The 8 Ball 03.12.13: The Top 8 TV Antiheroes
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 03.12.2013
From Walter White in Breaking Bad and Tyron Lannister in Game of Thrones to Tony Soprano, Faith from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and more, 411's Jeremy Thomas counts down the top 8 TV antiheroes of all time!
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!
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Top 8 TV Antiheroes
As TV watchers we love our bad guys, don't we? It has been said many a time that villains are far more entertaining than heroes, and there is certainly truth to that in many instances. Perhaps the only thing better than a villain that goes head to head with the hero is a villain who is also our protagonist. Antiheroes have seen quite a rise in the past fifteen to twenty years, particularly on television. Where it used to be primarily an area explored by books and film, it is now at a point where you can't throw a rock on TV without getting callously shot by the protagonist for daring to throw a rock in their direction. This week I thought we could look at the greatest antiheroes to grace the small screen.
Caveat: Let's define the term "antihero," just so we know what we're dealing with. An antihero is a protagonist who lacks many of the purely morals or values that makes some of the best heroes. An antihero often breaks the law and sinks to depths that a more traditional hero would never consider, either for the greater good or (more often) for their own good. For the purposes of this list, I wanted to look at characters that really toed the line between good and evil so I left off characters that may break the rules but are still fundamentally good or heroic. This includes the likes of 24's Jack Bauer, Firefly's Malcolm Reynolds, Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica, Sterling Archer, Veronica Mars and such. Also (though I don't think I'll get too much argument on this one), the more soap opera-esque shows revel in antiheroes so much that even the most heroic often qualify and I left them off too. Thus people like Revenge's Emily Thorne, J.R. Ewing from Dallas and such didn't get considered. Even so, it was a tough list and some cuts I made were really, really tough ones.
Just Missing The Cut
Ryan O'Reily – Oz
Sylar - Heroes
Omar Little – The Wire
Jax Teller - Sons of Anarchy
Dr. Gregory House - House
#8: Faith Lehane - Buffy the Vampire Slayer
First on our list is someone who proves that you don't need to be a guy in order to be an antihero. Which isn't to say that Eliza Dushku's seminal "good girl gone bad" doesn't have balls; far from it. Over the seven-season run of Joss Whedon's fan-favorite television series, I would venture to say that there are few people who have the kind of cojones that the "other Slayer" has. Faith Lehane (her surname was introduced after the series was completed, but is considered canon) was created specifically in order to be the dark mirror of the more heroic Buffy Summers. Marti Noxon, who was a long-time writer and producer on the series, has often referred to Faith as Buffy's "road not taken"; in other words, what could have happened with Buffy if her life had turned out differently. And what a road it was; Faith jumped the line between villain and hero constantly and even when she was on the Scooby side, she was far from a well-behaved, color-within-the-lines of heroism type. She killed humans, her father figure was an evil mayor who tried (and succeeded) in ascending to demonhood, she attacked and hurt the heroes of the series both physically and emotionally and pretty a lot of what would be considered part of a villain's playbook. However, ultimately even her most villainous stage occurred during a season (Three, if you're not well-versed on the Buffyverse) in which she displayed heroic tendencies, both in the beginning and in the end. Her tendency to tap dance back and forth across the line of good and evil made her a more interesting character than Buffy, at least in the doses we had of her.
#7: Jim Profit - Profit
Profit was a show that was very well ahead of its time. This is the kind of show that would have been absolutely perfect on HBO, F/X or AMC and I firmly believe that it would have had a long and successful run had it come out in this era. Unfortunately, such was not meant to be and it only aired four of eight filmed episodes on FOX in 1996. Truth be told though, if not for Profit it is very possible that we wouldn't have had the kinds of edgy, morally gray shows that have followed in its wake to become ratings juggernauts and critical darlings. At the center of the show was Adrian Pasdar, who would eventually find network success on Heroes, playing the role of Jim Profit. Profit is an executive at the rather unethical multinational Gracen & Gracen who is not above anything in order to climb the corporate ladder. He set his father on fire, slept with his stepmother and committed acts of bribery, extortion and more in order to get what he wanted. Pasdar was phenomenal in the role and as much as you loathed Profit's actions, you couldn't help be suckered in by his charisma. Profit is the progenitor of the modern-day antihero and pretty much every single character on this list owes a debt to him for paving the way. Interesting trivia note: David Greenwalt, who co-created the show, became a major force creative behind Angel and strongly considered bringing Jim Profit into that show as a member of Wolfram & Hart, though scheduling problems with Pasdar and difficulty securing the rights to the character killed that chance. If that had succeeded or if the show itself had even made it just a full season, he would have likely made it much higher on this list.
