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16. Jim Profit, Profit
The world wasn't ready for Jim Profit, a devious supervillain-esque executive consumed with sociopathic ambition. Profit ran for a mere four episodes in 1996 (out of eight filmed). In those four episodes, Profit engaged in all manner of corporate nastiness...and also killed his father and slept with his stepmother. Played with gleeful relish by a pre-Petrelli Adrian Pasdar, Profit was an early vision of a TV decade that would teach audiences to love the bad guy.
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15. Erica Kane, All My Children
Initially conceived as a villainous heartbreaker, Susan Lucci's iconic soap opera queen steadily evolved into AMC's most iconic character. In an era when most female characters on television were defined by their male love interests, Erica was laser-focused on building up her fortunes...and impatient with anyone who got in her way. The character softened in later years — how could she not, after four decades? — but in her glory years, she ran rampant through Pine valley as surely as The Wire's Omar Little ran rampant through Baltimore. (More on him later.)
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14. Jax Teller, Sons of Anarchy
Actually, pretty much everyone on Sons of Anarchy could find a place on this list. Kurt Sutter's Hamlet-on-motorcycles melodrama takes place in an ethical atmosphere completely defined by a sliding scale of evil: It's not a matter of who's bad and good, but rather, who's bad and less bad. But we'll give the edge to Charlie Hunnam's Jax, who at least attempts to take the high road...and, like so many other people on this list, inevitably finds himself taking the low road.
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13. Blair Waldorf, Gossip Girl
After five seasons, Gossip Girl has twisted and turned the precise motivations of its Upper East Side crew into elaborate pretzels of confused character arcs. But it's important to remember the melodramatic thrills of Girl's first two years, when the show nailed its addictive vision of pre-recession American decadence. And nobody better defined those early years than Leighton Meester's patrician Blair Waldorf, a queen constantly struggling to maintain her throne.
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12. Boyd Crowder, Justified
Justified is defined by the ongoing interplay between two men who are simultaneously each other's closest friends and worst enemies. Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder grew up together in Harlan County, working the coal mines together in their teenage years. Givens became a U.S. Marshal; Crowder became a criminal mastermind. And although Givens is the clear protagonist of Justified, Crowder provides much of the show's soul. Unlike Raylan, Boyd doesn't get to go home to Lexington; he wakes up every day in Harlan County, a place so dominated by corruption that Crowder's flexible-but-firm moral code looks positively noble.
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11. Patty Hewes, Damages
Patty Hewes will do absolutely anything to win a case, and she's proven that fact again and again. And although it's possible to imagine her as a black-hatted villain, Glenn Close plays Hewes as an unapologetic professional — she's the rare femme fatale who can inspire people to apply to law school.
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10. Pete Campbell, Mad Men
Pete Campbell's tragedy is that he wants to be Don Draper. The just-completed fifth season made that link explicit, with Campbell's family relocated out to the suburbs and Pete himself engaged in a Draper-worthy affair with a brunette housewife. But unlike Draper, Campbell doesn't aspire to nobility: See his willingness to prostitute Joan for the greater glory of Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce.
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9. Julie Cooper-Nichol, The O.C.
The history of soap operas is rife with demonic matriarch figures willing to do anything for their families. But few have a more expansive definition of ''anything'' than Julie Cooper-Nichol, who fearlessly maintained her position in the elite circles of Newport society with a revolving door of husbands and boyfriends (not to mention her all-consuming quest to prevent her daughter Marissa from dating street-rat Ryan). Heck, by the time The O.C. reached its comeback fourth season, Julie was practically the main protagonist: On a show filled with secure one-percenters, she was the all-American lower-class dreamer who got a taste of the good life...and was desperate to hold onto it.
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8. Dexter Morgan, Dexter
Dexter has a desperate thirst for murder that he keeps in check by adhering to a strict rule: He's a serial killer, but he only kills other murderers. He's a man who breaks the law for the greater good, although much of the tension of Dexter comes from seeing just how long he can live on the dark side before succumbing to it.
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7. Benjamin Linus, Lost
Michael Emerson originally joined the Lost cast as Henry Gale, a man who was either an innocent castaway...or a vicious member of ''The Others.'' And Ben's motivations remained shadowy throughout the run of Lost. Did he lust for the island's power? Or was he a lost boy searching for a father figure? Or was he a soldier, letting the ends justify the means in his war with Charles Widmore? Like everything else on Lost, Ben's narrative ultimately became a meta-narrative: He's an antihero willing to do bad things to achieve his goals, even if he doesn't quite know what those goals are.
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6. Eric Cartman, South Park
Racist, homophobic, misogynist, and occasionally just plain murderous — pity poor Scott Tenorman! — the demon-child of South Park, Colo., has spent over a decade as a walking, talking, epithet-hurling avatar for everything extremist in contemporary America.
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5. Vic Mackey, The Shield
FX built its name on morally ambiguous antiheroes, and no antihero is more defining for the network's image than the man that started it all. The LAPD's Strike Team leader supposedly fought against the gangs of Los Angeles, but Mackey's all-consuming corruption made him just as bad as the criminals he fought against. Even better: pre-Shield, Michael Chiklis was best-known as the lovable lawman on The Commish.
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4. Atia of the Julii, Rome
More and more, HBO's shortlived series about ancient Rome looks like a warm-up for the popular success of Game of Thrones. But the new fantasy series has yet to conjure up a character as addictively vicious as Polly Walker's Atia, who willfully sold off her daughter (not once, but twice) to further her family's standing. What makes Atia so appealing is her complete fearlessness, and the fact that she's a veritable quote machine for great turns of phrase. Key moment: when a mob threatens to invade their home, she nonchalantly asks her slaves to kill her before the street thugs can...and when her daughter starts arguing with her, she exclaims, ''Be sure to cut Octavia's throat before you cut mine!''
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3. Omar Little, The Wire
Omar occasionally seemed less like a character than an elemental force of nature. Watching him walk fearlessly through the streets of Baltimore, he looked more like John Wayne in the Wild West than a criminal in a modern-day metropolis. Of course, Omar is not a superhuman — and senseless randomness of his final fate makes for one of the great unexpected exits in TV history.
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2. Tony Soprano, The Sopranos
Tony Soprano believes that he is a good man. The central tension of The Sopranos, played out over the course of six seasons of therapy, is that he very clearly is not. He's a gangster. He's a murderer. Directly or indirectly, he ruins the lives of almost everyone he knows. And yet, as played by James Gandolfini with a mixture of caddish charisma and almost childlike fear, it is impossible not to empathize with Tony, no matter how repugnant his actions may be.
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1. Walter White, Breaking Bad
Showrunner Vince Gilligan has described the character arc of the lead character in Breaking Bad as a transformation: ''From Mr. Chips into Scarface.'' What sets Walter White apart from all the other characters on this list is that he started out as an apparently average guy, a struggling father embarking on a mad scheme to ensure the financial security of his family. But the first four seasons of Breaking Bad break down all those noble intentions, revealing Walter as a vicious, arrogant, and egocentric man capable of any manner of evil. Breaking Bad is a portrait of an everyman transforming into a villain, and the genius of the show is its central argument: That everyone is an antihero, doing the wrong things and convincing themselves their misdeeds are for the right reasons.