The greatest characters ever: Anti-heroes

Emmy Commemorative 2012

Breaking the rules doesn’t matter much to TV’s great antiheroes, and in many ways, it’s why their journeys feel more human to us and why we’re sometimes ashamed to admit we love them. Blue-collar bigot Archie Bunker was intended to be horrifying, remember? Or were you laughing too much to notice?

What kind of serial killer could you stomach, then? Enter Dexter Morgan, committed to taking out murderers. What type of thief might you root for? A Baltimore tough like Omar Little, with a strict code to steal only the ill-gotten gains of drug lords.

Sometimes it’s the moral turbulence of the life that fascinates. Tony Soprano might be a ruthless New Jersey mob boss, but he’s also a family man seeing a shrink for his neuroses. Means don’t matter much to ends-oriented L.A. cop Vic Mackey, which gives every one of his criminal-busting victories a queasy aftertaste. Ditto brass-knuckle defense lawyer Patty Hewes: her machinations thrill, but the human cost is ever-apparent. And as we watch health-challenged chemistry teacher Walter White turn into a drug kingpin, we’re forced to ask: Where’s my own point of no return?

Cold, Machiavellian intelligence can be part of the charm, too, if you consider Old West warlord Al Swearengen, scheming to tame his burgeoning town, or Benjamin Linus, a flinty manipulator who ironically disproves the old saw “No man is an island.”

Then there are the miscreants we live vicariously through, like conniving oil tycoon J.R. Ewing — master of the power play — or hilarious curmudgeon Larry David, who gets to tell people exactly how irritating their social peccadilloes are. Hollywood player Ari Gold, on the other hand, is the agent we’d love to represent us if the job was verbally reaming out our enemies. And if we could escape as many self-created disasters as bumbling husband-dad Homer Simpson with our family and job intact, we’d go “Woo hoo!” too.

Emmy Commemorative 2012
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THE GREATEST CHARACTERS EVER
Anti-heroes | At your service | Authorities | Crimesolvers | Father Figures | Goundbreakers | Height of Hijinx | Heroes | Inseparable Duos | Journeyers | Ones of a kind
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