I’ve been watching “Succession” and “The Shrink Next Door,” and, not surprisingly, thinking about malevolence. There are characters on TV whose scheming, narcissism, and passive-aggression are breathtaking to behold, as they perpetually and skillfully cause misery, sorrow, injury, and uncertainty. These people abuse their positions of power for self-gain, assuage their insecurities and weaknesses with cruelty, and generally reveal the more pernicious sides of human nature. They are, as we say, toxic.
What makes them fascinating is that, in many cases, they work their menace without wielding guns or knives or poisoned cocktails. They are a killing-adjacent breed, at times murderous and violent, perhaps, but not eager to get blood on their own hands. They provoke ugly drama and suffering, and their manipulations can lead to death and destruction, but they’re not necessarily full-on psychopaths who don’t think about pulling the trigger. They’re not Hannibals, or Swearengens, or Villanelles.
They’re also not the classic antiheroes we’ve been watching and analyzing on TV for the past 20 years, such as Tony Soprano, Walter White, Dexter Morgan, and Vic Mackey. For this list, I’ve focused on the more insidious mischief-makers and wretches from shows whose run falls predominantly after 2000. Please welcome my favorite malignants.
Livia Soprano, “The Sopranos” (Nancy Marchand) She was miserable, and needed to make everyone around her miserable with her dissonant whining. But she saved her nastiest comments for her son, Tony, endlessly trying to belittle him and make his life unpleasant. Her unsuccessful attempt to manipulate Junior into killing him was horrible, of course, but her nattering on nihilistically was just plain unbearable. Marchand was bold in her willingness to deliver a vile, malicious mother, one who put the lie to the myth of unconditional maternal love.
Logan Roy, “Succession” (Brian Cox) Yes, all of the Roys are noxious creatures, which is what makes their show so irresistible. It’s hard to choose only one. But I find the bullying Logan particularly unsettling, despite his dry sense of humor and avuncular stylings. He uses his role as father to keep his children insecure and needy of his approval, somehow making their ruthlessness seem like a kind of victimhood. He misuses his media company as a weapon for his own political and financial needs. And he has a habit of primitively marking his territory, dog-like, with urine. Who does that?
Dr. Ike, “The Shrink Next Door” (Paul Rudd) He’s a therapist, but he doesn’t truly want to heal his patients. Instead, he exploits their trust for his own gain, this wolf in mensch’s clothing, breaking ethical boundaries with abandon. He isolates them, encouraging them to cut off family members, in order to keep them focused on him and his needs. With Will Ferrell’s Marty, he works a long con, gradually inserting himself into Marty’s business, becoming a joint signer on Marty’s multimillion-dollar bank account, and taking over Marty’s Hamptons house. Fortunately, the real-life Dr. Ike’s hour is up; he lost his license to practice this year.
Serena Joy Waterford, “The Handmaid’s Tale” (Yvonne Strahovski) Sorry, Serena, but your work as a right-wing cultural activist is what led to the establishment of Gilead, where women are little more than breeding machines. At moments in the story, you’ve tried to redeem yourself — but only sporadically, and not convincingly. Your name is ironic, since you are a severe, repressed, lying betrayer of all women, one who participates dutifully in the rapes of other women hoping to steal their babies. Hello, is this A Special Place in Hell? I’d like to reserve a room . . .
Shane Patton, “The White Lotus” (Jake Lacy) This dude embodied everything bad about frat bros with tons of money. He was a classist and an entitled bully who treated service people with contempt, ultimately killing one of them (accidentally). His ego was delicate enough to turn any minor dissatisfaction at the White Lotus resort into a power struggle of epic proportions, and it wasn’t hard to laugh when the hotel manager left a turd in Shane’s suitcase. A big baby, he didn’t want his new wife to have a career, so she could take care of him and his children, and — wow — he allowed his mother to visit during his honeymoon.
Kevin, “Kevin Can F*** Himself” (Eric Petersen) This series perfectly captures the deep misogyny embedded in the history of American sitcoms. The obnoxious Kevin, who’s right out of every brash multi-cam marriage comedy from “The Honeymooners” to “The King of Queens,” is the epitome of that misogyny, a buffoonish hubby who only cares about his male buddies and who has somehow won a smart, beautiful, and tolerant wife. He insults Annie Murphy’s Allison to get laughs; that’s the way his world works, those tropes are his bread and butter. Once Allison leaves the sitcom within the show, though, and she allows herself to feel the brutality of his behavior, she becomes homicidal, and you can’t blame her.
