Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Sorry State of TV Villains

Greg Sumner: Abby, you don't believe in anything.
Abby Ewing Sumner: That's not true: I believe in money... and power... And in the end, power is much more fun."

When did TV villains stop being fun? What happened to the baddies who could delight us with the arch of an eyebrow, or the simplest of sinister inflections? When did subtlety become a lost art? All through the spring, I kept seeing Vincent D'Onofrio lauded for his turn as criminal mastermind Wilson Fisk in Daredevil -- Rolling Stone headlined him as "the best new villain on TV" -- even though his overblown performance trampled all story-line logic. Is that kind of garishness and ghoulishness what we now associate with great acting, or is there something deeper going on? Now that we feel less safe than ever -- in our churches, in our schools, in our movie theatres -- with hate groups on the rise and police departments committed to racial profiling and excessive force -- now that everything's hitting horribly close to home, is quiet menace simply too terrifying? Even on shows with "realistic" settings, do we need our villains to be grotesques, for our own comfort? There's probably better acting on television now than at any point in the past. But when it comes to the "bad guys" -- the ones whom we often found ourselves rooting for, despite ourselves, because they were so damned entertaining -- we're failing miserably. And Daredevil is a prime example.

Lots of shows feature villains with a private persona and a public one, and Daredevil is carefully sculpted around the moment that Fisk goes from being an underworld killer (most memorably, decapitating a victim with a car door) to the people's savior, stepping out from the shadows with a messianic message for the city. But D'Onofrio can't pull off the transformation. In one scene, Fisk is hosting a fundraiser ("raising money for a better tomorrow") and, in his signature foghorn growl, gives a welcoming speech to his guests, ending with an invitation to "enjoy your evening." But as D'Onofrio delivers those words, it sounds more like a threat than an invitation. (His girlfriend tells him, after, "That was beautiful" -- but we already knew she was a wacko, so no surprise there.) The premise is that Fisk is conquering deep-rooted fears by going public, and to his credit, D'Onofrio seems like he's trying to show Fisk getting comfortable in his own skin, but it's monstrously misjudged: it's like a toddler taking its first steps -- only if that toddler is a gorilla. His speech at the fundraiser, as D'Onofrio delivers it, should have left his guests questioning his sanity and stability -- and maybe their own for supporting him -- but instead they hail him as the savior of Hell's Kitchen. Obviously the writers intended there to be something inviting or welcoming about Fisk's public persona, or something so awkward it was endearingly ingenuous. So why couldn't D'Onofrio get all the way there? Did he not understand how? And why didn't the director or showrunner tell him what they had in mind -- or were they too afraid he'd eat them?

Vincent D'Onofrio is one of a handful of actors playing villains these days whose performances seem equal parts acclaimed and misguided. Let's talk about another Wilson: Arrow's Slade Wilson, as played by Manu Bennett. The website Cinema Blend declared, "Ask any Arrow fan, and many of them will say that one of the best aspects of Season 2 was Manu Bennett’s [performance] as DC supervillain Slade Wilson." Personally, I thought Bennett's performance was about the only sour note in Arrow's (superb) second season. He was fine in the flashbacks; he bleated and bellowed, but as a rule of thumb, when your plane is shot down over an island where you're eventually held prisoner for a year, shot in the arm, shot in the leg, severely burned in an explosion, and finally, injected with a serum that causes blood to rush from your eyes, you're kind of given a free pass to chew up the (island) scenery. But when he's reinvented in present-day Starling City as a suited businessman intent on taking down Queen Consolidated, that's where Bennett makes a mess of it.

He gets himself invited to the Queen home, promising support to Moira Queen's mayoral campaign. Ollie walks in on him enjoying drinks with his mother and -- since he hasn't seen Wilson in five years (since he indirectly had his girlfriend killed) -- Ollie's thrown off his game. That's the setup: Ollie is rattled, hurling veiled threats; Wilson coolly deflects them, with an air of civility that keeps Moira from getting wise. They're talking of lost loves, and Ollie offers, "My mother and I have had to deal with a lot of loss... And eventually we learned that you just have to move on" -- a plea to Wilson not to seek revenge. And Wilson's response is a simple "I don't believe that" -- which Moira is meant to hear as sad rumination, while Ollie recognizes it as a call to arms. But Bennett digs in so deep with the line (after a hyper-elongated pause), only an idiot could think his intentions were honorable; like D'Onofrio, the actor can't seem to tone it down. Instead of donning a mask of civility, as the script instructs him, we get Bennett hissing like a pitbull about to pounce, while seated beside him is Moira, chirpily chattering away, "My husband amassed quite the collection of 19th century American landscapes." And that's when the storyline stops making sense. Moira was always the sharpest cookie on Arrow (and Susanna Thompson easily the best actress: she has been missed); her apparent obliviousness when there's an obvious madman in her home undermines both the character and the story-line. And it's all because Bennett couldn't master the elegant art of understatement.

