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8 of Television's Greatest Anti-Heroes

Updated on January 9, 2014

Rooting for the Bad Guys...

The anti-hero has always been a daring concept in storytelling. This concept of creating a lead character who is morally corrupt, makes questionable choices and is possibly down right evil has been especially controversial in American media. Back in the days of the Hays Production Code, which regulated Hollywood film content from 1934 to 1967, it was strictly forbidden to make a lead character evil and the good guys always had to win in the end.

The American government was extremely worried that the portrayal of villains who won would corrupt society and encourage people to do wrong. In 1967, the government's worse fears were realized when the Arthur Penn film Bonnie and Clyde broke the long held rules regarding anti-heroes. Bonnie and Clyde were bank robbers who engaged in gunfights with the police while simultaneously becoming Robin Hood-like heroes to the poor citizens of the Great Depression era.

Now, more than 45 years after Bonnie and Clyde, the anti-hero has become a staple of some of the most compelling American television dramas of the early 21st century. It has almost become a requirement of great modern TV shows to include a lead character who is flawed in their morals and actions while still empathic to the audience. Now let's take a look at eight of TV's most fascinating anti-heroes since the turn of the century.



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Nucky Thompson

Series: Boardwalk Empire (HBO) Played by: Steve Buscemi

Enoch "Nucky" Thompson is a political boss and bootlegger who controls Atlantic City, NJ with an iron fist in this brilliant 1920s based crime series. He is based on real life political boss Enoch L. Johnson who ran Atlantic City politics from the 1910s until 1941. Like his real life counterpart, Thompson is ruthless when it comes to his political pursuits and engages in many illegal businesses from bootlegging alcohol to prostitution rings. Despite his villainous nature, he is quite the charmer and can easily convince the public he is a morally upstanding individual. However, Thompson never hesitates to result to murder in order to protect his power and is even seen pulling the trigger himself when a situation becomes personal.

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Patty Hewes

Series: Damages (FX) Played by: Glenn Close

Patty Hewes is a cutthroat and manipulative New York attorney who takes on high profile cases and doesn't consider losing to be an option. She is a powerful woman in a male-dominated world and refuses to allow her gender to be a handicap. In order to secure her power and dominance over her legal opponents she is not above bending and at times even breaking the law entirely. Things become complicated for her after she hires Ellen, a sharp lawyer fresh out of law school whom Hewes becomes a mentor to. She soon results to attempting to kill Ellen once Ellen finds out a bit too much about Hewes and her secrets.

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Dr. Gregory House

Series: House (FOX) Played by: Hugh Laurie

Gregory House is a physician and the epitome of a year-long Scrooge who is constantly in a grumpy and bad mood due to constant leg pain and subsequent drug addiction. He seems to have little care for his employees, his patients, the rules of the hospital he works in and really life in general. Despite this he is a brilliant medical mind known for nearly always coming up with the cause behind many of the strange cases that are thrown his way. He see's curing people as a form of solving a complex puzzle and never misses an opportunity to use his wit and sarcasm as a way of holding his high intelligence above everyone's head.

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Dexter Morgan

Series: Dexter (Showtime) Played by: Michael C. Hall

Dexter Morgan is a forensic blood spatter analyst who moonlights as a vigilante serial killer. It would seem that Dexter has little to no emotions at all and has to fake being normal to the everyday world. He was raised by a police officer who figured out that Dexter, at a young age, had something evil brewing inside him and taught him how to both control this evil and how to use it for good. Dexter lives by a code in which he only kills other evil individuals who have somehow eluded the law. He stalks his prey methodically and only strikes once he is sure they deserve what he delivers. His ritualistic sacrifices provide the bases for one the most polarizing yet enduring protagonist in American fiction history.

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Frank Underwood

Series: House of Cards (Netflix) Played by: Kevin Spacey

Congressman Frank Underwood redefines the concept of modern political corruption. While many today assume a congressman's biggest sins are inaction and backdoor deals with lobbyists, Underwood shows that the dark, irrefutable hole of American political corruption goes deeper than any of us could have imagined. Underwood is a man on a warpath after he is denied an appointment to the position of Secretary of State under a new president. His boundless political ambition coupled with his unquenchable desire for political revenge makes him one of the most dangerous men in America. All the while he swears that everything he does is for "a greater good."

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Omar Little

Series: The Wire (HBO) Played by: Michael K. Williams

Omar Little is possibly one the most complex and compelling anti-heroes ever to appear on American television. His occupation is a bit difficult to describe. He basically robs drug dealers of their bulk supplies of drugs (Particularly heroin) at gunpoint and then either sells the drugs back to them at higher prices or sells the drugs to competing drug crews. By the end of the series he simply throws the drugs away. He is a chain-smoking homosexual who has a strong distaste for foul language and sticks to a strict code of only killing and robbing people who are in the "drug game." He supplies info to the police when he feels compelled to and is both deeply hated and extremely feared by the drug crews he targets. He is riddled with anomalies and paradoxes and obtains a near mythical reputation on the gritty streets of Baltimore, Maryland.

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Tony Soprano

Series: The Sopranos (HBO) Played by: James Gandolfini

Tony Soprano is not only one of the most iconic television characters in American history, he is quite possibly the godfather of the anti-hero archetype for the 21st Century. Tony was an Italian mafia crime boss that at first followed all of the mafia stereotypes that have been instilled in us by iconic films such as The Godfather and Goodfellas. However, he quickly redefined the image of a mobster by displaying a wealth of humanity and vulnerability that was previously unseen in American media. His sessions with his psychiatrist revealed levels of emotion and psychological exploration that most men in his position wouldn't dare exposing. He was able to maintain power over his men while discovering things about himself through therapy that made him a better man who simply could not escape the darkness of his past.

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Walter White

Series: Breaking Bad (AMC) Played by: Bryan Cranston

Walter White's transformation from mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher to meth kingpin will stand as one the boldest and most revolutionary character developments on American television for decades to come. Unlike all of the other characters on this list, Walter did not start out as an anti-hero. When he got his terminal cancer diagnosis and decided to team up with his former student Jesse Pinkman to cook methamphetamine in order to secure his family's financial future, very few audience members found fault with him. But slowly, Walt's greed and bitterness about his situation got in the way of his original goal and he found himself killing people who didn't threaten him and cooking enough meth to ruin countless other families throughout the southwest.

When one considers the sheer magnitude of all the heartache, pain, and death Walter rained down onto his world, many wonder why so many rooted for his victory even until the bitter end. As Walt turned into Hiesenberg, his character challenged TV audiences like no other had ever done. Audience minds were warped and distorted by the constant downward spiral that Walter's actions began to take. This role is what the Production Code that existed so many years ago feared the most: A sympathetic man who turned from good to questionable to bad to evil and in the end still, in a way, wins.

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    • CoryBradford91 profile image
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      Cory A. Bradford 3 years ago from United States

      ^^ You are very right about Vic Mackey, the minute I wrote this list I thought of The Shield and started kicking myself for not including that. It's just been so long since I've seen that show I wasn't thinking of it when I wrote this.

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      Steve Eye 3 years ago

      You forgot the quintessential, role-defining Anti-hero in all of TV: Vick Mackey from The Shield.

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      rushmaster 3 years ago

      Perfect list. Also good idea for a hub, I myself am noticing how often the protagonists on shows like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos are often bad guys.