Prince Charles, “The Crown” (Josh O’Connor) I should note that I’m referring to the character, not the real Prince Charles, who may or may not have been as wimpy and cruel as TV’s fictionalized version of him. When Camilla Parker Bowles is deemed an unsuitable wife largely because of her romantic history, Charles doesn’t stand up for himself and his love for her; instead, at 31 he marries the 19-year-old Diana and poisons their relationship with his passion for Camilla. He and his family are remarkably unwelcoming and haughty to the young princess, and, eventually, in what is both petty and pathetic, he becomes jealous of her popularity.
Pete Campbell, “Mad Men” (Vincent Kartheiser) From wealth (that his father ultimately squandered), Pete was emotionally stunted, sloppily ambitious, and threatened by empowered women. He was a sniveling tattletale, trying to undermine Don Draper by leaking info on Don’s stolen identity and trying to hurt his wife, Trudy, by telling her about seeing her father at a brothel. He treated Trudy with constant contempt, cheating on her repeatedly (and having a child with Peggy). At one point, he rapes his neighbor’s au pair. What were his chances of becoming a responsible grownup? Not great, Bob.
Sarah O’Brien, “Downton Abbey” (Siobhan Finneran) No one could smoke a cigarette with as much ferocity as O’Brien, the prickly lady’s maid to Cora. She was cold-hearted, and her only bond in the house was with Thomas Barrow, as they shared disdain for everyone else. She even tries to help Thomas become a valet by undermining Mr. Bates, but their relationship ultimately falls apart and at one point she tries to out him. She pretends to be a friend to Cora, but when she thinks she’s going to be fired, she puts wet soap beside Cora’s bath, causing her ladyship to slip and miscarry.
George Warleggan, “Poldark” (Jack Farthing) He was Ross Poldark’s relentless enemy, but he really wanted to be Poldark. His inhumanity was fueled by his formidable envy and his need to compensate for his shortcomings with power. He wanted Poldark’s money, his status, and his lover, Elizabeth, and he never tired of trying to get them. His path of destruction left many casualties, not least of all the local mineworkers he abandoned. But even once he attained some wealth and position, along with Elizabeth, he remained a dejected, anguished sod.
Perry Wright, “Big Little Lies” (Alexander Skarsgård) The scenes in which Perry, his ego so fragile, abused and terrorized Nicole Kidman’s Celeste were well done, in that they were brilliantly acted and so effectively painful to watch. They were enough to make the character — who we see choking Celeste in front of their children — into one of TV’s most foul, a man with deep-seated sexual and emotional issues that taint all those around him. Later, as if we needed more evidence against him, we learn that Perry also raped Shailene Woodley’s Jane and fathered her son.
Claire Wilson, “A Teacher” (Kate Mara) She’s at the dark center of this disturbing miniseries, which gave us a front-row seat on how a high school teacher grooms one of her 17-year-old students for sexual abuse. At first, you can get drawn into what seems like a romance; but it quickly becomes clear that Claire is a troubled soul filled with regrets who’s taking advantage of Eric’s trust in her. She’s a manipulator, and too slippery to take responsibility for the long-term damage she has caused to the puppy dog of a kid.
Rupert Mannion, “Ted Lasso” (Anthony Head) Hiss. He’s the guy who cheats on his wife, then torments her as she tries to get back on her feet. Sure, the second season ended with Nate as a villain of sorts — but he, unlike Rupert, is redeemable. Rupert, who once did everything he could to ruin an event hosted by Rebecca, his ex, is now funding a competing team in his desperate need to prevail. He’s not onscreen a lot, but his negativity and sliminess drive the action.
Paulie G., “The Comeback” (Lance Barber) Lisa Kudrow’s Valerie Cherish is so often her own worst enemy. But Paulie G. is there to double the humiliation whenever he can, as she represents everything he hates about show business. As the head writer of Valerie’s awful sitcom in season one, he did everything in his power to make her look foolish. And then, in season two, post-rehab, as he writes and directs a series about his behavior in the first season, he re-victimizes her. It’s all meta and self-aware and twisted, but Paulie’s viciousness is straight-ahead grotesque.
Vee Parker, “Orange Is the New Black” (Lorraine Toussaint) Ever the manipulator, she knew how to find others’ weak spots and exploit them for her own gain, Dr. Ike-like. She made season two of the series into something memorable, as she won the trust of Crazy Eyes and tried to keep Taystee under her spell. OK, so maybe she killed someone at some point along the way; she definitely set up Taystee’s brother, who was shot by a cop. But in season two, sentenced for drug dealing, she was a puppeteer par excellence as she made a move on Red.