Television Shows in Search of a Villain (2011)

If there is one thing that guarantees viewers glued to their televisions, it is a great villain.  Names such as The Trinity Killer, Sylar, T-Bag, Arvin Sloane and Benjamin Linus still echo in our brains as some of the greatest villains of the past decade.  Even after redemption, the names themselves send shivers down our spines and recall images of treachery, villainy and pure evil.  It is undisputed that villains bring fans together in unity and horror and water-cooler gossip.

Yet lately in the battle of good versus evil, a number of television shows have been missing one essential ingredient: a villain.

Genre and dramatic television shows thrive off conflict.  But in order for there to be conflict, it takes two sides — a good and a bad.  Yet looking across the television landscape, there seems to be a lot of shows scrambling to find their true villain; and from SMALLVILLE to SUPERNATURAL to THE EVENT, some television shows are adrift.

SMALLVILLE has never been the same without the looming doom and gloom of the fate of Lex Luther’s rise to battle Superman.  While it was generous for the series to allow Michael Rosenbaum to pursue alternate projects, the show has tried to make the best of various villains like Doomsday, Brainiac, and  Zod and yet not one of them has caused the same sense of hair-raising terror as Lex Luther inspired.  While not even super-powered himself, Lex’s greed, ambition and uncanny insight into what made Superman tick made our skin crawl.  As this is SMALLVILLE’s final season after 10 amazing years, it would be a cherry-on-top if they could roll up a Brinks truck or two to make sure Lex Luther makes an appearance at the end.

SUPERNATURAL is also a series that feels like it has a hole in its heart.  Not that it is heartless, but rather it is missing one single villain to identify as the yin to the Winchester brothers’ yang.  The premise of  the show has always been about Sam and Dean battling the various creepy-crawlies inflicting pain and torment on unsuspecting humans.  But the show always seemed a bit more in focus when they were on the trail of a big bad opponent.  The yellow-eyed demon or Lilith were fine for brief time periods, but it has begun to feel as if the show were merely about a game of pool.  Each time the brothers take out another demon, or box in another angel who has fallen from their path, it just feels like par for course.  It is time to ratchet up the octane and give the Winchesters something meatier to battle.

Also struggling to find a point of conflict, NBC’s alien series THE EVENT seems to flail for the lack of a concrete villain to battle.  The aliens seem more intent on either living in peaceful coexistence or returning to their home.  They cannot be the villain if all they want is to hide or runaway.  So that leaves viewers wondering then who exactly should they be rooting against.  Who can they blame for the kidnapping of Leila Buchanan and her sister?  A nameless, faceless person is hard to fight and even harder to hate.  It is too murky.  It is time for the true villain on the show to make a big splashy appearance and stop hiding.  It is like the boogieman; we may be spooked by the idea of it, but ultimately until you see him, we cannot fear him — and we certainly do not care what he is doing.  The ripple effects may prove that he exists, but ripples do not show the stone that caused them.  It is time to see the villain and find out what he is up to.

Two other genre shows limping with indecisiveness are NO ORDINARY FAMILY and THE CAPE.  While both have held up an identifiable villain for the audience to throw darts at, as each episode plays out, we are not entirely sure that we should hate them.  Stephen Collins as Dr. King feels a bit too warm and friendly to truly fear;  and James Frain’s Chess only makes brief appearances — for even Peter Fleming is not fond of his darker-side and works to control the beast within.  Somehow instead of rooting against Dr. King and Fleming, we are intrigued by them and wonder if perhaps they may not be as bad as each of their shows is tentatively setting them up to be.

This has been done time and time again; most recently in THE VAMPIRE DIARIES, where the show set up Katherine Pierce as the evil vampire manipulating everyone for her own purposes.  But once caged, Katherine began to feel a bit more sympathetic — especially after she shared her horror story of being hunted throughout the centuries by a truly evil vampire, Klaus.  Yet to date, Klaus is still just a name.  Even in flashbacks, he was never revealed.  For all we know, Katherine could still be manipulating everyone for her own purposes and she constructed a horror-story to get her enemies to run screaming from a mythical vampire so egomaniacal that he will stop at nothing to walk in the daylight.  Really?  That’s it.  As the Salvatore brothers and just about every other vampire in Mystic Falls has proved, you don’t need a blood sacrifice to solve that problem.  All you need is a friendly witch to cast a spell on a handy daylight-ring and that problem is solved.

Even police procedurals see the value of an evil villain to keep viewers tuning in.  In THE MENTALIST, there is the hovering fear that Red John will pop in and kill yet another person in Patrick Jane’s inner circle.  In CASTLE, there is the man behind the murder of Detective Kate Beckett’s mother.  In BONES, it had first Gormogon and then the Grave Digger killer.  Then, even DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES has the lurking presence of Paul Young, who has terrorized the residents of Wisteria Lane on-and-off for over 8 years.

Having a truly evil villain unifies characters in a common goal.  It gives them a clear-cut purpose.  It also sharpens the focus of a television series from its meandering storylines into a razor-sharp, riveting television.

Two current television shows that have managed to carve out their villains are V and MERLIN.  What would the series V be without the diabolical and inhuman Anna leading the Visitors?  And Merlin truly came into its own with the rise of Morgana into her rightful place as a legendary villain.

It is time to stop rehabilitating and/or eliminating villains.  Villains are a much needed ingredient to compelling television stories.  Villains give our heroes a purpose — a goal.  For if there were no evil in the world, why would we even need heroes?

As horrific as it sounds, television needs villains.  It needs that shot of adrenaline.  It is what gets our blood-pumping, our intellectual synapses firing on all cylinders and makes television “must-see” TV.  I say, bring back the villains and give us a reason to cheer.  No one wants to see a show with only good characters.  It feels predictable.

We want characters to hate and fear.  It reminds us in our safe television universe that good can triumph over evil.  We want to feel like we are winning the battle vicariously; but, like in any battle, it only feels good to win if there was someone to fight.  Shows that offer “straw-men” each week are a let-down.  That is like encountering the freak-of-the-week and the formula gets tiresome.  But a show that can offer a villain that is constantly in the background, plotting and planning nefarious ways to torment our heroes, those keep us on our toes.  Good television means that viewers are engaged, concerned, and in the end, elated when the hero wins.

Good heroes are great, but a good villain is even better.  Bring back the villains!

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