I’ve always been a huge fan of villains. They’re more fun, more interesting, and much more entertaining than heroes. Villains get all the best lines, because they don’t have to be proper, kind, and inoffensive. They also get the best costumes, because looking bad often also looks very cool.
When I watched wrestling, I cheered for guys like Rowdy Roddy Piper and Jeff Jarrett, who were great at antagonizing the good guys and riling up the crowd. In comic books, I liked guys like The Joker, Magneto, and Dr. Doom, brilliant cerebral villains who could out-think their drably heroic nemeses. Villains like Darth Vader and Darth Maul are just a lot cooler than their goodie goodie counterparts. Villains are dark, flashy, sarcastic, strong willed, intelligent, and know no boundaries. The greatest villains are experts at making people love to hate them.
I’m only listing actual villains, not characters like Archie Bunker, George Jefferson, Major Charles Winchester, Stanley Roper, and Sheldon Cooper, who are obnoxious antagonists, but not pure villains. I’m not including characters like Wesley Crusher who are hated for their suckiness rather than evilness. I’m not including characters like Barnabas Collins, James “Sawyer” Ford, or Barney Stinson, who are more anti-heroes than villains. I’m not including characters like Colonel Klink, Taylor Doose, and Roscoe P. Coltrane, who are too inept to be a threat to anyone, and are far too laughable to be considered evil. With the exception of #12, I’m not including groups such as the Borg, the Cylons, etc., just individuals. I’m not including cartoon villains, because they’ll get their own list at a later date, as will movie villains.
I find villains to be wildly entertaining and have much more creative content than heroes. I root for them, even though in most cases the good guys always win. Here are the live action TV villains I’ve most enjoyed:
13. Robbie Rotten (Stefan Karl Stefansson) “Lazy Town” Quirky Icelandic kids show Lazy Town brought us a very enjoyable, if inept, villain in wanna-be slimeball Robbie Rotten, delightfully played by Icelander Stefan Karl Stefansson. Robbie comes up with many accidentally innocuous plots attempting to thwart goodie goodie Sportacus from teaching the kids of Lazy Town to eat right and exercise, but he always comes up short. Robbie fancies himself as an evil villain, but is more a big kid who just wants to fit in and be included. Robbie may not be dangerous, but he’s certainly rotten, his intentions are certainly villainous, and his bumbling plots are fun to watch unravel.
12. The Daleks “Dr. Who” One of Time Lord Dr. Who’s greatest enemies in the classic BBC series, Daleks have been terrorizing the various incarnations of the Dr since 1963. They look like robotic tanks, but are actually genetically modified alien cyborgs created by the scientist Davros. They are ruthless creatures, determined to conquer the universe through annihilation. The only emotion they’re capable of feeling is hate. What’s more villainous than that? Growing up in rural PA, Daleks helped make Dr. Who on PBS the best Sci-Fi on my TV.
11. Ben Horne (Richard Beymer) “Twin Peaks” Bizarre crime drama Twin Peaks brought us many strange and memorable characters, many of which were villains in some way, and all of which could have been the series’ main villain, as most of the town were suspects in troubled prom queen Laura Palmer’s brutal murder. Rich and unscrupulous businessman Benjamin Horne owned many legal and illegal businesses in the Twin Peaks area, and many of its citizens in one way or another. He was a creep, a jerk, a liar, an embezzler, an adulterer, a pimp, a drug dealer, a conman, a terrible father, and that’s just scratching the surface. Before he lost his mind and had a re-awakening of sorts, he was the most diabolical man in a town full of greedy cutthroats, with his hands in the majority of the webs of deceit strung throughout the small logging community, including the surreal last night of Laura Palmer’s life.
10. J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) “Dallas” There were no villainous slimeballs on late 1970’s-early 1980’s television that could rival Dallas oil magnate John Ross Ewing Jr., who terrorized Northern Texas for 14 seasons. Hagman’s character had such a cultural impact that the cliffhanger episode A House Divided and the catch phrase “Who shot J.R.?” became pop culture landmarks in 1980. Probably the most cutthroat and immoral man ever on TV, in both Ewing Oil business and his personal life at Southfork Ranch, J.R. personified 1980’s excess. His love of money and women are virtually unrivaled throughout televised fiction. J.R. even had the Dallas Police in his pocket. One of the most memorable characters of television history, J.R. Ewing was a true villain people loved to hate.
9. Newman (Wayne Knight) “Seinfeld” You may argue that he’s a comic foil rather than a villain, but Wayne Knight’s Newman is as evil and vile a creature as they come. Jerry described Newman as “Pure evil”, “His sworn enemy”, and “The Lex Luthor to his Superman”. The very sign of this ach-nemesis causes Jerry to mutter “Hello Newman” in the tone someone might use to greet the Grim Reaper or the person who ran over their dog. The twisted postman, often disgruntled neighbor, and the bane of Jerry Seinfeld’s existence had no morals and only two agendas: filling his belly and driving Jerry beyond the brink of insanity. Every ounce of Newman’s rotund body oozed sinister villainy. He often used oblivious mutual friend Kramer as a pawn in his unraveling of Jerry’s comfort and sanity. He had the sinister voice and diabolical laugh prerequisite of a villain. Someone who’s every goal in life revolves around making someone else miserable surely belongs on this list among the murderers and criminals.
8. Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) “Boardwalk Empire” First of all, being Steve Buscemi is villainous enough. He looks more the part of post-lab accident mad scientist than prolific actor. Secondly, who in American History and fiction exemplifies the term “villain” more than infamous 1920’s gangsters? Though murderous and dangerous, they’ve always held a dear place in our hearts as folk heroes. Historical drama Boardwalk Empire spotlights one of the slimiest and most opportunistic of classic American gangsters, Atlantic City’s Irish kingpin Enoch “Nucky” Thompson. Nucky will do whatever it takes, or tell someone else to, to line his pockets and have whatever and whoever he wants. Anyone in his way ends up in a casket…or the Atlantic Ocean. Controlling local politicians and law enforcement, not fearing the feds, and even orchestrating a presidential election are among Nucky’s accomplishments. He’d probably have me bumped off if I didn’t put him on this list.
7. Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban) “Star Trek” Before eliciting William Shattner’s famous elongated and overacted “Khan!” in franchise best film Star Trek II, Ricardo Montalban’s villainous character got under Captain Kirk’s skin on the original TV series. The genetically engineered superhuman dictator from the 1990’s was revived by the crew of the Starship Enterprise, a huge mistake they wished they could take back. Khan captured Kirk, took over the Enterprise, and almost blew it up. Revenge-minded arch-nemesis Khan’s actions also endangered the life of Kirk’s son David in the film that is the character’s claim to fame, but his Season 1 appearance allows him to be on this list.
6. Q (John de Lancie) “Star Trek TNG” While Captain Kirk had his hands full with Khan and Klingons, the bane of Star Trek The Next Generation Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s existence from the pilot episode on was probably Q. When your enemy is both omnipotent and sadistic, you’re bound to be toyed with for his amusement. Q also wreaked havoc on franchise spinoffs Deep Space Nine and Voyager. In the series finale of TNG, Q saved humanity from destruction, but probably just to avoid losing his favorite chess pieces. One of the most powerful villains on this list, Q was also probably the most frustrating to his victims and one of the funniest for us viewers. As much as you want to hate him, you just can’t help loving him and his twisted brilliance. Maybe his views on humanity being a dangerous race aren’t too far off? Maybe deep down we enjoyed watching him torment the somewhat annoying and uptight TNG crew? Regardless, the master of manipulation brought me great enjoyment.
5. The Joker (Cesar Romero)“Batman” Veteran actor Cesar Romero’s giggly portrayal of all-time great villain The Joker in the 1960’s campy classic TV show Batman was more like Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter than the darker, edgier, twisted film portrayals by Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger, and the murderous and sadistic Joker of the Batman comic books, but is no less effective as a villain. The Joker’s colorful clothes, painted on smile, lively cackle, and cartoonish motions made him a villain that was fun to watch, even while knowing the Dynamic Duo would eventually foil his ludicrous but inventive plans. The Joker is one of my all-time favorite villains in comics, movies, TV, and pretty much any medium, and Cesar Romero certainly did him justice.
4. Edmund Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) “Black Adder” Brilliant British comedian Rowan Atkinson played several generations of vile men named Edmund Blackadder who appear throughout the program’s hilariously skewed version of English history, from Medieval Times all the way to the Millennium. At times Blackadder was a wanna-be villain, at times he was full fledged. While his effectiveness matured throughout the series, his selfish ambitions and evil intentions never changed. Each incarnation of Edmund was a little less inept than his predecessor and a bit shrewder, even though his station in life lessened in each generation. Perhaps the less power Blackadder possessed, the more he craved? Regardless of his position, Edmond always plotted against those above him and viciously abused those below him, especially poor Baldrick, who’s family line was unfortunate enough to always end up indentured to Edmund’s. Blackadder is a vile scumbag guaranteed to make you both cringe in disgust and laugh hysterically.
3. Boss Hogg (Sorrell Booke) “Dukes of Hazzard” In the campy, often mindless fun of The Dukes of Hazzard, the redneck paradise of Hazzard County was ruled with a pudgy iron first by former moonshine runner Boss Jefferson Davis “JD” Hogg. Boss Hogg was probably the most corrupt and greedy lawman ever to grace the small screen. He used his bumbling lackeys Sheriff Rosoce P. Coltrane and Deputies Enos and Cletus to line his pockets and dinner plate, and control Hazzard County in classic Tammany Hall fashion. The rebellious Duke family was often set up as patsies to take the fall for Boss’ schemes, but his inept underlings always found a way to unravel his best-laid plans. Living in excess and wanting more, Boss Hogg often aspired to reach even greater heights of power, but he was never able to extent his reach across the county line. Sorrell Booke played the fat power-hungry Boss to perfection, with brilliant acting skills combined with slapstick delivery. I’ve never seen someone play such an unserious role so seriously. Boss Hogg had some of the most corrupt morals and most villainous aspirations of any character ever on television.
