Alfred Hitchcock once said “The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.” The popularity of the tv criminal has upheld this notion, with infamous characters like Tony Soprano and Walter White garnering fandom despite their villainous ways.
For years, television shows opted for story-of-the-week episodes, but a new era of long form storytelling allowed creators to develop criminal characters in a multi-faceted way. Villains were no longer oversimplified, morally deplorable foes, but had backstories, sincere emotions, and moments of relatability. Some even gained anti-hero status. (These are the best anti-hero shows of all time.)
To identify the most memorable criminals in TV history, 24/7 Tempo reviewed series in which criminals were a major part of the plot, somewhere a criminal character was even more popular than the protagonist. The final list consists of 37 major characters in memorable TV shows.
The most popular TV criminals are rarely one-dimensional. Writers often employ sympathy-evoking backstories that explain criminal evolution. Two such criminals are serial killer Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) and crime boss Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi). While children, Morgan witnessed the brutal murder of his mother, and Thompson experienced the death of his sister and physical abuse.
Many of the most memorable TV criminals are highly intelligent and more popular than less cunning TV adversaries. Moriarty (Andrew Scott) is a worthy foe of Sherlock Holmes because he has the wit to match Holmes’ genius. Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) is a criminal mastermind who continually outsmarts his enemies.
Among TV criminals, murder is a popular crime. Twenty nine of the 37 listed criminals have killed at least one character. Other frequently-committed crimes are drug dealing and theft. Three of the most popular TV criminals are involved in mob crimes. Many of the listed TV criminals are men, while only six of the 37 criminals are women.
> Show: 24
> Played by: Sarah Clarke
Nina Myers (Sarah Clarke) shocked viewers at the end of the first season of “24”. Myers was not the esteemed terrorism-fighter she seemed, but a mole, spying on Jack Bauer and his counterterrorism unit and responsible for the deaths of multiple characters, including Bauer’s wife.
> Show: American Horror Story
> Played by: Jessica Lange
Jessica Lange won an Emmy, Golden Globe, and a SAG Award for her portrayal of Constance Langdon in the “Murder House” season of “American Horror Story.” In the series, Langdon’s tragic backstory unfolded, rife with criminal behavior. She was responsible for the murder of her husband, maid and one of her sons.
> Show: Boardwalk Empire
> Played by: Bobby Cannavale
Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) was the primary antagonist of “Boardwalk Empire” during season three. Rosetti was rash and violent with men he considered disrespectful, yet audiences saw his softer side when Rosetti interacted with women, children, and animals. Rosetti committed a number of murders and mob-related crimes.
> Show: Boardwalk Empire
> Played by: Steve Buscemi
Steve Buscemi received a Golden Globe Award for his role as Nucky Thompson, the multi-faceted protagonist of “Boardwalk Empire.” Officially, Thompson was an affable Republican politician, while behind the scenes, he was a mobster and crime boss. Thompson was responsible for ordering the murders of many men, and killed several directly.
The Gravedigger / Heather Taffet
> Show: Bones
> Played by: Deirdre Lovejoy
Another criminal with a double life, Heather Taffet (Dierdre Lovejoy) was introduced as a State Attorney, assigned to the Gravedigger case. Eventually, it was revealed that Taffet herself was the Gravedigger, and had committed a plethora of murders and abductions. Seeley Booth (David Boreanez) is abducted by Taffet, but Booth is rescued and Taffet is convicted for her crimes.
> Show: Brassic
> Played by: Joe Gilgun
Vinnie O’Neill (Joe Gilgun) was born into criminality, following in his father’s footsteps of breaking into safes. Despite his law-breaking ways, O’Neill is the show’s protagonist and anti-hero, gaining the sympathy of audiences through his challenging backstory, ongoing struggles with bipolar disorder, and display of emotional intelligence.
> Show: Breaking Bad
> Played by: Bryan Cranston
Many consider Walter White (Bryan Cranston) to be one of the greatest anti-heroes of all time. Afflicted by cancer, White, a high school chemistry teacher, turns to cooking meth as a means to support his family. Audience members watch as White becomes an increasingly ruthless criminal as the show unfolds.
> Show: Breaking Bad
> Played by: Giancarlo Esposito
The owner of Los Pollos Hermanos, Gustavo “Gus” Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) moonlights as a narcotics distributor in both “Breaking Bad” and its prequel, “Better Call Saul”. Some paint Fring as the perfect villain, maintaining a seamless public image while committing ruthless crimes. Fring is positioned as the nemesis of Walter White, though the two collaborate in some instances.
> Show: Brooklyn Nine-Nine
> Played by: Craig Robinson
Though criminal Doug Judy (Craig Robinson) and Detective Jake Peralta (Andy Samburg) are arch-enemies, “frenemies” might be a more-apt descriptor. Judy, an expert Pontiac thief, is pursued by Detective Peralta throughout the series. The two characters participate in comedic misadventures, all while maintaining a love-hate relationship.
