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The TV Villains You Love to Hate, Plus Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies is, take your pick, the engaging, impeccably acted, soapy HBO drama you’ve been waiting for, or a show about privileged white women that’s arriving at a time when white privilege is even harder than usual to swallow. Or wait, there’s also option three: Big Little Lies is both!

On this week’s episode of the Vulture TV Podcast, TV columnist Jen Chaney, Vulture writer Alex Jung, and contributor Kathryn VanArendonk process their thoughts and feelings about the series starring Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, and what it has to say about women and parenting. They also talk about the TV villains they love to hate, and Jen weighs in, ahead of the Oscars, on why the awards-show hosting landscape has gotten so disappointingly predictable these days. Read part of the conversation about TV villains (see below), and listen to the full podcast here.

Jen: It is time for this week’s prompt which our regular listeners know is a segment that we do – sometimes it comes from our listeners, sometimes it comes from inside Vulture TV Podcast central – that asks us to talk about a favorite show, a favorite character, a favorite moment in TV history. This week’s prompt is: Name a recent or semi-recent TV villain that you absolutely loved to hate. Alex, I’m going to throw this one to you first.

Alex: You know, when I was thinking about this, I realized that it was hard for me to think of TV villains that I loved to hate as much as I just loved.

Kathryn: I did, too. I had the same problem.

Alex: Right? And I think that’s because – part of it is, I think, the way that television is structured in the sense that there aren’t clear-cut villains as much on TV anymore. So the ones that are, I was thinking like Eli Pope on Scandal, who I just kind of adore, and I feel like even Shonda Rhimes and company kind of adore.

Kathryn: Yeah, absolutely.

Alex: He’s now just a series regular. So for me, I think the place where you really have characters that you love to hate, still, is reality TV. That’s the only space for me where that schadenfreude kind of exists, because I feel like that’s really what propels that hate-watching that you sort of, get a kind of thrill from. So for me, I was thinking about RuPaul’s Drag Race.

The last season was an all-star season and they had Phi Phi O’Hara on and she was extremely controversial during her season itself, because she was a former contestant, and she was awful during her season and she was trying to do this redemption tour for the all-star season, basically. But she was still kind of awful [laughs], and the show knew it and the show sort of kept playing into it. Then she got even angrier because she could feel that she was playing into the narrative that they were constructing, but it was sort of this you-can’t-look-away kind of car crash that was happening that was fun to watch. I feel like that’s really what makes a lot of reality TV villains good is that kind of schadenfreude where you’re shocked at how well they’re doing and then you’re really waiting for their downfall. Like, I was thinking Wendy Pepper in season one of Project Runway and then I think Omarosa in The Apprentice. I feel like those are the characters that really live in that realm for me.

Jen: I told you we were not going to talk about politics today. Come on! Don’t bring up Omarosa.

Alex: Sorry! [Laughs] Sorry, listeners.

Jen: No, I’m joking. Kathryn, what’s your choice of a villain that you either love or love to hate?

Kathryn: Well, I did not have that, I think, truly brilliant brainwave about the fact that reality TV is where there are still real villains, because I completely understand. If I were going to pick one from reality TV, it might be Bethenny Frankel, who I really hate and also kind of love to hate. But if we’re talking about fictional TV – and again this was a villain who I was like, why am I pretending that I hate? I don’t. I just full-on absolutely love – is Boyd Crowder from Justified, who I miss so much. He was played by Walton Goggins and he was originally conceived of as the villain character to go up against Raylan Givens in that show. Instead he just was so clearly the most interesting, well-rounded, also the charisma that rolled off of that character; he and Raylan clearly were the couple that should’ve ended up together at the end. Everything about that particular sort of villain structure completely collapsed, right?

I mean it was supposed to be this character who is, certainly from the beginning, neo-Nazi and blew all kinds of crazy stuff up and violent and – just terrible. And yet by the end of that series, because I think for the exact reason that you were pointing out, you’re just so invested in who he is, his love interests and even when he tries to make a really evil turn, you just… “Boyd, why are you hurting me that way?”

The other thing about Boyd that I have to mention is that, traditionally in literature, right, there’s this idea that the villain is the one who is the most, the best spoken. I think we see that on TV. That’s coming from Satan and Milton in Paradise Lost. On TV, you see that in a character like Al Swearengen on Deadwood, but it’s absolutely Boyd Crowder as well, right? These sentences would come out of his mouth and you would just think like, Keep talking, Boyd. Keep talking.

Jen: Devils can be very articulate. It’s interesting that we make this distinction between loving a villain versus loving to hate, because I guess in my mind I kind of think of them as the same thing. But you’re right. There is a difference. There’s a subtle difference. But my answer to this question, which I’m sure will be wildly unpopular, is Joffrey Baratheon on Game of Thrones.

Alex: Oh.

Jen: I still actively miss Joffrey, even though he was horrible. I don’t miss watching him do the horrible, disgusting things he did because as we know, on Game of Thrones, they push that stuff really hard, to degrees that probably are not necessary and are gratuitous. But there was something about Joffrey that – he became a symbol for me of just this snotty, privileged child. That whole kind of archetype. And if I may make a college basketball reference, he just had a face like Grayson Allen on Duke University’s basketball team, that I just want to punch. He just thinks he’s really entitled. [Laughs]

I took some kind of weird, sick pleasure in watching him and, like you said before, waiting for his downfall, which we knew would come because we knew the narrative and it was necessary to push the narrative into the different places that it went after that, not just because it happened in the books but just because it was necessary. But I do kind of miss him. I will say I have nothing against Jack Gleeson, the actor who played him. He seems very lovely outside of this role, but it’s a testament to his performance that I disliked him so, so much in that part.

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Big Little Lies, Plus the TV Villains You Love to Hate