you’ve never seen one episode of the Texas drama, you’ve probably at least heard of JR Ewing. JR was the patriarch and head jerk in charge of Ewing Oil, and schemed his way onto everyone’s naughty list.
He betrayed, double-crossed, and victimized every single character on the show at least twice, but he was a total fan favorite. In fact, JR was the only character to appear in all 356 episodes of the original series that aired from 1978 -1991. Larry Hagman reprised the iconic role in the 2012 reboot and played JR until the actor’s death in 2013.
Fans loved to hate JR because, despite his ruthlessness, he was desperately charming and roguishly alluring. Sure, he could probably scheme you out of your life’s savings (and probably your underpants, too) but he’d do it so smoothly that you probably thank him and ask him for more.
14 Damon Salvatore - The Vampire Diaries
Being desperately good looking isn’t enough for this vampire bad guy. No, he’s also boyishly charming, unapologetically mischievous, and irresistibly rebellious. Damon has murdered a lot of folks, made promises he never intended to keep, and caused more mayhem than Mystic Falls could handle. But have you seen those eyes?
It might be because the virginal Elena saw something in him, but if you examine Damon closely - aside from his good looks and sparkling charisma - you’ll see that he really is awful as hell. He is one of the most untrustworthy characters on this show, yet we watch him every week with our hearts in our throats. So much of the main action of The Vampire Diaries comes from everyone trying to right Damon’s horrible wrongs.
Being a trainwreck is part of Damon’s charm, and that’s why we love him. His brother’s constant moral policing and ethical struggles grow weary. Sometimes you just gotta do the bad thing.
13 Gemma Teller - Sons of Anarchy
You have to admire this woman’s moxie. As the wife of the leader of the world’s most badass motorcycle club, she had to be one tough cookie. Gemma went through a lot during her tenure as head old lady, and the Sons of Anarchy couldn’t always protect her. Maybe this is why we’re so quick to forgive all her misdeeds, or maybe because we just need more female bosses in the world, but Gemma had our respect until the bitter end.
After her hubs died and her son ascended to the leadership role of the MC (motorcycle club), she ratcheted up her villainous ways, sabotaging everything she perceived as a threat. You know you’re a big bad when you conspire to overdose a recovering junkie and then actually kill your daughter-in-law with a screwdriver to the head.
12 Tony Soprano - The Sopranos
Tony Soprano, the mafia boss with the heart of gold, pretty much ushered in the contemporary popularity of the antihero. Before Tony blurred the lines of good and bad on the HBO series, The Sopranos, we had a much clearer picture of what a bad guy looked like.
Sure, Tony was ruthless and dishonest, but he was also tortured and introspective. We’d never seen a mafia boss visit a psychiatrist before, and we certainly never saw one on anti-depressants. For every terrible thing he did or shady deal he orchestrated, he did something equally endearing and tender-hearted.
He cheated on his long-suffering wife, Carmela, but he was an attentive and supportive father to his two children. He ordered hit after hit on the people closest to him, but he was a devoted and adoring son. We’re supposed to hate folks who murder, steal and cheat, but I just couldn’t bring myself to be mad at Tony Soprano.
11 Spike - Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Don’t send me angry letters about why Angel should be on this list. I don’t think any Buffy The Vampire Slayer fans are saying that Angel was a jerk. No, it’s Buffy’s second vampire choice, Spike, that was the real d-bag.
Even before he got the brain chip and came around to right side of the fight, there was always something endearing about him, and some fans rooted hard for a Buffy/Spike matchup. You could always see his feelings for Buffy, and the harder she rejected him, the more he became the underdog and the one to root for. It didn’t matter how he destroyed plans or worked against the gang’s best interest, his heart-eyes for Buffy redeemed him and we never muster any ill will.
When Buffy finally relented, she still treated him poorly and that only upped his value as the misunderstood misfit, instead of the sinister jerk he really was.
10 Selina Meyer - Veep
Selina Meyer may not be a direct threat to anything but herself and our nation’s reputation, but she can be a real jerk. She consistently eviscerates her political foes with scathing one liners, making the HBO series Veep one of the most popular on TV. Selena is less dangerous and villainous as she is hapless and inept, but she’s definitely not harmless.
Some might consider her a bit of a bully, but I think she’s just a woman strong-arming her way through the man’s world of Washington, DC. As the country’s first female president, Selina makes it really hard to like her. Here’s some of her meanest stuff, but these are guaranteed to make you laugh - and that’s why we love her, even though she’s really the absolute worst.
9 Jaime Lannister - Game of Thrones
Sigh. Swoon. Eyelash flutter. This villain is literally nicknamed the “king slayer” and we still love him so, so much. Game of Thrones is filled with evildoers, but none with such amazing cheekbones as Jaime Lannister. But it’s not just the cheekbones. It’s his rakish earnestness and vandal’s smile that make us root for him. Jaime is the opposite of the traditional underdog, but he always seemed to be fighting some invisible inner battle. As far as bad guys go, the more broken they are on the inside, the better we feel about sympathizing with them.
Jaime is probably the only character in the history of television that has audiences actually rooting for an incestuous relationship. It’s also his years of hardship as a hostage that gives us the room to see him as redeemable. While he may have started out a man without honor and an oathbreaker, we knew all along he was better than his evildoing.
8 Cookie Lyons - Empire
Can you really call someone a villain if everyone they do bad stuff to totally deserves it? That’s how I feel about Cookie. She may be a liar and a schemer, but she only does it for the right reasons. As long as she’s doing bad stuff for good reasons, we can be on her side, right?
