Back when TV was black and white, so were its main characters. So much so that an altogether good guy like James Garner’s Bret Maverick was sometimes called an anti-hero.
But reluctant heroes like Maverick or Rockford are just heroes—though they did presage a more realistic television protagonist who wasn’t all that eager to either catch a bullet or deliver one.
Even though the movies have had protagonists who are outlaws, gangsters, and con men since the ’30 — and film noir featured all kinds of dark protagonists battling even worse people since the 1950s — the television anti-hero really only came of age in the late 1990s.
So that’s why this list of all-time best television anti-heroes are all within recent memory. These characters are not merely flawed heroes, but often times have a fatal flaw that means we know — and sometimes hope — it will not end well for them, no matter how caught up we get in their drama.
10. Jaime Lannister (Game of Thrones)
It’s so hard to find real heroes in Game of Thrones that the one truly noble character still dominates — even though he has been dead for five full seasons and everyone else working their way up to hero happens to be his offspring.
And when we first met Jaimie Lannister, (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) biological father of the loathsome Crown Prince Joffrey, whose mother is the scheming Queen Cersei and Jamie’s twin sister, (yes, ewwwwww!), he has just pushed a child out of a window. His nickname is the scornful “Kingslayer” because of a previous act of regicide; it seems unlikely that he would ever show a heroic side.
But this is Game of Thrones, where heroism is in short supply, and it turns out there are things that Jaime just won’t do — and he is willing to put his life on the line not to do them. I’m doubtful that things will ultimately end up well for Jamie, but he is well along the road to redemption.
Jaime’s brother Tyrion would have made this list, except that by Game of Thrones standards the sarcastic dwarf is an unabashed hero, as his sins are mostly against himself, brought on by the shame his sister and father direct toward him.
9. Ray Donovan
Hollywood fixer/private detective Ray Donovan is Philip Marlowe’s dark side in producer Ann Biderman’s (Southland) mostly brilliant look at the dark underbelly of La-La Land.
Ray is the son of an infamous Boston Irish mobster, who moved to LA to get away from the life. But his dark talents turned out to be the only thing that could get him the lifestyle he wanted. Ray works hard to protect his family and keep innocent civilians from getting hurt. But it all starts to go awry when his father is released from prison and joins them on the Left Coast.
Liev Schreiber gives a screen-dominating performance as Ray and he is matched line for line by Jon Voight as his cheerfully amoral father. Every scene they have together crackles with tension. I have no idea how this battle will end.
8. Tommy Gavin (Rescue Me)
Everything New York firefighter Tommy Gavin does in his professional life is brave, resourceful, and heroic. Nearly everything he does in his personal life is a threat to himself and others.
Rescue Me concerns the survivors in a New York City firehouse decimated by 9/11. But besides the survivor’s guilt, the macho men are also dealing with the fact that in a profession women naturally like, they are the celebrity heroes of the moment.
Tommy Gavin is their leader, but also the guy who indulges the most. He even breaks the cardinal rule about 9/11 widows — with his late cousin’s wife (the great Callie Thorne.)
For five seasons, show producer Denis Leary was the Edward Snowden of the macho psyche. The writers continuously and traitorously pried open the male brain and told every dark secret they could think of — even though they knew their show attracted a considerable female audience (again, firefighters). By Season 6, however, they started to repeat themselves, and the dialogue became rambling and repetitive.
7. Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman (Better Call Saul)
Who would have thought that the faintly ridiculous money laundering lawyer from Breaking Bad would be the star of a show with such depth and pathos as Better Call Saul?
Bob Odenkirk only hinted at the gravity he would bring to this character in Breaking Bad. So much so that when I heard producer Vince Gilligan was making this prequel, I assumed it would be some kind of sitcom.
His battles with his smug high priced lawyer brother, masterfully played by yet another comedian, Michael McKean, are the stuff of TV legend. And we are not quite sure how it will end — though Breaking Bad fans know it won’t be happily, as we’ve seen how Jimmy ends up as money launderer Saul Goodman.
6. Omar Little (The Wire)
There are many characters in The Wire who are on the side of the angels who are almost personally screwed up enough to qualify as anti-heroes — but Omar Little is the outlaw we cheer for at every turn.
