Top 5 US TV anti-heroes

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Following the shocking showdown at the end of Season 4, Michael C Hall is back as serial killer Dexter Morgan for a new season of Dexter later this month. Guest-starring Julia Stiles and Johnny Lee Miller, Season 5 begins at 10pm on Friday 17th June on FX.

To celebrate the show’s return, we’ve picked out our five favourite US TV anti-heroes…

Dexter Morgan
(Dexter, 2006-present)

> Buy the Seasons 1-3 DVD boxset on Amazon.

At face value? Dexter Morgan is a serial killer. There’s practically no two ways about it; that’s a role usually reserved for the villain. An anti-hero in the very truest sense, we really should not be rooting for him, but Michael C Hall so successfully gets under your skin – in both the charming and insidious manners – that it’s impossible not to, and yet you almost feel bad doing so. The forensic blood spatter analyst is doing away with very bad people the same way they do away with innocents – and it’s this poetic justice that makes it close to alright.

But what sets Dexter apart from other anti-heroes is that he’s not truly tortured by the things he does. He is a true psychopath – he feels no connection to other humans and an irrational desire to kill things. However, he’s saved by the guidance of his adopted father, who teaches him his complex moral code, encouraging him to take something evil and do something admirable. A more complicated, compelling character, we cannot think of.

Jack Bauer
(24, 2001-2010)

> Buy the Complete Series DVD boxset on Amazon.

Initially, counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer is simply a knight in shining armour, a hero who just so happens to be comfortable with a bit of rough and some light torture. But Season 1 of the much-beloved real-time action series is one of the grandest cold openings of all time – what a movie would get done in the first 15 minutes, 24 expands to an entire season, handled with a surprisingly deft touch by Kiefer Sutherland. We get to witness his devolution from hero to anti-hero, culminating in his defeat of the bad guys not because of some sense of loyalty to a greater good, but in a fit of rage, believing his daughter to be dead by their hands.

From there, it’s a downward spiral – he loses his colleagues’ trust, his job, but most crushingly, his wife. Forced into exile, he eventually returns to CTU, and it’s then that he discovers something about himself – he is willing to do [anything] to make sure that innocent lives are protected. Bauer becomes the embodiment of ‘the end justifies the means’. Then he proceeds to saw a man’s head off with a hacksaw. Nice.

Malcolm Reynolds
(Firefly, 2002)

> Buy the Complete Series DVD boxset on Amazon.

Firefly’s character roster is filled to bursting with anti-heroes, but in the captain of Serenity, we have one of the truest incarnations of the fallen hero. Mal is another tortured soul, a man who fought through a hellish inter-planetary war and survived only to see the very people he was fighting against assume unyielding, militaristic control. That he was on the losing side, that his cause was brushed aside so easily, strips him of his faith – a scene so beautifully played by Nathan Fillion in the pilot episode that it can’t help but bring a tear to the eye.

With this firmly established in his psyche, Fillion fills Mal with a world-weary cynicism and he resorts to being as large a thorn in the government’s paw as he can possibly be, not because it’ll make a difference, but because it’s what he believes is right. This ultimately leads him to some truly heroic acts of kindness, bravery and self-sacrifice, all in the name of making the Alliance look bad. Heroism in the name of one-upmanship has never been so slickly written, nor so prematurely cut short.

Gregory House
(House, 2004-present)

> Buy the Seasons 1-6 DVD boxset on Amazon.

A slightly less traditional anti-hero, in that this one deals with fixing people instead of ploughing through them like butter, House is nonetheless the quintessential jerk with a heart of gold (sometimes). A great doctor driven to near psychosis by a combination of pain medication addiction and the burning need to solve any puzzle presented to him, he shuns almost all social conventions regardless of whose feelings he hurts.

However, despite his seemingly misanthropic nature, House does care, even going so far as to put his personal well-being on the line in a bid to save a patient. He also just so happens to be one of the sharpest medical minds ever written, and his blackly comic wit go a long way to compensating for his abrasiveness. But credit can’t go solely to the writers. In any other hands, House might’ve been hideous, but Hugh Laurie finds the soul of the character and expresses it subtly but effectively. Watch his eyes in the next episode you see – that’s how you can tell House truly cares.

Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace
(Battlestar Galactica, 2003-2009)

> Buy the Complete Series DVD boxset on Amazon.

A curveball perhaps, in that Thrace mirrors Jack Bauer by ascending from anti-hero to hero over the course of the series, but if we examine her character in the earlier seasons, we find a truly worthy anti-hero. A combination of traditional fighter pilot machismo, feminine intuition and a healthy dose of crazy, Starbuck is reckless, insubordinate and something of an alcoholic.

That her penchant for thinking outside of the room that the box is in is not only tolerated, but prized by her commanding officers is testament to her strong sense of right and her incredible soldiering skills, both on foot and in the cockpit. Self-confessed tomboy Katee Sackhoff, hardly known at all before this role, righty got recognition for her incredibly intense portrayal of the character, particularly in the show’s later years. She’s also one of the few existing female anti-heroes, a thing so rare that one so fully formed and well-written as this must be treasure.