Sometimes the most enjoyable characters in fiction are the emotional button-pushers, the characters designed to simultaneously infuriate and delight audiences. These character aren’t always villains—sometimes they’re deeply annoying heroes (think Cordelia on Angel), or fuck-ups who get in the way of better characters (think Ziggy Sobotka on The Wire), or just characters whose choices or attitudes give viewers a satisfying sense of righteous indignation. Either way, there’s a fine line between hating characters and wanting to see them go down, and hating characters but hoping they’ll stick around, because they make stories more fun, and rooting against them is actively enjoyable. Who are your favorite love-to-hate characters?
So many immediately come to mind for me—Cersei in George R.R. Martin’s A Game Of Thrones and the sequels is so openly evil, and yet so hilariously incompetent over the long term, that watching her stupidly squander her power has been a tremendously satisfying but jaw-dropping experience in “How could she possibly make that mistake, and what could she possibly do next?” Homeland Security agent Tom Baldwin on The 4400 is ostensibly a protagonist-hero, but he’s such a profound dickwad that I usually assumed he was meant as an attack on the very idea of the Department Of Homeland Security—he’s smug, selfish, and self-righteous, concerned about people’s rights and liberties only until they get in the way of something he wants. And he makes promises he doesn’t have the vaguest intention of keeping, then gets shirty with other people about their lack of honor. I used to watch that show with a friend, and we’d alternate yelling “You ASSHAT!” at the TV practically whenever Tom Baldwin spoke. That made his ongoing series of failures and inadequacies pretty damn enjoyable, and sharing our hatred of him made it easier to take when the show did try to imply that he was really a big damn hero. Finally, has there ever been a more button-pushing antagonist than Kai Winn on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine? Now there’s a character who was designed to be hated: an endlessly self-serving manipulator who represents religious extremism and the worst of self-satisfied, judgmental fundamentalism. And yet she’s designed to be admired at the same time: In the depths of her slimy ability to recreate reality to suit her, she almost always has an answer for every accusation, and she makes her adversaries look petty and dumb. There’s no villain more satisfying than a smart, competent villain that never acknowledges that she’s lost, and just finds a way to make a loss look like a win.
Okay, I promise this is the last time I talk about this show for at least a couple of months, but seriously, I felt visceral hatred for Friday Night Lights’ Joe McCoy—played with commensurate evilness by D.W. Moffett—in seasons three and four. McCoy seems to exist simply to infuriate Coach Taylor devotees: He’s an entitled, rich, abusive asshole who moves his family to Dillon so his superstar quarterback/asshole son can play for Coach Taylor. SPOILERS AHOY: But instead of staying in the background once he arrives, he proceeds to undermine Coach, and somehow get him fired. Coach Taylor eventually triumphs, but I wanted to smash my television after the season-three finale. Since Moffett’s appearance on Friday Night Lights, I can’t help but reflexively sneer when I see his face. I hope that if I ever ran into the guy, I’d be polite, because he’s not really Joe McCoy, but I make no guarantees.
It seems like TV comedies have been taking a perverse amount of pleasure in positioning childish male assholes as their leads of late. There’s Danny McBride’s Kenny “Fuckin’” Powers on Eastbound & Down, and dickhead-savant Sterling Archer on Archer. But for my money, there’s no more frustratingly funny, love-to-hate character on TV than Delocated’s “Jon.” As played by creator Jon Glaser, he’s hopelessly tactless, self-centered, and arrogant. After all, the whole premise of Delocated is that “Jon” puts himself (and his family) in danger strictly to promote his own celebrity. He’s also incredibly childish—with all his talk about “meat suites” and “bone zones” and calling his penis “The Wiggler.” And he’s a terrible father. Still, more than Powers or Archer, “Jon” feels like my untamed male id in a balaclava. He’s everything I would be if I didn’t have to worry about being perceived as a juvenile moron. We even have the same name! (Almost.) But all of this is what makes Delocated so exasperating, compelling, and fun to watch. It’s also why I’ve taken to saying “The crack of the crust…” every time I bite into a sandwich now.
I’m not a Matthew Morrison hater. But man oh man, do I loathe Glee’s Will Schuester. Every time he writes the latest theme of the week for New Directions on his white board, I pray that one of his students will chuck a brick at his head. What could have been a strong character instead has devolved into a needy, stunted man who apparently doesn’t even know Spanish. This latter fact wouldn’t matter, except he’s a Spanish teacher. Sure, now he’s teaching History to make way for Ricky Martin’s new character, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s vicariously living his life through teenagers. Instead of preparing them for the challenges of the world ahead, he encourages them to pen their own songs the night before Nationals. I don’t mean to go off on a Sue Sylvester rant here, but it’s no surprise that the strongest episodes of Glee are the ones that either push Will way off to the side or keep him offscreen. The show might have once been about his character, but that time has long past.