> Show: Dallas
> Played by: Larry Hagman
J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) appeared in every episode of the original “Dallas.” Ewing is viewed as a morally corrupt man, engaging in bribery, blackmail, and manipulation. However, the show presents duality in Ewing’s character, demonstrating to viewers his loyalty to some family members. By the end of the original series, tragedy befalls Ewing, garnering sympathy from some viewers.
> Show: Daredevil
> Played by: Vincent D’Onofrio
Wilson “The Kingpin” Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) is a supervillain. Pitted against Matt Murdoch (Charlie Cox) in “Daredevil”, Fisk serves as the primary antagonist throughout the series. On top of many other crimes, Fisk commits several murders, including that of his own father. Despite his deplorable behavior, Fisk evoked sympathy in some viewers due to his backstory of abuse, and early exposure to violence.
> Show: Deadwood
> Played by: Ian McShane
Ian McShane took home a Golden Globe Award for his performance as Al Swearengen in “Deadwood.” Swearengen provided viewers with a multi-faceted, morally questionable character. Swearengen was both back-stabbing and murderous, yet remained loyal to characters who were, in turn, loyal to him.
> Show: Dexter
> Played by: Michael C. Hall
Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) is considered an anti-hero TV criminal by many. Morgan meticulously hunts down and murders other serial killers. The audience faces a moral dilemma of whether they should root for Morgan, who is a serial killer himself. While his behavior is criminal, some veiwers argue that he is doing more good than bad by ridding the world of other murderers who target innocent victims.
The Trinity Killer / Arthur Mitchell
> Show: Dexter
> Played by: John Lithgow
Arthur Mitchell (John Lithgow), or The Trinity Killer, is one of Dexter’s primary antagonistis. Mitchell is a prolific serial killer, racking up dozens of victims over the span of three decades. Mitchell lived a double life, publicly presenting as a family man, high school teacher, and church deacon, while secretly committing heinous crimes.
> Show: Doctor Who
> Played by: Sacha Dhawan
While The Master has been played by numerous actors throughout various “Doctor Who” seasons, Sacha Dhawan portrays the Master opposite Jodie Whitaker’s rendition of the Doctor. The Master is a Time Lord who aims to kill Doctor Who, and take over the world. A worthy adversary of the Doctor, the Master is able to regenerate even after death, and appear in another body.
> Show: Game of Thrones
> Played by: Jack Gleeson
Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) is a TV villain that audiences love to hate. Baratheon, who develops into a cruel tyrant, is revealed to be the product of an incestious relationship between his mother, Cersei Lannister, and Cersei’s brother Jamie. Baratheon has a penchant for torture and murder, committing ever-increasingly disturbing acts throughout seasons one through four of “Game of Thrones.”
> Show: Game of Thrones
> Played by: Iwan Rheon
One of the more horrific TV villains, Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) commits atrocious acts throughout seasons four, five and six of Game of Thrones. Rheon’s performance as Bolton is chilling, leaving the audience to wonder what disturbing act will be committed by Ramsay Bolton next. He tortures two long-standing characters on the show, Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen).
> Show: Game of Thrones
> Played by: Lena Headey
Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) divided “Game of Thrones” viewers, some beholding her as an impressive, methodical mastermind, while others disliked her adversarial role. Though responsible for the anguish of other beloved characters, Cersei Lannister garnered sympathy during her mortifying treatment by the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce). Headey’s performance earned her dozens of award nominations and several awards.
Dr. Hannibal Lecter
> Show: Hannibal
> Played by: Mads Mikkelsen
In an attempt to catch serial killers, criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) teams up with Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), a highly intelligent psychiatrist whose expertise is in psychopaths. Lecter is secretly a serial killer himself. Lecter’s character also demonstrates a moral duality; he shows empathy for certain characters while still committing vicious acts of murder.
> Show: Heroes
> Played by: Zachary Quinto
Sylar (Zachary Quinto) is a formidable antagonist in Heroes, a series where average people around the world suddenly gain superpowers. Sylar begins to hunt and kill these superheroes, dissecting their brains in order to gain their powers. Later in the series, Sylar takes part in a redemption arc, leaving viewers with hope that he will change his ways.
> Show: Justified
> Played by: Walton Goggins
At the beginning of “Justified,” Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) is introduced to viewers as a white supremacist, bank-robbing career criminal. As the series unfolds, Crowder transitions through a number of different identities, including a newly saved Christian, a messiah, and a coal miner. Crowder is unable to abandon his villainous ways, and finds himself a criminal once again.
> Show: Law & Order: Criminal Intent
> Played by: Olivia d’Abo
Nicole Wallace (Olivia d’Abo) killed over twenty victims during her tenure on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” She was one of the most notable adversaries on the show, having been the only criminal to best Robert Goren (Vincent D’Onofrio).
> Show: Lost
> Played by: Michael Emerson
Benjamin Linus (Michael Emerson) emerged as the leader of “the Others,” a mysterious group of individuals that terrorized the band of plane-crash survivors on early seasons of “Lost.” Linus elicited sympathy from viewers as his backstory was revealed, and through his allyship of some fan-favorites. Viewers have differing opinions on whether or not Linus is truly a villain, or just a tragic character.
