Gone are the days when we root automatically for the hero. These shows prove that a good villain is often what sets a story apart.
Lalo Salamanca (Better Call Saul, Netflix)
Vince Gilligan’s immaculately directed Breaking Bad prequel has already been showered with superlatives, having surpassed the high benchmark of its predecessor in recent seasons. As if fleshing out the fascinating backstories of Saul Goodman and Michael Ehrmantraut weren’t enough, Gilligan has also delivered a handful of stand-out new characters.
The scariest of the bunch is Lalo Salamanca – a terrifying amalgamation of the Salmanca family traits (ruthlessness, greed, psychopathy), with a healthy spritz of charm and brains to boot. Played by the brilliantly versatile Tony Dalton, Lalo has already cranked up the tension to unbearable levels. What will happen when he returns to Albuquerque for the final season is anyone’s guess.
Logan Roy (Succession, Sky on Demand)
Another show that’s been praised to the skies, HBO’s deliciously dark comedy follows the slow-motion breakdown of a billionaire media clan pitched somewhere between the Trumps and the Murdochs. At the heart of it all is the performance of a lifetime from Brian Cox, who scooped a Golden Globe for his stellar turn as grimacing patriarch Logan Roy.
Like a demonic reimagination of Cox’s famous King Lear, Logan is impossible to take your eyes off, continuously finding new ways to hurt his nearest and dearest. If it all gets too much, detox from the cruelty by listening to Cox’s recent appearance on Desert Island Discs. Warm, modest and humane, it’s everything that Logan isn’t.
Captain Vidal (Pan’s Labyrinth, Netflix)
It’s 1944 in Francoist Spain and Sergi Lopez’s Captain Vidal is about as nasty a villain as they come, relishing the chance to slit the throat of the village rebels in the opening scenes. Thankfully, this being fairytale land, Vidal’s clock is ticking from the time the film starts (quite literally, in this case), but that doesn’t stop the switchblade-touting bully from being a suitably compelling hate figure while he’s still alive.
For all his nastiness (including his indifference to the survival of his pregnant wife), Vidal still doesn’t spoil what quickly emerges as one of the most enchanting and moving films of the twenty-first century. Just with a lot of weirdness along the way.
Richard Roper (The Night Manager, Amazon Prime)
When The Night Manager aired on BBC On in 2016, it set a new standard for prime-time Beeb drama. Filmed in various breathtaking locations across Spain and Morocco, this glitzy thriller took all the spy intrigue of Spooks and added in some luxury glamour. Based on a John Le Carré novel, the plot follows Tom Hiddelston’s dashing Jonathan Pine as he goes on the trail of a multimillionaire weapons smuggler – and London society player – played by Hugh Laurie. Does Dr House pull it off? You bet. This is must-watch television that rushes along at a mile-a-minute, and Laurie shines at every chance.
The 456 (Torchwood: Children of Earth, iPlayer)
The 456 are a gas-dwelling alien race who descend to earth in Russell T Davies’ five-part mini-series to demand ten percent of the planet’s children. When the prime minister refuses, the 456 threaten to unleash a deadly virus (no comment). Even worse it becomes clear that this isn’t the first time they’ve asked – and that a previous government was happy to comply, handing over stragglers from state-run care facilities.
For all the bleakness, Children of Earth is spectacularly conceived drama, made just a few years too early to benefit from the Netflix boom. Even if you have no interest in the Doctor Who universe (Torchwood is a loose spin-off with adult themes) this will blow your socks off.
Just about everybody (Gangs of London, Sky on Demand)
Sky’s new drama Gangs of London is a bit of an odd one. Beginning as a conventional urban gangster film (albeit with ten times the usual budget), it quickly pulls back the walls to reveal something more ambitious: a Joker-esque romp through an exaggerated version of London’s underworld.
Not everything works (the cartoonish violence seems geared towards teenage potheads and the family plots veer carelessly into cliche) but there’s enough here to entertain. Not least a splendid cast of villains, ranging from moustachioed Pakistani heroin moguls to a waitress-turned-assassin. Who’s the baddest of the bunch? Being only on the fifth episode, I wouldn’t want to guess – although I’m keeping an eye on the eerily-composed widow Marian Wallace (Michelle Fairley), who definitely seems to be hiding something.
Jeremy Thorpe (A Very English Scandal, Amazon Prime)
It’s always good to include a real villain, and one of a slightly different ilk to boot. It’s not just the ease with which Hugh Grant (finally freed, by the passage of time, from playing clumsy Romeos) captures the slimeyness of Jeremy Thorpe, it’s the sheer enjoyment he seems to take in embodying the former Liberal leader’s splendid malevolence.
Just witness the way Thorpe plays his political sidekick, Peter Bessell, like a fiddle, sending him chasing after various dubious characters in a plot to off his former gay lover. It’s classic English villainy – and it’s as camp as Christmas to boot.
Jennie Gresham (This Time With Alan Partridge, Britbox and iPlayer)
With her designer blouse and well-rehearsed smile, television anchor Jennie Gresham might not look like your typical villain. But somewhere into this series – the first big BBC comeback for Steve Coogan’s hapless radio personality – something odd happens: we start to side with Alan Partridge.
While it helps that Partridge’s snobbery has been toned down, he’s also up against the perfect incarnation of sharp-elbowed nastiness: a smiling assassin who seeks to undermine and belittle him at every turn. Though be warned: Susannah Fiedling’s performance is so clever, you almost miss it. Make no mistake, though, this is a masterclass in duplicity.