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.