Cookie spent 17 years in prison for taking the fall for her husband Lucious, and only wanted what was rightfully owed to her - Empire Music. From the moment Cookie was released from jail, everyone, including her own sons, have been conspiring to keep her from getting everything she deserves. That alone makes me Team Cookie all the way.
If you don’t care about justice and retribution, then you at least have to love her for being the fiercest, most well dressed bad guy on the list. Admit it. She slays all day. I don’t see any of these other villains rocking a purple fur coat and head-to-toe leopard print.
7 Barney Stinson - How I Met Your Mother
Okay, so Barney isn’t murdering anybody or conniving to screw his loved ones, but he really is just terrible. His womanizing and philandering makes him one of the world’s biggest douches, and the way he boasts about tricking women into sleeping with him is disgusting.
He’s slimy and greasy, and has very little in the way of personal integrity, but we love him anyway. Maybe it's the way he serves as a cautionary tale of indulgence, or a push back against the new millennial philosophy of unequivocal sexual positivity, but we can’t hate him. Barney’s character performs more like a caricature of an actual man, and it’s his absurdity that endears him to us.
And the suits. Don’t forget the suits. Anybody who can look that dashing and dapper in a suit while being so utterly gross is really pulling something off. Plus, he’s a pretty good friend, and surprisingly a really good boyfriend.
6 Walter White - Breaking Bad
Walter White started out as a mild-mannered suburban high school teacher in AMC’s Breaking Bad. In those early episodes, he was emasculated by his wife, demoralized by his students and crippled by debt. We felt sorry for this sad sack back then, but about the time he put that black hat on and started calling himself Heisenberg, he turned into the tough badass that declared himself the danger.
Walt is often considered a symbol for the downtrodden middle class, so when he rose to power in the New Mexican meth industry, we all secretly cheered. He became increasingly more awful as he became more powerful and as much as we hated him, we loved him even more. Even as the old, sweet Walt faded farther into the distance, his replacement was ruthless and dangerous and we all cheered. Yay for the little guy!
5 Ray Donovan - Ray Donovan
Showtime’s Ray Donovan is a recent addition to the TV archetype of the white guy with a dodgy past, tortured soul and sensitive spirit. What sets Ray apart is a darling South Boston accent and a very expensive suit. Strong and silent, Ray works as a Los Angeles fixer who cleans up messy problems of the very rich and famous.
He treats the women in his life like property, the men in his life like enemies, and is self-punishing and destructive in a way that would bring out the nurture in anyone. Especially if you’re drawn to broken things that will inevitably hurt you. Ray looks so good in a suit, that you would never guess what a street thug he is, having beaten a man to death with own hands. He’s so loving to his family that you wouldn’t suspect his past as an abuse survivor, either. We could never be as hard on Ray as Ray is, and that’s what makes us forgive him for all his terrible deeds.
4 Frank Gallagher - Shameless
Another Showtime bad guy, Frank is the loser patriarch of the poor, South Chicago, Gallagher clan. Father to a gaggle of kids, he’s a drug addict, an alcoholic, a liar, user, and cheater. He’s the worst possible example of humankind. Frank has faked his son’s cancer, sold his kidney on the black market, traded his other son in for a gambling debt, slept with his son’s girlfriend, and pretends to date his estranged daughter to trick her into giving him her liver.
All of that is terrible, but just like you can’t get mad if a drunk puppy pees on the rug, you can’t blame Frank for being Frank. Sure, he’s never been a real father to any of his children and has continually worked against their own best interest, but you have to appreciate a character that you can always laugh at, instead of laugh with.
3 A - Pretty Little Liars
This particular villain is a bit of a moving target, but if you’re going to give points for industriousness, you have to give A all the credit. As she terrorizes the Pretty Little Liars, she becomes increasingly clever in the execution of the mayhem. A product of the times, A mainly uses digital technology to stalk and bully her victims, so the most terrifying part of her reign is that you just couldn’t get away from her.
Not to take sides in the cyber war raging in Rosewood, Pennsylvania, but A is kind of awesome. She unleashes her wrath on a handful of entitled little mean girls that have a history of bullying and ostracizing anybody who is different from them. The little liars cover up crimes, lie to the police and hurt the folks in the town. Why haven’t we been rooting for A all along?
2 Cersei Lannister - Game of Thrones
It seems likely that two Lannisters would end up on the list, because, well, they’re just awful. But Cersei might just be the worst of the worst. She epitomizes all the female stereotypes, including the wicked queen, the evil stepmother and the jilted lover. Cersei lives up to almost every single terrible female archetype, but she’s still the most badass feminist I know.
Yep. She’s a scheming, cunning, treacherous shrew who sacrificed everyone she loved in order to protect her own interests. But you know what? She gets it done, and gets it done her way. Quiet, obedient, well-behaved women don’t get all the things they want in their lives and they certainly don’t get to be protector of the seven realms.
I might not want to be in book club with Cersei or have her cubicle next to mine, but when the fate of the people of the seven kingdoms is at stake, she’s about the only one I’d want leading the way.
1 Hannibal Lecter - Hannibal
Cannibalism might seem the worst in bad guy behavior, but when it’s done with the kind of style and poise exhibited by Dr. Hannibal Lecter, you have to acknowledge the beauty in the brutality. That’s a common theme in the short-lived NBC series, Hannibal. The lead character perpetrated dozens of heinous crimes with violent and gruesome precision. The mutilations of the bodies of the dead were so horrible, sometimes you couldn’t bear to look right at it. But there was always an element of beauty, and that’s why Hannibal is number one on the list.
Anything done in the name of art, can’t be all bad. And even though Hannibal’s murders were appalling and monstrous, they were never ugly. Hannibal himself was the most well-appointed serial killer in the history of murder, and if you can’t forgive him for anything else, you have to admire his pocket-square game.
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