Speaking of "mastering," the first time I ever saw John Simm on the small screen was in his maniacal turn as the Master on Doctor Who, and I presumed he was talentless. Imagine my shock to then discover him on DVD a few years later in Life on Mars and realize that, no, the man is brilliant -- it's the role that defeated him. (A friend and I were having a conversation recently about Doctor Who, and noted that too often the show engaged in stunt casting that went disastrously wrong: they'd bring on a well-known actor to play the villain-of-the-week, and instead of something menacing and controlled, they got something over-the-top and embarrassing. The hideous results span decades -- from Graham Crowden in "The Horns of Nimon" (1979) to Jean Marsh in "Battlefield" (1989) to Simm in 2007's "Last of the Time Lords.") But then, the Master is not a role that has inspired restraint. Maybe the original, Roger Delgado, was a hard act to follow; maybe he left a curse on the role, I don't know. But since then, it's been a string of misfires: from Anthony Ainley to Eric Roberts to John Simm to, now, Michelle Gomez as the Mistress/Missy -- all good actors giving awful performances. I was fortunate enough to attend a movie-theatre preview of the first two episodes of Doctor Who's new season, and every time Michelle Gomez opened her mouth as Missy, the audience roared with laughter -- even through her increasingly deranged performance undercut both the credibility and emotional impact of the plot. But the audience didn't mind. Who cares about credibility? Who gives a fig for emotional impact? Give us what we want -- Mary Poppins on crystal meth, a Supernanny for the Generation Z crowd -- and we're good to go.

And one more performance this past season that seemed pitched all wrong: Tom Cavanagh as Harrison Wells on The Flash. Like D'Onofrio's Wilson Fisk and Bennett's Slade Wilson, I believe Cavanagh is a fan favorite. (Somewhere, I think I saw him on a "most intriguing characters" list; well, hell, if we're doling out honors for most inexplicable over-playing by a villain, then let's just find Under the Dome's Dean Norris and crown him king.) The Flash's pilot makes it clear that there's more to Wells than meets the eye, but only we know that. The other characters are supposed to see him as a good guy, a decent man who made a tragic mistake that left him wheelchair-bound, but who's atoning by helping Barry Allen hone his new powers. But as Cavanagh plays him from the get-go, he's creepy as hell, turning up in the middle of conversations (as if he's in some sort of magic wheelchair -- oh, wait: he is) and smirking with disingenuous concern. Cavanagh lets the cat out of the bag way too early, robbing the show of all logic -- it's irrational that the rest of the cast isn't as suspicious of him as we are. It's amazing they don't jump every time he shows up; you keep waiting for someone -- when he appears out of nowhere -- to scream, "Stop doing that! You're freaking the hell out of me!" And when he's finally revealed, and publicly embraces his bad side, there's that same irritating smirk; he doesn't seem unleashed or energized in any way. (Well's secret is that his body has been taken over by a supercriminal from the future; ironically, that supercriminal is played by Matt Letscher with more easy, engaging menace than Cavanagh ever manages.)

And of course, you can look at comic book adaptations like The Flash, Arrow and Daredevil, and at a one-time "kid's show" like Doctor Who, and say, "It's part of the style. Those shows aren't meant to be taken seriously." But then there are the awful villainous turns I've seen on shows with more "adult" profiles. I was a staunch Person of Interest fan for three seasons, but I could not get through Season 4 -- I still have no idea how it ended -- and my chief reasons: John Greer and Camryn Manheim. Greer and Manheim played the heavies the last two seasons, and "heavy" is an apt word -- between the two of them, they pretty much smothered the show. They were so dour, I found myself dreading their appearances. And by all means, let's include Ian McShane in the latest season of Ray Donovan. I thought David Hollander's first season as showrunner was an uneven one; what worked were the episodes that centered around the family -- the Donovans uniting to free Terry from jail, Bunchy's wedding -- and what most assuredly did not work was McShane as gangster billionaire Andrew Finney. He sucked the life out of the series: another heavy who seemed incapable of conveying pleasure to the audience -- even pleasure in his own manipulations, his sociopathic tendencies, his feelings of imperviousness.

But the villain's curse has been killing our best actors for years. Who could imagine that John Noble would turn in such an awful, one-note performance on Sleepy Hollow? And it's telling that in his first season, where his character was fresh and his motives ambiguous, he was as fascinatingly opaque as we've come to expect from Noble. But when he was revealed as the Big Bad -- well, he got big, and he got bad. The viewer cruelty lavished on Katia Winters' Katrina during Season 2 was insanely out of proportion; admittedly, she came off less like a sorceress worthy of Ichabod's love and more like the runner-up in a Miss Pasadena beauty pageant, but it was Noble who rendered the show unwatchable. (Here's praying he turns it around before he reemerges this fall as Sherlock's father on Elementary.) And I'm not saying that the only good villains are the "ones you love to hate"; I'm happy to concede that there are some great TV villains whom you just hate, period. But don't make them so loathsome, so unpleasant, so devoid of humor or self-awareness, that you prompt viewers to fast-forward through your scenes. And at the very least, when the script calls for you to "blend in," to show some self-control, particularly for the purposes of the plot, try to meet the challenge halfway.

