So why do them?
Because they’re interesting.
It’s a trend that comes and goes. Forty years ago we loved Archie Bunker and those kooky Corleones, and thirty years ago we cheered on J.R. Ewing. I suspect the trend really reignited with debut of THE SOPRANOS. Tony Soprano was clearly a monster, but he was so fascinating and complex that he drew us all into his world. Don Draper on MAD MEN was another. Walter White became America’s chemist. Vic Mackey brought new meaning to good cop/bad cop. And who can forget everybody’s favorite serial killer, DEXTER?
Evil characters create drama and suspense. They stir up the pot. They surprise us. They make choices that we wouldn’t make. They say things we'd like to say. They cut through the bullshit (or create their over own). Their worldview is different. It’s fun to watch them operate. Sometimes you actually root for them, and other times you can’t wait for them to get theirs. And on certain rare occasions you do both. Seriously, who holds your interest more – Anna from DOWNTON ABBEY or Claire from HOUSE OF CARDS?
Second, and maybe most important, you must get a great actor to play him/her. With all due respect, Kevin James as Tony Soprano wouldn’t work. If someone other than Greg Kinnear was playing Rake, that show might have had a chance. In the case of HOUSE OF CARDS, Kevin Spacey is always a delicious villain, whatever his accent, but the real revelation is Robin Wright as Claire. Her portrayal of Claire Underwood is chilling and mesmerizing. Princess Butterc**t.
And finally, the timing has to be right. You could never do THE SOPRANOS on a network. David Chase tried. Premium cable companies just happened to be looking for alternatives to network dramas when Chase peddled his offbeat Mafia show. Same with HOUSE OF CARDS and Netflix. CBS was looking to shake-up their comedy roster of rural GREEN ACRES-type shows when ALL IN THE FAMILY fell into their lap. Try pitching that the year they bought GILLIGAN’S ISLAND.
Audiences also have to be in a place where they’re willing to go along on rides with evil characters. Tony Soprano was a refreshing alternative to CSI: FILL IN THE BLANK. Frank Underwood arrived at a time when collectively we couldn’t be more cynical about politics. Good luck selling HOUSE OF CARDS during the Reagan Era.
Television comedy has produced few great anti-heroes. I wish we had more. Archie Bunker and Kenny Powers from EASTBOUND & DOWN would be two. Maybe the funniest dumb comic character since Gracie Allen is Dewey Crow from JUSTIFIED. But for my money, the best (meaning the worst) and the most hilarious is Dabney Coleman’s BUFFALO BILL from the early ‘80s. I don’t know if it’s streaming anywhere, but you can get the DVD’s. The show was created by Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses and is not only funny, it’s fearless and wildly inventive. Here’s just a sample.
God, what I wouldn’t give to hear Claire Underwood sing “The Bitch is Back..”