This week’s question comes from reader Juliana Espinosa:
Who is your favorite “unlikable” character? These are the folks meant to be unfriendly, evil, or just reprehensible in some way.
This one’s a little bittersweet, given that actor Miguel Ferrer just died in January, but I am a part of the small contingent that believes Albert Rosenfield was damn-near the best part of Twin Peaks. The hard-nosed FBI hotshot that saunters into the little town hates everyone the moment he meets them, disdaining the very small-town charm that was ostensibly the show’s appeal. His rich, florid insults can seem almost Iannuccian in their invention, such as this one, delivered when favorite punching bag Harry Truman attempts to stand up for himself: “I’ve had about enough of morons and halfwits, dolts, dunces, dullards and dumbbells—and you, chowderhead yokel, you blithering hayseed, you’ve had enough of me?” For all the show’s genius, it was rarely funny, making Rosenfield’s presence a welcome breath of foul, asshole-ish air.
I feel doubly weird about this after it came out that Casey Affleck is, in addition to being a fine actor, an (allegedly) deplorable human being who (allegedly) sexually harassed multiple women on I’m Still Here, but I’ve always been fascinated by the utterly repellent, grotesque caricature of a nightmare celebrity Joaquin Phoenix played in that film. Before the film’s release, the filmmakers toyed with the idea that audiences were watching a genuine emotional and professional meltdown, captured for posterity on film, but it quickly became apparent that Phoenix was playing a role the entire film, and one of the best and deepest in a career full of them. In that respect, I see the film as a companion piece to The Master, where Phoenix similarly played a character who was as ragged and flawed as he was compelling and unforgettable.
DC villain Slade Wilson (a.k.a. Deathstroke The Terminator) is one of my all-time-favorite comic-book characters, and it’s almost entirely because of his extremely rad costume. Sure, he’s generally depicted as an unrepentant piece of shit who will kill anyone for the right price, but how can you not love that two-tone mask? And all right, he treats his own family so poorly that one of his kids is dead and his ex-wife shot out his eye, but he looks awesome as an older dude with white hair, a goatee, and an eyepatch. And okay, he may have also had a very inappropriate relationship with a teenage superhero in the famous “Judas Contract” storyline, but the various continuity reboots since then have almost certainly erased that little misstep. Thankfully, through every questionable narrative move and disappointing continuity reboot, Deathstroke always looks super cool.
Seinfeld doesn’t lack for unlikable characters, but none can hold a candle to Wayne Knight’s Newman. Prickly, vile, lazy, “pure evil,” and yet convinced of his own moral and spiritual superiority, Newman’s heart is the inky blackness in which the morality of the show’s main cast can just barely be seen to shine. Nobody—not even his best friend and frequent fellow schemer, Kramer—really likes Newman. But his enmity with Jerry is the stuff of legend, expressed in any number of hissed “Jerry”s and “Hello, Newman”s, one that stretches from the show’s third season all the way through “The Finale,” when Knight tops himself with one final, scenery-devouring kiss-off to his “sworn enemy.” In a universe where comedy is measured in how cartoonishly unsympathetic you can make yourself, Newman manages to trump even the great George Costanza at the top of the hill.
Let me be a caricature of myself and say Endless Mike from The Adventures Of Pete And Pete. Yes, Rick Gomez’s Endless Mike is an almost laughable caricature of a childhood bully, but he’s also just so damn charming. The affectations he picks up along the course of the show’s run, from his love of shop class to his makeout strategy (“no fog, no fun,” etc.), make Mike Hellstrom almost likable in his juvenile sadism. It doesn’t hurt that Gomez really nails that whole “guy who looks slightly too old for high school but still manages to somehow hang around” aesthetic perfectly, too.
The decades have been littered with aborted attempts to adapt John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy Of Dunces to the screen, with various grandiose excuses given for why it’s never happened—the death of John Belushi, Hurricane Katrina, some sort of “curse.” But the real reason might be much more prosaic: Ignatius Reilly is a supremely unlikable guy, a flatulent, pompous, boorish oaf who openly disdains and bores almost everyone around him, and not Belushi, nor Will Ferrell, nor Zach Galifianakis can make that appealing to a movie audience. (Of course, Ignatius—who abhors all pop culture and attends movies solely to mock them—wouldn’t want to.) Still, anyone who’s read Toole’s novel knows that Ignatius’ repugnance is part of his charm, and his perpetual indignation at the vulgarities of modern life is just an exaggerated satire of their own inflated intellectualized arrogance. And in that way, you can’t help but root for him, particularly if your own pyloric valve clenches at the thought of having to work for a living.
