The Emmy awards reward good work. But often some of the best work in actors' and actresses' television careers comes out of playing characters that are bad to the bone. Audiences and Emmy voters can't get enough of these diabolical characters who, if they're not oozing evil from every pore, are morally and ethically compromised.
Last Saturday, at the creative arts portion of the Primetime Emmy Awards, John Lithgow snagged his statuette for guest actor in Showtime's "Dexter." Multiple-Emmy winner Lithgow played Arthur Mitchell, a seemingly fulfilled family man who was actually "Trinity," a serial killer with excessive baggage and a fetish for gruesome ritual killing. In hot pursuit of the killer, Dexter Morgan – played by Emmy nominee Michael C. Hall – got the worst of it, when Trinity slaughtered Dexter's wife in last season's finale. Lithgow beat out Ted Danson's twisted entrepreneur in "Damages" and Gregory Itzin's corrupt president in "24."
There's good reason why the public is smitten with these baddies.
"People are fascinated with the exotic and the different," said Jesse Prinz, professor of philosophy at the City University of New York. He should know. His expertise is moral psychology – the study of what motivates people to be good, with the understanding that being bad is an aberration.
"The entertainment industry presents us with characters we typically wouldn't encounter in our daily lives," he said, adding that there's a fine line between the deviant and the familiar. "When a television program has both elements – a character who appears to be a regular person but who does terrible things – we're captivated, and it's usually a formula for a hit show."
"These characters represent the parts of our nature that we repress," said James Hollis, a Jungian analyst in private practice in Houston, Texas, and the author of "Why Good People Do Bad Things." "The more we repress these emotions, the more compelling their energy. Unless we acknowledge them, we'll act them out unconsciously."
The allure of these types of criminal, as explained in one of the essays in the new book "Serial Killers: Being and Killing," is that they generate in us a terrified fascination which begs for a logical explanation of the behavior.
This Sunday's Emmy awards features a big lineup of best evil-gene contenders. Glenn Close from "Damages" is up for best actress for her portrayal of conniving and duplistic Patty Hewes. Rose Byrne, playing her well-trained and equally wily protégée Ellen Parsons is also up for supporting actress kudos. Lily Tomlin was also nominated for her guest turn in the series – she played a scheming Ruth Madoff-like wife.
But it's male characters that writers love to turn to the dark side.
Check out Emmy's really bad dudes:
Best Character in a Drama
In the category of best actor in a drama series, Hugh Laurie's Gregory House qualifies as a misanthrope. Jon Hamm's Don Draper is a serial adulterer. But neither holds a candle to Bryan Cranston's character, Walter White and Hall's Morgan Dexter.
Cranston, who is looking for a three-peat win in this category, has morally devolved his character of White over the past three seasons. Initially a self-effacing high-school chemistry teacher with a terminal lung cancer diagnosis, White decided to use his scientific expertise to cook meth to provide for his family after his demise. Now deeply entrenched in the drug business, White has become an assassin, ruthlessly protective of his territory.
In an interview with HitFix.com, Cranston said he believed his character is "past the point of no return" and "a changed man."
"To what degree or where he goes or how far he goes or how quickly he goes there, I don't know. But he's going," said Cranston.
The actor's comments about an innocent target that White believed had to be killed are also revealing. "He's still like, 'If it means I get to live longer, he's got to go,'" said Cranston.
Dexter is a blood-splatter analyst who's appointed himself judge and jury to kill criminals that elude the justice system that includes himself. Through the tutelage of his father who periodically pops up in apparitions, Dexter rationalizes his own criminal acts that he's managed to keep secret. This season, he assumed a false identity to insinuate himself into the life of a serial killer he obsessively tracked. He got his man but at a tragic price.
Hollis suggests that Dexter's desire for justice may resonate with viewers who may be fixated on wanting to get even. People who enjoy watching these types of characters in action might vicariously work out their anger at someone, he says. But, he adds, seeing the crime might also incite the viewer to their own destructive acts.
Best Supporting Character in a Drama
The ultimate "Bad Men" battle is in the best supporting actor category. "Lost," which just ended its run, pits Michael Emerson's murderous Ben Linus against Terry O'Quinn's character John Locke, whose body was used as a ruthless vehicle for the island's smoke monster. "Damages"'s Martin Short shed all vestiges of his Ed Grimley wackiness to portray reptilian lawyer Leonard Winstone, and Hall's Dexter has singlehandedly appointed himself judge and jury to kill criminals that elude the justice system.
"Breaking Bad"'s Aaron Paul has turned his character Jesse Pinkman – Jesse was once Walter White's flunkie chemistry student – into an emotional thug who, in this season's cliffhanger, may have carried out his mentor's murderous orders. In his HitFix.com interview, Cranston characterized Jesse as a person trying to "embrace the dark side of his character in order to survive this world of crime."
"He had to improve his skill-set to literally live another day," said Cranston who described Jesse as confused, rather than a bad guy. Prinz underscored that a deviant character with a sympathetic nature has its appeal. For example, both Jesse and Walter who got into crime to take care of his family.
Half of the six nominees for best drama series have evil at their core, mainly through the actions of their primary characters. "Breaking Bad" focuses on a two-man meth-cooking operation, "Lost" addressed the archetypal principles of light and darkness, and "True Blood" explores the literal feeding on others for personal gain.
Yes, they're just television programs and vibrantly drawn characters. Although watching the devil at work is often great fun, the appeal, for some may run way deeper than many of us are likely to acknowledge.