The gay stickup artist and gunslinger who only targets Baltimore drug dealers is, like Dexter, a bad guy who exclusively targets bad guys and takes special care not to harm anyone not in “the game.”
And, as played by Michael K. Williams, Omar steals every scene he is in — even in a show that featured one of television history’s best casts.
5. Elizabeth and Philip “Jennings” (The Americans)
Think of The Americans as The Sopranos of spy stories. This brilliant series set in Reagan-era Washington D.C. as the Soviet Union is gasping its last and trying to steal American stealth and anti-missile technology — while barely feeding itself — follows a deep cover couple posing as middle-class American travel agents.
The sleeper agents are beautifully played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys. Every single thing the Jennings couple does in their professional life is something we should want them to fail at. But they are, at heart, pretty good parents, mostly because their cover demands that they raise all-American kids.
But when the KGB starts making demands about their daughter, the show really hammers home how communism doesn’t care about your feelings. Even these heroes of the Soviet state are not allowed to have their own ambitions for their own children.
4. Vic Mackey (The Shield)
Unlike the Jenningses, Walter White or Tony Soprano, corrupt LAPD detective Vic Mackey spent a fair amount of his mission actually accomplishing good things — particularly in Season 4 when he teamed up with his new captain (Glenn Close) to take down a vicious gang leader (Anthony Anderson).
When he took down MS-13 drug houses, was let loose on a serial child predator, or even stole from the Armenian mob, cheering for Mackey and his Strike Team wasn’t hard. But even though Mackey flirted with redemption, producer Shawn Ryan kept a sense of impending doom and justice by reminding us of the cop killing in the first episode.
There were many riveting performances in The Shield (it made a star of Walton Goggins) but it was the role of a lifetime for Michael Chiklis.
At a time when mystery fiction, movies, and TV were littered with serial killers all trying to be the next Hannibal Lecter, Jeff Lindsay’s brilliant creation, Dexter, about a serial killer who preys on serial killers was the winner.
What made Dexter work, however, was not just the central gimmick or the gruesome plots. Dexter used its premise to explore themes of human behavior, innate character, and even spirituality. Dexter would, for instance, assume that it was because he was a sociopath that he could not get interested in helping his fiancé pick out china patterns — not just because he was a… man.
Dexter was, we learn, rescued from a bloody crime scene by a police detective who adopted him. But when young Dexter starts having violent tendencies, the cop decides to direct those tendencies rather than counter them. Dexter grows up assuming he cannot change. In later seasons, it starts to dawn on him that acting good is being good, and that the determinism his life is built around is wrong — but it may be too late.
2. Walter White (Breaking Bad)
Breaking Bad broke us in easily with the character of Walter White: a struggling put upon chemistry teacher with cancer, a baby on the way, and lousy benefits (in a public school? But I digress). He decides to sell better meth to provide for his family.
It was easy to justify that this meek guy just wanted to leave his family a nest egg after he checked out, and even not hard to rationalize that the student he was corrupting was already a pothead anyway.
But that’s how evil works.
As the show progressed, we saw a darker ego at work, as Walter White took pride in being the mysterious drug lord Heisenberg, and we realized the rationalizations that sucked us in… are just that.
This show took Bryan Cranston from respected character player to major star—at least for the moment.
1. Tony Soprano (The Sopranos)
From Little Ceasar and Jesse James to the Corleones, sympathetic pictures of outlaws and gangsters have dominated American movies and thriller novels. But it’s not just in entertainment. In real life, figures like John Dillinger and the James Gang have achieved folk hero status with a larger portion of Americans than you might expect.
In this time of premium TV, with anti-heroes more common than heroes, it’s hard to remember what an impact The Sopranos had on the cultural landscape. All of the aforementioned criminal fathers — from Philip Jennings to Walter White, Vic Mackey, and Ray Donovan — owe their existence to Tony Soprano, and none has yet come close to eclipsing him.
Also, the show has a special place in my heart for spending nearly a decade exposing the utter inadequacy of modern psychology to give any meaning to life.
This is a show you can come back to and binge every few years and it’s still rewarding. That’s rare, indeed.