At one point, a character named Wario was introduced into the Mario universe as an evil foil to Nintendo’s iconic hero. Wario is fat, greedy, and everybody loves him because he’s a boisterous loon whose various game series are great. Then, Mario Tennis was released in 2000, and Nintendo decided Luigi needed a doppelgänger as well. And so Waluigi, one of the Mushroom Kingdom’s most bizarre and hated characters, was born. He’s a lanky jerk with zero discernible personality traits other than “skinny Wario”—although Charles Martinet, the voice actor behind all four of Nintendo’s suspender-wearing characters, considers his defining trait to be “self-pity”—and he literally only exists to fill out the roster of Mario Party sports games. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t completely charmed by how strange and pointless of a character he is. He didn’t even get some sort of grand debut. All of a sudden, Waluigi was just there, making weird sniveling noises and smashing racquets like John McEnroe. He is the worst, and I love him.
Revisiting E.C. Segar’s original Popeye newspaper strips, it’s interesting to see how much they shared with the popular adventure strips of the day—outlandish extended story arcs about pirates and witches—but anchored them with a cast of characters with surprisingly human quirks. J. Wellington Wimpy is Popeye’s closest friend. He’s articulate and verbose, but also a coward and a mooch who falsely promises anyone within earshot that he’ll “gladly pay them Tuesday for a hamburger today.” He’s relentless in his capacity for taking, but also fundamentally a sweet character whose negative traits are softened both by his loyalty to his friends and his Buddha-like serenity. These traits are expressed through Segar’s rendering of Wimpy: Bowler hat shaped like his favorite food perched on his round head, eyes in a perpetual sleepy droop, and arms calmly folded behind his back, he doesn’t wheedle or cajole. He simply floats in, gently presents the idea that someone should buy him lunch, and if no one is willing, floats away, confident that another opportunity for a hamburger gratis will present itself soon.
I know Ricky Gervais can be kind of a divisive personality, but that doesn’t change the fact that he created my favorite cringe character of all time: David Brent on The Office. David’s insistence on aways being the center of attention—no matter how embarrassing the outcome at Slough’s paper company office—is what makes the character, whether he’s trying to one-up a carefully choreographed dance routine, kick off a career as a motivational speaker, or just demand love and respect from his bewildered staff. He has a bit of an overdue comeuppance as he tries to find love in the show’s Christmas episode finale, but maybe it was just David’s short run that made him so briefly perfect. Gervais’ foolish, fearless portrayal of such a self-centered wanker led to not just his American persona in Michael Scott, but the league of other cringe comedic characters that followed. But none of them had his dance movies.
“For Pete’s sake” has allowed God-fearing Christians to skirt the fourth commandment for more than a century, but it’s also a handy substitute for the more profane “For fuck’s sake”—so, by the transitive property, “fuck” = “Pete.” I make this tortured analogy because there was hardly an episode of Mad Men that went by that didn’t cause me to mutter “For fuck’s sake, Pete,” a mathematically redundant curse directed at oiliest, most weaselly WASP in all of New York advertising Pete Campbell. The account executive played by Vincent Kartheiser—who’d already engendered the hatred of a passionate fan base as Angel’s whiny vampire spawn, Connor—is so odious, the production eventually started taking it out on his appearance, creating the illusion of Pete’s receding hairline by shaving back Kartheiser’s own, perfectly robust mane. A complex character imbued with a leavening sense of pathos by Mad Men’s writers and Kartheiser himself, Pete is the subject of no fewer than four all-time-great pieces of viral schadenfreude: slamming into the column in his office, taking one in the face from Lane Pryce, falling down those goddamn stairs at Sterling Cooper & Partners, and the only words you need ever speak to an overly chipper co-worker named Robert. He’s such a piece of shit, and yet I love him, because, deep down inside, I fear I am him. While most of us know that we shouldn’t come back from our honeymoon and sleep with a new co-worker, surely there are times when we all feel like we’re the Pete Campbell in some Don Draper’s story, making the people at home say “For fuck’s sake” at least once a week.