#6: Nicholas Brody - Homeland
Nicholas Brody is the newest character on this list, with his show being only two seasons long so far. However, in those two seasons he has quickly become one of the most compelling characters on one of the best shows on TV today. Played with award-winning skill by Damien Lewis, Nicholas Brody is a U.S. Marine who is rescued by Delta Force after being held by a terrorist group as a prisoner of war for eight years. Brody begins a difficult transition back to his life in the States, both aided and complicated by the fact that he is being hailed as a war hero. Meanwhile, he also happens to be a sleeper agent for his longtime captor Abu Nazir and is set to commit an act of terror on American soil. One of the truly magical things that Homeland creators Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon have accomplished with this show is setting a lead character as a terrorist and humanizing him without trying to blunt the acts that he is considering. By getting inside Brody's head, we understand why he is doing what he does although we cannot condone it. Brody himself is tortured by his conflicting loyalties and some pretty severe PTSD, which only get complicated worse by his relationship with the CIA agent who is onto him. Brody is an incredibly complex character who constantly weaves back and forth between the two forces pulling at him, making his journey a truly fascinating one.
#5: Tony Soprano – The Sopranos
Tony Soprano was probably the first of the modern-day antiheroes who managed to find real success on television. David Chase's creation of TV's most famous made man was a moment that changed everything for not just HBO, but television in general. Tony Soprano is a terrible human being. He's a murdering gangster who betrays anyone and everyone around him and ruins pretty much everything he touches, often by choice. And yet he believes he is a good man and with The Sopranos, Chase and James Gandolfini challenged us to avoid getting sucked into Tony's world and even viewing him as a protagonist. A big part of that were his therapy sessions where we sought, as much as Tony did, to understand how someone can be the kind of stone cold criminal that it takes to run a criminal empire. Gandolfini deserves just about every award he received for his work as Tony; it was his charisma and dramatic skill that really brought us on and made us appreciate and even empathize with the character. It was a risky proposition (remember, this was 1999--only three years after Profit received a firestorm of controversy and failed to bring in the big ratings) and yet thanks to Chase and Gandolfini, as well as the rest of the cast and crew around them, people watched and loved it. That kicked off a new era in TV and largely signaled the rise of the antihero.
#4: Tyrion Lannister - Game of Thrones
Tyrion is another much newer entry on this list; he predates Brody by just six months. When Game of Thrones was announced to be heading to the small screen, there was one thing every one of my friends who had read George R.R. Martin's series A Song of Ice and Fire kept telling me: "You're going to love Tyrion Lannister." Lo and behold, I do. There are a lot of characters on Game of Thrones who could conceivably qualify for this list; the show is all about moral ambiguity in its characters. That being said, Tyrion is by far the most compelling antihero of the lot. When we first meet the character we have every reason to hate him; he is a manipulative man of the family that is clearly the most villainous of the lot and he seems to care for very little that does not benefit his own welfare. But there is far more to Tyrion than meets the eye and as the first season progresses we grow to appreciate him not just as a source of wit but as a person. As the lines between good and evil blur on the show, Tyrion finds himself firmly within that gray area and even in a more heroic stance as time goes on. But even in his more benevolent demeanor during the second season we find that he is perfectly willing to play politics at its most manipulative levels. Peter Dinklage is a great actor who seems practically made for the role and he tears into it with glee, though he never approaches the camp level that the role dangerously flirts with. While the show is of course an ensemble one, Dinklage is the lynchpin that keeps much of it together and navigating the treacherous politics of the characters is a feat he accomplishes quite well, making him incredibly enjoyable even when he takes more than a few dips into questionable territory.
