They’re so bad, yet so good

Drama's top villains, rogues and scoundrels worm their way into voters' consciousness

Though those rough-around-the-edges types might not get the girl, everyone knows they often get the best lines.

And while in recent years they’ve also started to pick up those statuettes with the angel grasping what looks like a gyroscope, guys such as Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey and Alan Shore didn’t always go home with Emmy gold.

Robert Young was the first actor to receive an Emmy in a category roughly equivalent to today’s lead actor in a drama.

And if an avuncular figure like Robert Young’s Marcus Welby, M.D., who won the last of his three Emmys in 1970, wasn’t exactly a typical victor, Peter Falk’s Columbo, James Garner’s Jim Rockford, Robert Blake’s Tony Baretta and Ed Asner’s Lou Grant certainly were. The worst you could say about any of them was that maybe they needed better table manners.

In fact, it wasn’t until 1985 that a genuinely difficult character captured a lead actor Emmy for a drama. The thesp was William Daniels, and his portrayal of the maddeningly imperious Dr. Mark Craig still sends shivers down the spines of “St. Elsewhere” fans. So compelling was Daniels’ characterization, he won the award two years in a row.

Nearly a decade would pass before another seriously troubled character garnered similar honors. When it happened, though, Emmy history would be made.

Dennis Franz, in the role of Detective Andy Sipowicz — who began on the 13-year series as a drunken, racist cop on the brink of self-destruction — earned his first award in 1994 and then was called back to the podium in 1996, 1997 and 1999.

Franz’s victories ushered in the present era, when it’s perfectly legitimate to find fascination in the lives of amoral lawyers, inconsiderate doctors, conflicted mob bosses and spiritually reawakened jailbirds. Indeed, Franz might well have claimed another Emmy or two had it not been for the emergence of a character even edgier than Sipowicz.

Tony Soprano brought our infatuation with rogues to new heights, as James Gandolfini received three Emmys (2000, ’01, ’03). That string of wins was interrupted in 2002 (a year “The Sopranos” didn’t compete) when the prize went from robber back to cop.

Not that Detective Vic Mackey of “The Shield,” played by Michael Chiklis, is a poster child for rectitude. Combining elements of Sipowicz and Soprano with California cool, Mackey is yet another character living by his own, often compromised, code.

Last year, after the doctors, cops and mob bosses got their due, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences bestowed its award on a truly disreputable type — smarmy lawyer Alan Shore, as embodied by James Spader on “The Practice.”

So have the bad guys pulled off the ultimate coup? Are they now firmly ensconced as winners rather than losers as far as Emmy voters are concerned?

Probably, says Chiklis, who considers the shift a natural evolution. “Since the 1970s, first in film and then on TV, characters who are more complex and more flawed have emerged. That speaks to the sophistication of the audience. There’s an increasing audience for things that deal more in ambiguity.”

Ian McShane couldn’t agree more. On HBO’s “Deadwood,” he plays Al Swearengen, whose morals are as slippery as a greased pig.

Not the Ponderosa

“Blandness has never gotten us anywhere,” McShane says from his home in England during the show’s hiatus. “The maverick has always been more interesting. People just wouldn’t watch ‘Bonanza’ these days.”

Or “Marcus Welby.” Just look at Vicodin-popping Dr. Gregory House, played by Hugh Laurie, on Fox’s “House.” He’s a Dr. Craig for the HMO generation, telling distraught parents that their children are dying or unleashing withering critiques at esteemed colleagues.

Laurie says his portrayal is more rooted in reality than shows of the past. “It’s closer to real life. Human beings are not painted in single shades. We’re mixtures of everything.”

These characters also offer viewers a new role, says Chiklis. “They put us in the position of saying, ‘What would I do?’ You can’t watch shows like ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Shield’ passively. They evoke an emotional response. You can’t just sit there and go, ‘Whatever.’ ”

And let’s not forget the appeal of the time-tested impulse to act out. “These characters do things some of us think about but never could,” says Chiklis. “Certainly guilty pleasure and dark-dream fulfillment are part of it. Watching them is like looking through the cracks in your fingers at the scene of an accident.”

Laurie suggests another bit of fantasy fulfillment for viewers. “It’s only a guess, but my feeling is that most people in their lives spend a good deal of time wondering what the rest of the world thinks about them. There is something exhilarating about watching a character not weighed down by that.”

Which isn’t to say that making everything dark is some sort of magic formula for success. Swing the pendulum too far in that direction and you’re back where you started. “Playing the typical baddie can be as boring as playing the typical goodie,” affirms Chiklis. “If the characters are flat and have no arc and don’t go through changes, it’s dull.”

It’s dull for the actors as well as for viewers. Conversely, complicated roles are catnip to actors. “It’s like being on an emotional rollercoaster constantly,” says Chiklis of playing Mackey.

Laurie gets a different kind of rush. Playing House has allowed him to break ground as an actor. Originally, Laurie read for another role on the series, that of the mild-mannered doctor played by Robert Sean Leonard.

As an English actor best known for roles in British comedies such as “Blackadder,” “Jeeves and Wooster” and “A Bit of Fry and Laurie,” Laurie wasn’t an obvious choice for House. But he relishes playing the humorless American doctor.

“I’m attracted to the idea of doing things I don’t know how to do,” he says. “Things that could make you look like an idiot are what keeps us going.”

So who gets credit for creating these dastardly roles, the actors or the writers? McShane says all credit goes to the scribes.

“I simply follow the script,” he says. “I learn the words, I look the other guy in the eye, and I try not to fall over the furniture, as I think Cagney said. It sounds simple, but (‘Deadwood’ creator) David Milch is one of these most gifted writers. Despite the many foul words, the dialogue is really Shakespearean. That’s not too pretentious to say.”

Mean streak

Laurie gives full credit to his show’s writers as well, but he admits to sometimes coloring his character a different shade of supercilious.

“We all have mean days and happy days, and I probably can’t stop some of that leaking into the character,” Laurie says. “If I know there’s a pizza on its way, that could make me happy. On the other hand, if I learn it’s got anchovies, things will go the other way.”

Modesty, goes out the window, though, once these actors start defending their characters. “I think of House as a hero,” says Laurie. “He’s got so many facets. He’s always trying to point out some hypocrisy but takes a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Yet the purpose is always noble, the search for the truth. He’s willing to sacrifice friendship to achieve that. He’s sacrificing comfort for right. And by the way, it’s a TV show.”

Chiklis summons similar feelings when describing Mackey and Tony Soprano but sees an opportunity for insights. “Mackey has bravery going for him, and he’s gregarious and loves what he does. He eats up life. But you’re confounded by some of his actions: Why does he do that? I want to root for him but it’s an interesting phenomenon.

“I find myself watching Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, and he’s this bear of a guy that you’d love to have lunch with. But he’s a sociopath. It makes you look at yourself.”

McShane also reaches for the good. “I always liked Al,” he says. “He’s a force of nature, I think that’s safe to say. Brave, though probably too impetuous; I think he’s emotionally very stunted but intellectually he’s trying to grow. He may not be an angel, but he’s on their side.”

Perhaps that’s where the appeal lies, in angels with dirty faces. Nobody likes a goody two shoes and while these guys have done some pretty rotten things, they often seem to emerge on the right side, with the help of a sliding scale, of course.

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