2. Ben Linus (Michael Emerson) “Lost” The best words to describe the leader of The Others would be “pure evil”. If Ben Linus wasn’t fictional, it’d boggle my mind that someone could be THAT depraved. He even looked evil, with those tricky beady eyes amid the vulnerable-looking expression on his baby face. He was almost as coercively deceptive as the Devil himself, somehow continually convincing people he betrayed many times to trust him again despite six seasons of sadistic treachery, continually perpetuating self-preservation by convincing people that they needed him. Ben’s only agenda was brutally opportunistic selfish ambition and his own survival, sacrificing anyone, including his own daughter, and murdering anyone to achieve those goals. He only had a “daughter” because he kidnapped an infant her from her mother. He killed off the entire colony of people he grew up in, just so he could be in charge. He played with other people’s minds and lives almost as much as Q. I’m not sure a single truthful word ever came out of Ben’s mouth. I’m not sure he was capable of honesty. Amazingly, there is one character in television history with more sins to atone for than Ben Linus, which is why Ben is at #2.
1. The Cigarette Smoking Man aka CGB Spender (William B. Davis) “X-Files” “The Man Who Sold World” comes to mind when discussing the Cigarette Smoking Man. This character did more to shape, or warp, the history of the world and the universe, than any other role ever played on television. He was untouchable, able to operate off the grid, independent of all morals, laws, and limits. He had a hand in most of the subversive things that happened during his lifetime: the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cold War, alien abductions, government experiments on citizens, and spreading cancer. He assassinated JFK and MLK, sold out humanity to alien colonization, betrayed the aliens colonists in favor of a rebel faction, killed off his own accomplices, and hid it all from many generations of American citizens. Need I say more? He tormented Agent Mulder’s life by sending him on wild goose chases and filling his head with endless conspiracy theories, including the possibility of Spender being his father, and continually playing on his emotions about whether or not his missing sister was alive. He is the thief in the night, the bogeyman, the monster under the bed, the thing that goes bump in the night. Spender would make a deal with the Devil, go back on it, and shoot the Satan in the back of his head. He was a character so evil you HAD to hate him, even struggling to pity him when he was sick and vulnerable. William B. Davis’ portrayal of slimy immoral conspiracy theory villain CGB Spender for nine seasons of The X-Files was one of television’s greatest performances of all time, and definitely the most villainous.
George Bluth Sr. (Jeffery Tambor) “Arrested Development” Adulterer, embezzler, escaped convict, and committer of high treason is just a sampling from the villainous resume of the patriarch and slimiest member of the morally empty Bluth Family.
The Riddler (Frank Gorshin) “Batman” Possibly the quirkiest of Adam West’s adversaries, the Riddler’s cheesy riddles added to the wonderful campiness of this classic kitschy show.
The Penguin (Burgess Merideth) “Batman” Another delightful Batman villain played by a veteran actor. The Penguin’s laugh, look, and antics provided some of the programs most humorous moments.
Catwoman (Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt, Lee Meriwether) “Batman” The three sultry women who played Batman’s enticing enemy Catwoman in the 1960’s series gave us guys yet another reason to enjoy the show.
Killer Bob (Frank Silva) “Twin Peaks” The man just plain looked evil. He was scary as hell! While working as a set designer, his terrifying looks were noticed by director David Lynch, who then cast him in the role of Twin Peaks killer spirit, Bob.
Jerry Horne (David Patrick Kelly) “Twin Peaks” The brilliant character actor always brings a quirky flare and undying energy to his characters. He was one of the most enjoyable side characters of the Twin Peaks saga, and that’s saying a lot.
Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) “Twin Peaks” I won’t ruin the story for you, but the previously drab Leland’s meltdown turned him into almost as freaky and demented a character as Killer Bob. Maybe it was his former demeanor that made his turn so disturbing? Ray Wise played the part brilliantly.
The Devil (Ray Wise) “Reaper” The Devil in Reaper was more of the wisecracking villain type than anything scary or demonic. The fact that he was played by Ray Wise is what added a sinister edge to the character.
Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris) “Lost in Space” Dr. Smith was one of the greatest Sci-Fi villains. He was somewhat of a comic foil, as his sinister intentions were always undone. He really wanted to be evil, he just wasn’t very good at it, although he did get them lost in space…
Sheriff Tom Underlay (William Fichtner) “Invasion” A creepy guy with an air of evil surrounding him and a villainous underlying agenda, selling out the human race.
Sheriff Lucas Black (Gary Cole) “American Gothic” A murderous, yet charismatic villain with an agenda from hell itself.
©2012 Denim McDemus
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