And to be fair, there have been some sinister turns recently that I've thoroughly enjoyed: Joan Allen in a change-of-pace role on The Killing, as the heartless headmaster of an all-male military academy; Elementary's Natalie Dormer, who, this past season, quickened the pulse with just the sound of her voice; Zeljko Ivanek as a smug political combatant on Madam Secretary (and a quick plug for Madam Secretary, which came roaring back this season with a knockout premiere: any show that's got Barbara Hall, Joy Gregory and now Moira Kirland on its writing team automatically becomes appointment television); the superb Colin Salmon -- from the fall's best new series, Limitless -- who does the "man of mystery" bit better than just about anyone on TV (except possibly his onscreen boss, Bradley Cooper); and Melissa Leo, who Ratcheded up the drama as a nightmare nurse on Wayward Pines, then, in a tour-de-force turnaround, revealed herself as the sanest person in town.

But if you're looking for villainy done right, look no further than Helen McCrory in Penny Dreadful. Penny Dreadful had a deliciously subdued second season: less a new set of adventures than an elegant reshuffling of the deck, in which characters switched partners and luxuriated in conversation, in verse that could have been fashioned by Trollope or Tennyson. And into that heady brew, creator John Logan added the perfect pinch of spice: Helen McCrory as the seductive Evelyn Poole, practitioner of the occult and the season's Big Bad -- and never once did the actress overstep the role. She had the requisite spark and fire, but also the necessary twinkle. She knew how to bare her fangs, but more important, she knew when to conceal them. Her role was strewn with as many traps as the castle in which she resided, but she resisted them all. She was ruthless, insatiable, coy, cunning, dastardly -- and utterly delightful.

In fact, now that producer Greg Berlanti and company are introducing parallel universes in The Flash and the upcoming Legends of Tomorrow, I'd like to propose my own parallel universe where Helen McCrory just plays every heavy on television. She could certainly play a stunning Mistress, and give us a sense of menace that currently escapes Michelle Gomez. In fact, if every villain were just portrayed by Colin Salmon or Helen McCrory, the TV landscape would be so much more robust. Because right now we have too many actors -- the D'Onofrios and the Bennetts and the Nobles -- giving "big" performances, trying too hard, and ultimately diminishing their respective shows. They forget that the best villains are often distinguished by their playfulness, not their massiveness; it's that lightness of touch that makes them unexpectedly appealing -- which makes their malevolence all the more compelling. Because when you come right down to it, you see, Abby Ewing Sumner (whom I reference at the top of this essay, and who delighted for nine seasons on Knots Landing) had it backwards: it's not that power is much more fun, it's that fun has so much more power.


  1. I think the issue is that there's a clash of visions going on. One vision sees comic books as light-hearted, humour-laden, and with a clear line of demarcation between good and bad; the other envisions comic books as taking place in the real world, with morally ambiguous characters with relatable problems and complex motivations. When you get a villain from the former – where the baddies are evil just because they are – stuck in a show based on the latter, you get tension. They don't even speak the same language. Imagine the Penguin from the 1960s Batman TV show inserted into Batman Begins. It would be laughable. They just don't belong in the same universe. And, although Fisk and Slade aren't quite as bad as that, they're close.

    1. I think you summed it up better in one paragraph than I did in ten. Yes, indeed, the heroes, and by extension their colleagues and community, are often playing one show -- a gritty, heightened character drama -- whereas the villains are going for something with a more over-the-top, operatic sweep. The villain, on his own, often seems compelling, if not particularly entertaining -- but once you drop him into the hero's world, he feels wildly out of place. And the issue is only compounded when the script makes a point of telling us how well he "fits in," when he so clearly doesn't. I do wonder why, at a time when our heroes have gotten so brooding, with so much of their turmoil internalized, our villains have gotten huge and flamboyant.

    2. I tend to think it's a one way slide. It's not so much the villains have got bigger, it's that the heroes have become more realistic, and the villains haven't caught up yet. They need to pull the bad guys into line tonally, but of lot of writers don't put the same effort into realistically fleshing out the baddies as they do the goodies.

  2. I totally agree about Helen McCrory - she was the best thing about S2 of Penny Dreadful. I think The Flash is more cartoonish so I can forgive Tom Cavanagh somehow, as it feels more old school and primary coloured. Slade was great on the island but his motivation for revenge was weak which made the storyline weak. I remember liking D'Onofrio's Kingpin but felt the show got worse as it went on instead of better. One villain I did love - the Governor from The Walking Dead.

    1. So many folks have emailed or tweeted me about Helen McCrory since I posted this entry - all of them loving her. So glad it wasn't just me! :) And oh yes, the Governor from TWD. I thought he was spot-on perfect: a great villain without overdoing it.