Thanks largely to Roku, I’ve become obsessed over the past year with what Netflix streaming might categorize as “Suspenseful British TV Shows.” My favorites have been the popularly supported Luther (series one is still the most fun I’ve had watching any drama this decade) and epic human-extinction saga, Survivors (based on the same novelized source material as a same-named 1975 broadcast). Both feature an ensemble player that drives me up an absolute wall, and, coincidentally or not, both characters are played by the same actress, Nikki Amuka-Bird. In series one of Luther, Amuka-Bird is the well-meaning but meddling DS Erin Gray, and in Survivors, she takes on the meatier role of burgeoning new-world dictator Samantha Willis. But they may as well be the same person; the same quivering, insecure, know-it-all who fouls things up for everyone around her when she overreaches the bounds of her authority. Credit goes to Amuka-Bird, who manages to imbue two very different women with the same enraging flaws, but dear God, will DS Gray just back the hell off and let Luther do his job already, and while she’s at it, arrest Samantha Willis for murder and future crimes against humanity? Oh, I hate them both so much.
I think mine right now might be Jim and Pam on The Office. They both started as underdog darlings on the show, stricken with settled-for jobs and unrequited love. Eventually, though, both Pam and Jim got what they wanted: each other, and at least in Pam’s case, some more respect at the office. Now that they’re just a happy little family with hardly any motivation any more, I kinda hate them. Sure, Pam has her rivalry with Angela, and Jim will always battle Dwight, but now that will-they/won’t-they has long been settled, it’s become unclear what we’re supposed to hope for when it comes to these two, and thus their (what I sometimes view as smug) complacency irks me. So now that Jim is in Florida and we see his passing conversations with his new co-worker, I can’t help but hope he makes a mistake with her, just so we can once again feel some stakes again when it comes to him and Pam.
Draco Malfoy eventually earns a redemptive arc in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, but in the early going, he’s snide, smug, bigoted, and endlessly hateable; If Hogwarts were a high school in a 1980s teen flick, Draco would be played by Billy Zabka. Rowling has a tendency to emphasize her protagonists’ innate goodness through the depths of their enemies’ loathsome behavior, and young Draco is the most consistent target of this habit. Still, there’s a charge to how blood-boilingly awful the kid is, particularly when his actions evoke swift retribution from the series’ heroes. When one of them—the typically even-keeled Hermione Granger—finally reels around and socks the little prat in the face, it’s a satisfying bit of catharsis no amount of magic can conjure.
Whenever I tell people I think Parenthood has turned into one of TV’s best dramas this season, they often give me a funny look. They either haven’t seen the show and are basing their opinions of it on the fact that it’s based on a movie (shades of Jason Katims’ previous series, Friday Night Lights!), or they have seen it and find at least one of the characters detestable. But I love to hate pretty much everybody on the show. I realize this may not read as a recommendation to some, but I love the way showrunner Katims and his writers and cast have delineated everybody on the show so we understand where all their irritating quirks come from, the way we would with real family. To get invested in Parenthood and love it is to understand that all these people are going to do blindingly stupid things for reasons you can understand perfectly, yet never get them to correct. Just like your real siblings and children!
Joffrey Baratheon from the A Song Of Ice And Fire books and Game Of Thrones television series is the worst kind of twerp: a twerp with power. Entitled, insecure, venal, and violent, he can always be counted on—with prodding from his equally contemptible mother—to make decisions that benefit few besides himself and his immediate family, a quality that makes for a piss-poor king, but a grade-A villain. (Just ask the Starks.) Jack Gleeson’s portrayal of the young king in the TV series is perfectly sniveling, aided in no small part by Gleeson’s naturally haughty-looking, oh-so-slappable face. For anyone who’d like to watch Joffrey getting slapped for 10 minutes straight:
As much as I loved Lost, there came a time during the show’s run that two of the main alleged protagonists—Kate and Jack—grated on me so bad, I openly rooted for bad things to happen to them. Granted, I really liked the series and probably felt that way about most of the characters at one point or another. And Jack wound up redeemed in the final season. But, seriously, ugh. Shut up, you two.
I was a regular viewer of the old Beverly Hills: 90210, which underwent a few changes over its run. The character of Brenda Walsh, as played by Shannen Doherty, began as a nice, Midwestern girl, but Doherty doesn’t, to borrow a James Ellroyism, vibe nice. No matter what the character had to do, Doherty always gave the performance sharp undercurrents of snippiness that made her impossible to like. And so viewers of the show made a sport of not liking her. A band called Rump even put out an album called Hating Brenda with eight songs dedicated to exploring different aspects of, well, hating Brenda. (Curious? It can be yours for a sweet penny over at Amazon.) After a while, it felt like the show’s writers and producers caught on and started portraying Brenda as hateful, even dressing her in black to look like a villain. That wasn’t nearly as fun. But for a sweet couple of seasons, it was fun to tune in and watch a heroine constantly at odds with the viewers who were supposed to embrace her.