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The 20 Best TV Villains of the 21st Century

Killers, kingpins, turncoats, and a couple of horrible bosses: the on-screen characters we love to despise.

Best TV Villains of 21st Century

10. Simon Cowell, “American Idol”

Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell Paula Abdul, left, and Simon Cowell are seen on stage at the "Idol Gives Back" fundraising special of "American Idol" in Los Angeles. A person familiar with negotiations for "The X Factor" says Paula Abdul will be the fourth judge on the new Fox singing competition. Abdul will be on hand for the taping of the first judging session in Los Angeles, according to a person familiar with the talks. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because Fox and the show's producers had not authorized public comment. Widely expected, Abdul's participation reunites her with fellow judge Simon Cowell, her former sparring partner on the "American Idol" judging panel TV-X Factor-Abdul, Los Angeles, USA

“You are a beautiful girl, but you’re ugly when you perform,” Simon Cowell once told an “American Idol” contestant. He told another one that her singing was like “some terrible, ghastly, high school musical performance.” During his tenure on “American Idol,” Cowell went from unknown surly British music executive to the epitome of the reality TV show judge that people love to hate. Audiences tuned in to watch Cowell torture fellow judge Paula Abdul, and regularly booed the judge’s harsh critiques — but when he had something nice to say, it felt more earned. Cowell seemed to have an ear for talent, although he didn’t put a stop to Taylor “Soul Patrol” Hicks, which may have been the most villainous act of all. There have been other imitators, but no one else has been able to pull off that balance of boos and cheers quite like Cowell.

9. Perry Wright, “Big Little Lies”

"Big Little Lies"

“Big Little Lies”

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO

Some of the most villainous characters aren’t just terrors to people in their immediate vicinity, but their crimes also have ramifications long after they’re gone. That’s one of the biggest themes in Liane Moriarty’s novel and the eventual miniseries — the idea that violence, in all its forms, is cyclical and visits upon successive generations. By combining desire and manipulation, Perry’s faux affection effectively warped his family’s sense of duty and morphed it into something horrific. Knowing that a dead body is around the corner, the character also turns the audience’s expectations and wish fulfillment on its end. Alexander Skarsgård was able to play Perry as a charming young man without belying the predator he was underneath, a difficult balance to strike, but an important distinction to make.

8. Patti Levin, “The Leftovers

Episode 108

Weaponized grief became a theme that ran through every season of “The Leftovers.” Whether it was opportunistic salesmen or those in the organization run by Patti Levin, the biggest antagonist beside the disappearance itself was the people who sought to use other’s sorrow and uncertainty for their own ends. As the literal and figurative voice of the Guilty Remnant, Patti initially presented herself as someone who could give hope to those searching for answers. But when her group’s goals were laid bare through “Stop Wasting Your Breath” signs, all the way up through the group plan to return fake bodies to the families of those who had Departed, Patti’s end goal seemed all the more evil. Even after her physical presence left Kevin and the rest, her return in various Season 2 forms was proof that the ideas that she was perpetuating were just as insidious as the actions they inspired.

7. Hannibal Lecter, “Hannibal”




In bringing Hannibal Lecter to the small screen, Bryan Fuller liked to use the phrase “elegant horror” to describe his villain. “I took inspiration from the lyrical, surreal horror movie moments from some of David Lynch’s films and tried to give this project a sense of beautiful dread,” Fuller said at the time. He was particularly interested in exploring the “bromance” between serial killer Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) and FBI criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), and what happened when the truth came out and their relationship collapsed. Mikkelsen gave the complicated character creepy depth, and of course, brought the gore by preparing delicious dishes made of, yes, people.

6. Lorne Malvo, “Fargo

FARGO "Buridan's Ass" -- Episode 106 -- Airs Tuesday, May 20, 10:00 pm e/p) -- Pictured: Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo -- CR: Chris Large/FX

For a lot of doubters of that “Fargo” would succeed as a TV show, the turning point for many of them buying into the show is this threat from the end of the pilot. With a single historical reference and an added dash of philosophical dread, Malvo became a villain the Coens would be proud of and the cornerstone for an anthology opening that would go places audiences definitely weren’t expecting. And in addition to being diabolical, the later episodes of “Fargo” Season 1 eventually found him as a wholesome-looking shapeshifter, trying to deal with his discarded past as much as Martin Freeman‘s Lester Nygaard character was. (If only there was one word to sum all of this up…)

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