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the bad boys of television
and why we love watching them
by tracey l. kelley (@TraceyLKelley)

Periodically, entertainment magazines float out the titillating buoy title, "Bad Boys on Television!" There's a splash pictorial of hunks, usually all under age 25, shirtless, and pouty, or with wry sideways smiles and frisky forelocks loose across their foreheads.


The summer of 2009 was no exception. BuddyTV ran a "Which TV Bad Boy is Right for You?" quiz. AOL developed a slideshow featuring everyone from Spike (James Marsters of "Buffy" and "Angel") and Dr. Christian Troy (Julian McMahon of "Nip/Tuck") to Captain Kirk (William Shatner of "Star Trek") and Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring of "Veronica Mars"). Okay, Ill give you the vampire, but can't raise you with a spoiled rich kid from the OC. Seriously.

The Ten Gossip blogger disagreed with the bad boys list, and created another, which at least upped the ante with ex-junkie turned interventionist William Banks (Benjamin Bratt of "The Cleaner"), but fell short because of a royal crush on Dylan McKay (Luke Perry of "9021-ooohh, the Original, Not the Sucky Remake").

It's easy to peg a lothario as a bad boy, because he gets more sex than we do and doesn't leave a note and an apple on the pillow. Oh, he's just so sexy! What a bad (wink!), bad (wink! wink!) boy!

No. A bad boy on television has to push us to the outer reaches of our morality and challenge our social norms. If well-written, these characters will exemplify the complexity of the human condition and put us in a state of conflicting turmoil: Why watch the bad guy? And, why am I rooting for him? Why don't I watch "Dancing with the Stars" instead?

Why? Because characters like these play out the ultimate fantasy. They let us entertain the thought, even for a moment, of how different our lives might be if we could get away with even half of what they do. So with this in mind, I present a more provocative list of bad boys that make television right now worth watching.

Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall of "Dexter"). Husband, father, brother, police staffer by day, serial killer by night. YES. SERIAL KILLER. The ultimate bad boy, his sociopathic compulsion should revolt us. But, he only kills people who deserve it, so that makes it okay. Right? Dexter's shattered tragic childhood is supposedly the root of his evil, but he was slightly reformed by a foster father who tried to teach him a killing code of ethics and handy police-worthy, non-detectable, get-away-with-it evidence eliminators. The layers of intrigue are compelling, because while Dexter has a conscience, he never seeks out a way to stop killing. In fact, he still delights in it, especially hunting prey to make certain he or she is evil enough to die. Once the deed is done, he tidies up the crime scene and heads off to pick up diapers for his infant son.

Lafayette Reynolds (Nelson Ellis of "True Blood"). Call boy. Cross-dresser. Pusher of vamp blood. Henchman to a vamp sheriff. If anyone makes them recoil in Peoria, it's Lafayette. In a world where vampires are supposedly the bad guys, Lafayette still manages to stand out as devilish. He'll sell anything, including himself, if it secures what he wants. Too bad he doesn't know what that is. He's loyal enough to a couple of other characters, and seems to be a go-to guy for those in trouble, but the undercurrent is he's the one you don't want following you in the dark.

Don Draper (Jon Hamm of "Mad Men"). Yes, the sleek Man in Gray has appeared on other bad boy lists, and with good reason. He lies, drinks, smokes, has a smoky, complicated past, cheats on his wife, cheats on his mistresses - for the love of Pete, he's in advertising! Yet it's in his profession that his shows the strongest moral fiber: he's sincere with his clients, genuine in his belief that he can influence people by tapping into their desires and fulfilling them. He also loves his kids. Not only is he pretty, he's smart, and always manages to come out on top, in the board room and in the bedroom. Even those who know his secrets think him too important to completely reveal. Yet as his life continues to unravel, it's hard to determine if you really want him to tumble, or if it's more fun to see how he'll pull it all back together.

Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton of "Big Love"). One of the best lines from the first season of the show asks if "the homosexuals get to have equal rights, polygamists should, too." Bill, once against his polygamist compound upbringing, now embraces the secret identity of three wives and seven kids that troubles his family and represses his wives. He's ambitious, trying to live the Amercian dream and provide for his family, but constantly battling society's view of his unlawful lifestyle and other demons. Why do it, especially when you need Viagra to keep up the pace with the wives? And why does the thought of polygamy make us squirm? In the first few minutes of the first season, almost any man could say, "Wow - that's the life!" And then reality sets in.

Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons of "The Big Bang Theory"). The question pops up repeatedly: "Just how could this guy have any friends?" Arrogant. Riddled with obsessive-compulsive disorder tendencies that affect everyone around him. Makes no attempt to conform to the trivialities of social interaction, as he has bigger things to think about, like the string theory of the universe. And yet. Sheldon may have an unmeasurably high I.Q., but he's still innocent, loves him mom and Meemaw, and comic books, and even if he does try to foil someone in his best attempt at villany, it always backfires. Instead of being a typical annoying sitcom guy existing only to antagonize everyone and get the ugly laughs, Sheldon makes you want to give him a big 'ole hug.

Each character fulfills desires most of us want to possess: a thirst for real justice, the excitement of the high life, immeasurable power, the love of family, and the quest for knowledge about something that makes a difference. Yet it's difficult to imagine tolerating any of these bad boys of television in real life.

That's what makes them so good.


Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou

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sandra thompson
12.1.09 @ 7:05p

I'm gonna give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you just forgot Neil Caffrey (Matthew Bomer) of White Collar. He'll be sexiest man alive one of these years, no doubt about it.

tracey kelley
12.2.09 @ 8:08p

I haven't seen that show yet, but I did like Matthew on "Chuck". But is the Neil character bad simply because he's a thief? If so, I would have tossed in Elliott from "Leverage", if only for the Christian Kane purr factor.

adam kraemer
12.10.09 @ 10:53a

I think you're overlooking Rider Strong in "Boy Meets World."

I'm kidding. But I do have more than one friend harboring a thing for Zachary Quinto's Silar ("Heroes"), but only when he's very evil.

tracey kelley
12.15.09 @ 11:01a

HOLY CATS!!! The ending of this season's Dexter - INSANE.

And gave me the kind of woogy feeling that I really don't like, but extremely sympathetic to the character now.

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