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.
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