#3: Vic Mackey – The Shield
F/X is the home of moral ambiguity on basic cable. Much of that is thanks to Kurt Sutter, who created Sons of Anarchy and wrote and executive produced The Shield, which was created by Shawn Ryan. The Shield was the show that really started to build F/X's reputation for a network that brought quality drama to television and much of that rests on the shoulders of Michael Chiklis, who was a dramatic powerhouse as detective Vic Mackey. Mackey is every bit the corrupt cop that makes for a great antihero; he has no issue with using very dark means in order to create order out of chaos. Throughout the duration of the series' seven seasons Mackey steals from drug dealers, beats suspects and even kills a fellow detective--in the first episode, nonetheless. But he does it not just to protect himself, but out of loyalty to his unit. Vic sees himself very much as a protector as well as a provider for his family and nothing is off-limits in the pursuit of those goals. While many of his actions are unconscionable, his reasons for many of them are noble (if a twisted nobility) and that is in large part what puts him firmly in the role of an antihero.
#2: Dexter Morgan – Dexter
If you didn't know that Dexter Morgan was going to be on this list, I'm honestly kind of shocked. Dexter has become sort of the poster boy for the antihero; a character who we should not empathize with but do. There is no reason we should grow to love a character who is a largely-unrepentant serial killer but the sheer force of his personality, coupled with the fact that his mass killing has a specific code, endear him to us. Based on Jeff Lindley's series of novels, this show helped to not only put Showtime on the map but place it ahead of rival HBO in becoming the go-to premium network for quality television for quite some time. As of the end of the seventh season, Dexter has been confirmed to have killed 125 people, but the vast majority of them are specifically within his code of only killing the worst among humanity. He was trained to do this by his adoptive father, who saw his predilection at a young age and attempted to mitigate it as much as possible. And certainly, the early trauma of seeing his mother brutally and sadistically killed is something that could well create a killer like Dexter. That being said, his crimes don't just stop at killing other killers; he falsifies evidence in his work as a blood spatter analyst to protect himself and his actions have led to the deaths of many close to him and he has most recently pulled his sister Debra into his world of murder, albeit reluctantly. Amidst all of this though, we can't help but be enthralled by him and part of the joy in the series is seeing him teeter back and forth on the brink of going too far. One gets the feeling that as the show nears its finale (possibly after the upcoming season), there will be no happy ending for Dexter and that might be for the best, for the sake of those in his fictional world.
#1: Walter White – Breaking Bad
I love all of the characters on this list, but there was no question to me of who was going to be number one. I will confess as to still not being quite caught up on Breaking Bad but you don't have to be all the way through to where the show currently stands to give Bryan Cranston's high school chemistry teacher-turned-drug dealer his due. As the show begins, Walter is a man riddled with desperation; cancer is starting to eat away at him and his family is struggling as it is, which leads him into a life of cooking meth. As the show progresses however, the desperation gives way to the creation of a true icon of antiheroism. Walter hits levels of villainy that almost make antihero an inaccurate word; in any other series, he would be the darkest villain possible. It is only because of Cranston and the superior writing from creator Vince Gilligan and his team that we feel any level of empathy for him, and the fact that we feel enough to even not consider him the villain of his own story is amazing. What makes Walter such a captivating character is his beginning as such a normal guy; it is a masterful exploration of the dark side within even the most average, ordinary person to commit terrible deeds if given the opportunity. Walter White is an icon of television in the current era and easily the greatest antihero to grace the small screen ever created.
Note: Now that I am caught up to current, I have gone back to watch the episodes that have become available in the US since I started watching and thus were previously unavailable to me (thus why I have episodes remaining despite being caught up).
Current Series/Season:Season Eleven (1974) Episodes Watched: 605 Last Serial Completed:Invasion of the Dinosaurs - The Doctor and Sarah Jane arrive in 1970s London to find it has been evacuated because dinosaurs have appeared mysteriously and are rampaging through the streets. While the Doctor teams up with UNIT to determine the origins of the prehistoric creatures, Sarah Jane investigates on her own. But can either of them prevent a plot to revert London to a pre-technological level? Surviving Episodes Remaining: 24
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.