> Show: My Name Is Earl
> Played by: Jason Lee
Earl Hickey (Jason Lee) is a classic villain-turned-hero. Starting “My Name is Earl” as a criminal, Hickey develops into a more respectable character as the series unfolds. Driven by the concept of Karma, Hickey embarks on a journey to make amends to those he has wronged. While the narrative takes a left turn in later seasons, many viewers find Hickey to be one of the most likable criminals in television.
> Show: Orange Is The New Black
> Played by: Taylor Schilling
At the beginning of Orange Is The New Black, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) was painted as a nearly-innocent woman and unlikely prison candidate. When Chapman’s ex-girlfriend named her as an accessory to drug smuggling during a plea deal, Chapman lands in prison. Throughout her incarceration, Chapman becomes increasingly calculating, and cunning.
Black Jack Randall
> Show: Outlander
> Played by: Tobias Menzies
Tobias Menzis plays two characters in Outlander, Claire’s (Caitriona Balfe) husband Frank Randall, and Frank’s evil ancestor, Black Jack Randall. When Claire travels back in time, she is met with Frank’s familiar face, but is horrified when she realizes that he is not her husband, but his tortuous, evil relative. Black Jack Randall commits many horrifying crimes, including rape and murder.
> Show: Prison Break
> Played by: Dominic Purcell
Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell) was set-up for the murder of the Vice President’s brother. While Burrows did commit crimes like battery and theft, he was sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit. “Prison Break” follows Burrows escape from prison.
> Show: Sherlock
> Played by: Andrew Scott
Moriarty (Andrew Scott) is one of few worthy opponents to face Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch). Moriarty, who counters Homes’ intelligence with his own genius and cunning, becomes obsessed with Holmes. This dynamic eventually leads to a face off between the two. Moriarty is a consulting criminal, and helps his clients carry out well-orchestrated crimes.
> Show: Sons Of Anarchy
> Played by: Charlie Hunnam
Between murder, smuggling and gun sales, Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) could not be classified as a man of honor, yet his role as the protagonist in “Sons of Anarchy” paints him as an anti-hero instead. Despite his disturbing actions, many audience members still root for his success.
> Show: Supernatural
> Played by: Curtis Armstrong
Metatron (Curtis Armstrong) was a clever antagonist of both the Winchesters (Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles) and Castiel (Misha Collins) in “Supernatural.” An evil archangel, Metatron sought revenge against other angels, hurt Castiel, and started a civil war amongst the angels.
> Show: The Fall
> Played by: Jamie Dornan
Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan) is a chilling serial killer that plagues protagonist Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) in “The Fall”. Though the audience is clued in to Spector’s murderous ways at the beginning of the series, he maintains his outward appearance as a father, family man, and grief counselor.
> Show: The Sopranos
> Played by: James Gandolfini
A mobster, a father, a husband, and a therapy patient, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is one of the most beloved TV criminals of all time. The audience is faced with an ever-morphing moral dilemma of support for Soprano, as they witness his crimes while watching him emotionally unravel in his therapist’s office. Gandolfini won a Golden Globe Award, Emmy Awards, and many other awards for his acting in “The Sopranos.”
> Show: The Walking Dead
> Played by: David Morrissey
One of Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) most memorable foes, The Governor (David Morrissey) terrorized and murdered a number of characters on “The Walking Dead.” Like other popular TV criminals, viewers witnessed the Governor’s tragic backstory, forcing them to grapple with feelings of sympathy for his criminal character.
> Show: The Walking Dead
> Played by: Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Jeffrey Dean Morgan earned a Critic’s Choice Award, MTV Movie Award, and Saturn Award for his role as Negan. Armed with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire, lovingly named “Lucille,” Negan was the tyrannical leader of the Saviors, antagonists to Rick and his zombie-apocalypse survivor group in “The Walking Dead.” Negan’s character evolves as the show progresses, eventually demonstrating several instances of redemption.
> Show: The Wire
> Played by: Wood Harris
Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) is one of the most prominent drug kingpins throughout multiple seasons of “The Wire.” During season one, Barksdale is the primary antagonist, his criminal organization seemingly unstoppable. Barksdale eventually lands in prison, but despite incarceration, Barksdale runs his crime group remotely, with the assistance of Stringer Bell (Idris Elba).
> Show: The Wire
> Played by: Jamie Hector
Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector) is a clever, cold-blooded drug dealer and murderer during seasons three through five of “The Wire.” Stanfield’s crew rises ranks on the street, eventually overtaking Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) in the process. Stanfield is more focused on power than he is on profit, and is willing to murder anyone who challenges his prominence.
> Show: White Collar
> Played by: Matt Bomer
One of the world’s greatest con artists, Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer) is beloved by fans, who appreciate his clever tactics, intelligence and charm. After committing an impressive number of crimes, Caffrey is hired as a criminal consultant for the FBI’s white collar division.
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