We all look to Disney movies for the villains we love to hate, such as Hades or Scar, and we’ve been blown away by some of TV’s complex antagonists, such as The Handmaid’s Tale’s Serena Joy or half the characters in Game of Thrones. Yet some of the best TV villains are the ones who aren’t particularly tortured or ambiguous, but the ones who are clearly bad news, but adorable anyways.
Warning: This story contains mild spoilers for The Good Place.
Chanel Oberlin, “Scream Queens”
Of all of Ryan Murphy’s villains, from the satirical Sue Sylvester on Glee to the many horrible faces of American Horror Story, one stands out as a true delight to watch: Scream Queens’ narcissistic anti-heroine Chanel Oberlin.
As the usurping President of Kappa House, Chanel (Emma Roberts) is a perfect stereotype of ultra-rich, vapid sorority queen as well as coddled millennial. She also may just be a murderer. Curiously, she also adopts a remarkably morbid aesthetic as freely as she does as her pink fuzzy dresses, and most of her action is motivated by her nearly-sincere fondness for her cheating boyfriend.
But what we love most about Chanel, excellently executed by Emma Roberts, is her perfect one-liners and pure commitment to Chanel’s sheer absurdity. Chanel could easily have been lost among her competing stereotypes or her millennial-speak, or simply unrelatable for audience members who know nothing about Greek life, fashion, or psychopathy. But Chanel is perplexingly likable even in her brutality.
Dr. Bob Kelso, “Scrubs”
Scrubs has been hailed as a groundbreaking show that extolled the virtues of workplace diversity, accurately yet hilariously portrayed the lives of medical interns, and established the absurdist sitcom without a laff track. Among its whimsical yet complex cast of characters are the browbeating Dr. Cox (John C. McGinley) and the eccentric Janitor (Neil Flynn). Yet one character is undeniably the show’s villain: the abusive, self-absorbed, and peckish Chief of Medicine, Dr. Bob Kelso (Ken Jenkins).
Dr. Kelso frequently thwarts the main characters’ actions just to be obstructionist or because they’re in between him and his baked sweets. Abetted with zinging one-liners and shocking personal anecdotes, as well as his extraordinary calves, Dr. Kelso is like your grouchy old neighbor, but fun to listen to. As the show progresses, you see some depths to his character that make you wonder if he’s secretly a good person — aaaaand, nope, he’s not. Still makes you laugh, though!
Michael, “The Good Place”
If you like your television with a dash of philosophy, The Good Place is a, well, good place to start. Its charming characters are “bad” people who are potentially “good,” but stuck in the hellish experimentations of demons who like to play with the poor humans. One such demon is Michael (Ted Danson), who is trying to up his torture game.
Danson is so good at riding the line between good and evil that he can as easily produce a laugh from his most maniacal dialogue as he can evoke sympathy as he questions the nature of his existence. His on-screen presence is larger-than-life, with both his striking smile and general enthusiasm breaking out of your screen. A lesser actor would be obscured by the magnitude of such a powerful character, but Danson not only owns it, he makes us a little sad that we ourselves are not demons.
Glory, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”
Buffy the Vampire Slayer battled an ancient vampire, a cyborg, a group of incels, the First Evil, her best friend, her own boyfriend…and a hellgod stuck in the body of a fashionista? Glory (Clare Kramer) may have been stripped of most of her powers, but she’s still among the most formidable “Big Bads” that Buffy faces. One of Glory’s most compelling attributes is that she’s not at all human, unlike the other villains who masquerade as human (or are/were human). Glory has nothing but disgust for humans, and she doesn’t attempt to play their game in any way — except that she loves their fashion.
When I met Clare, I asked her about this character, in particular how the aesthetic came about. It seemed to not mesh with the identity of such as misanthrope, let along a hellgod who was surely more concerned with torture than shoes. Clare was intrigued by the question, and after some thought, said that in her mind, the hellgod Glorificus simply had to be the best. In human form, she said, “Glory has to look and feel her best. It’s her nature.” This villain, then, is simply so self-absorbed and superficial that she has no grand plans to take over the world or raise an army or get people to sleep with her. She simply wants the world to bend to her wishes. Yikes.
Bonus: Eustace Bagge, “Courage the Cowardly Dog”
Quirky villains are the meat-and-potatoes of cartoons, but Eustace (voiced by Howard Hoffman, Lionel Wilson, Arthur Anderson, and Wallace Shawn) stands out as the villain whose primary mission is to simply get his dog to shut up. In a show where the titular character fights everything from aliens to cryptids to nosy neighbors to save his beloved Muriel, Eustace holds a more sinister role: the absentee husband who can’t be bothered to leave his armchair in front of the TV.
Because Courage has a monster-of-the-week format, Eustace is the show’s most consistent antagonist. He tortures Courage, he mocks Muriel, and he has the spine of a jellyfish. Eustace represents the flaccid old-man-who-yells-at-sky. Now that’s scary.
What quirky TV villains would you add to this list?