Antihero: A protagonist whose character is contrary to that of the archetypal hero, yet typically retains many heroic qualities. They are bad, but not evil. They often fight villains, but not out of a sense of justice. They do it for selfish reasons, for personal gain, for revenge, and they’re often amoral and lack positive qualities. The trope has been around for centuries, obviously, but series‘ long antiheroes are relatively new to the television medium, finding popularity in characters like Tony Soprano and Spike from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel.” Typically, for an anti-hero to be successful on television, there needs to be an opposing villain who is much worse.
These characters are currently the ten best on television.
10. Emily Thorne, “Revenge” — Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp) is driven, not by a desire to seek justice against the people that wrongly accused her father of crimes that he did not commit and that ultimately cost him his life, but by a selfish desire for revenge. Thorne is actually based on one of the archetypical antiheroes, Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo.
9. Kenny Powers, “Eastbound and Down” — A poor work ethic, an abrasive personality, and an almost irredeemable character, Powers is a satire of the modern anti-hero. He’s an anti-antihero, but manages to sneak in under the antihero label because his opponents are even less redeemable than he is. Barely.
8. Eric Cartman, “South Park” — Cartman is modeled after probably the first great antihero on television, Archie Bunker. He’s narcissistic, spoiled, racist, sexist, homophobic, and easily one of the most beloved loathsome characters on television, and his heroic deeds typically grow out of the social commentary his misdeeds provide.
7. Nancy Botwin, “Weeds” — There was a time early on in the series when Nancy Botwin’s illegal and amoral actions could’ve been considered altruistic: She was trying to raise two kids after the death of her husband. However, over the course of the series, it’s become abundantly clear that Nancy Botwin is driven less by a desire to protect her family and more by her own selfish needs. In fact, it’s those very narcissistic qualities that make some wonder whether she is an antihero or a straight-up villain.
6. Dexter, “Dexter” — Dexter is essentially the prototypical anti-hero, a character that didn’t develop into an anti-hero over the course of the series; he was designed as one. He’s a sympathetic serial killer with whom we root for because the only people he kills are those that are more evil than him.
5. Sterling Archer, “Archer” — Like Kenny Powers, Sterling Archer is another satirical antihero, but unlike anyone else on this list, Sterling Archer is modeled after a prototypical hero: James Bond. However, unlike Bond — who is motivated by loyalty to his country and a sense of justice — Sterling Archer is motivated purely by his own self-interest. Like Kenny Powers, however, it’s Archer’s devotion to amorality that makes him so goddamn likable.
4. Sergeant Nicholas Brody, “Homeland” — One of the more complex antiheroes on television, after one season, it’s still hard to get a read on Sergeant Brody. Is he even an antihero? Or is he a villain? Or is he a hero? As far as we know, he’s driven by a distaste for corrupt American foreign policy and a desire to seek justice. Or is it revenge for the way Americans killed women and children in terrorist occupied lands? Why do we sympathize with someone whose values, in the abstract, we do not share? It’s that question that really makes Brody such a compelling potential anti-hero.
3. Sherlock Holmes, “Sherlock” — Yes, he solves crimes. Yes, he prevents murders. Yes, he puts away bad people. But does he do it out of a sense of justice? Because he hates evil people? Or to right a certain wrong? No. He is no hero. Sherlock solves crimes to serve his own self-interests, to inflate his own ego, and so he can feel superior to those around him. Occasionally, he’s shown a flicker of heroism (as with his dealings with Irene Adler), but for the most part, he’s no more sympathetic to the victims than he is with the murderers; in fact, he tends to have more respect for the killers, with whom he shares more in common.
2. Boyd Crowder, “Justified” — Crowder is also a tough nut to crack. He is not above evil deeds, but he is not an evil character, either. He has at times been depicted as racist, xenophobic, a drug-dealing religious nutjob, and a ruthless killer, but part of what allows him to be a antihero is the fact that there are more evil opponents than him on “Justified,” plus his friendship with the show’s hero, Raylan Givens, makes him sympathetic. He’s much like one of the all-time great anti-heroes, Omar Little, in that he’s evil, but likable because he abides by a code and has a strong sense of loyalty.
NOT AN ANTIHERO: Don Draper, “Mad Men” — At one time considered a hero and an anti-hero, currently he suits neither of those definitions. He is the major protagonist of “Mad Men,” but more than anything in season five, Don Draper alternated between schmoopy husband to Megan and out-of-touch sad sack at his ad agency. In his dealings with his creative team, he often felt like a villain. In his attempt to save Joan from sleeping with a client, he made a heroic gesture. In his treatment of Megan, he was usually a dick. In few respects, however, was Don Draper a sympathetic character. Compelling, yes. But he seldom displayed the characteristics of an anti-hero. Indeed, season five Don Draper is the perfect illustration of the difference between anti-hero and a**hole.
1. Walter White, “Breaking Bad” — Easily rivaling the two all-time best television anti-heroes — Omar Little and Tony Soprano — Walter White fits comfortably in between the category of anti-hero and anti-villain: Is he a good guy resorting to evil measures to protect and provide for his family after he’s gone? Or is he an evil character with heroic goals? Either way, he’s not likely to fit into either of those categories in season five, as he evolves again from anti-hero to villain protagonist: An irredeemable, cruel and evil character who is also compelling enough to be the show’s main focus.
No. I can’t wait, either.