A good anti-hero can be a vehicle for vicarious thrills, allowing us to live out our most base and petty desires. But a great anti-hero can show us the truest, most disturbing complexities of their behavior.
Over the years, there have been numerous television shows that feature a central protagonist (or protagonists) engaging in immoral lawbreaking. For some reason, we keep rooting for them anyway.
We might root for them because we empathize with their rationale and their personal struggles, or maybe they're caught in a world where such behaviors could be seen as justifiable.
These characters offer us an opportunity to examine the moral complexities of real life that go deeper than over-simplified dichotomies of right versus wrong.
Here are my picks for the greatest crime TV shows ever made, featuring anti-hero protagonists who break the law for personal gain.
10. The Shield (2002)
Created by Shawn Ryan
Starring Michael Chiklis, Catherine Dent, Walton Goggins
Crime, Drama, Thriller
88 episodes (7 seasons)
The Shield is up there with the best of its peers—The Sopranos, The Wire—but never got the same level of recognition that it deserved.
Vic Mackey is a detective for the Los Angeles Police Department and leads a team of cops who abuse their positions and their power to operate on the wrong side of the law.
Right from the very first episode, we're shown just how brutally skewed Mackey's morals are: he shoots a fellow police officer in the face because he thinks he's an informant who's there to spy on him.
It's not that Mackey is completely evil. Rather, he lives by the idea that the ends justify the means, and he's willing to do anything to cover up his tracks, no matter who gets caught up in the crossfire.
I mean, he gets a pedophile to confess to the whereabouts of a girl he kidnapped by beating him mercilessly.
And Vic Mackey isn't even the only anti-hero in the show. He might be the main character, but The Shield features several other morally complex characters who bring shades of gray to this amazing series.
9. Game of Thrones (2011)
Created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss
Starring Emilia Clarke, Peter Dinklage, Kit Harington
Adventure, Drama, Fantasy
73 episodes (8 seasons)
For a television show like Game of Thrones that has so many complex characters, it's no surprise that we run into dozens of anti-heroes of varying degrees.
Littlefinger, The Hound, Jaqen H'ghar, and Tyrion Lannister are just the tip of the iceberg as the series is full of those who kill, manipulate, and scheme to come out on top.
Though it takes place during a lawless time, that's not an excuse for their behaviors, especially given the fact that there are people like Ned Stark around who demonstrate righteous and upright behavior.
Characters like The Hound are career criminals who commit atrocious deeds that are entirely unjustifiable, like executing a peasant boy with great pleasure. But some of them have redemption arcs, and that's the stuff great anti-heroes are made of.
8. House of Cards (2013)
Created by Beau Willimon
Starring Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly
73 episodes (6 seasons)
Frank Underwood is a slimy individual. Educated, ambitious, and utterly ruthless, he's a strategic force to be reckoned with.
Much like the other anti-heroes on this list, there are few things he won't do in order to get ahead. Once murder isn't an issue, treason, corruption, and backstabbing are child's play for him.
Though the final season of House of Cards suffered from the allegations made against Kevin Spacey and his subsequent dismissal, it was a very compelling show prior to its sixth season.
7. Dexter (2006)
Created by James Manos Jr.
Starring Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter, David Zayas
Crime, Drama, Mystery
96 episodes (8 seasons)
Dexter Morgan is responsible for more murders than every other anti-hero on this list, and yet he remains one of the more morally ambiguous protagonists of them all.
Sure, Dexter is a serial killer, but he's a vigilante serial killer who only targets those who have escaped the long arm of justice.
Dexter follows the man's exploits in gruesome fashion. We watch as he slices and dices his way through the criminals of Miami, Florida, and while we may want to root for him, it's scary how much he enjoys it.
6. Rick and Morty (2013)
Created by Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland
Starring Justin Roiland, Chris Parnell, Spencer Grammer
Animation, Adventure, Comedy
61 episodes (6 seasons)
Rick Sanchez is as morally bankrupt as they come. Equipped with out-of-this-world intelligence (literally), he's practically untouchable. And, according to Rick, with great power comes zero responsibility.
Possessing a nihilistic worldview, Rick is of the opinion that his god-like powers means he shouldn't be held accountable for his actions—the bureaucratic laws of man are simply beneath him.
As a result, he has no qualms selling weapons to murderers, sending people to their deaths so he can indulge in drugs, or putting his grandson into painful situations for his own amusement.
Rick is charismatic and fun, but he's also cruel and totally toxic, making him one of the most interesting animated anti-heroes ever.
5. The Sopranos (1999)
Created by David Chase
Starring James Gandolfini, Lorraine Bracco, Edie Falco
86 episodes (6 seasons)
Tony Soprano is a normal Italian guy. He has a wife and kids, a nice home, and frequently suffers from panic attacks—because he's the head of the Soprano crime family.
Over the course of The Sopranos, Tony engages in illegal activities, some as heinous as murder. But we also see that his struggles with his father, his mother, and his wife weigh heavy on his mind, heart, and soul.
Though his various crimes are inexcusable, the depth of character that Tony possesses makes us empathize with him rather than judge him, and that's an essential element of every great TV anti-hero.
4. Peaky Blinders (2013)
Created by Steven Knight
Starring Cillian Murphy, Sam Neill, Helen McCrory
36 episodes (6 seasons)
There's nothing moral about Thomas Shelby of Peaky Blinders. Though he's charismatic, smart, and exceptionally brave, there are few things he won't do to get ahead. He strategically breaks the law to advance into higher positions of power as the series develops.
Much of our sympathy comes from Tommy being a war veteran. He suffered greatly through combat, then addiction, and then post-traumatic stress. He even has moments where he demonstrates a warm heart, helping those who are in need of it most.
But, admittedly, those moments are few and far between. Darker moments throughout the series show him at his absolute worst, using people as pawns and killing anyone who gets in his way.
No matter how far his unscrupulous actions go, he more often than not gets away with it due to his charming veneer. However, underneath it all is a cold, strategic, criminal anti-hero.
3. BoJack Horseman (2014)
Created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg
Starring Will Arnett, Amy Sedaris, Alison Brie
Animation, Comedy, Drama
77 episodes (6 seasons)
Intelligent, funny, misanthropic as all hell—Bojack Horseman is a realistic depiction of an anti-hero. You desperately want to root for him, but you realize you're getting pulled down with him instead.
What makes BoJack a great anti-hero is that there's nothing spectacular about his wrongdoing or lawbreaking. It's simply wrong.
We're talking the manipulation of his colleagues and circumstances so he can end up on top, the niggling insecurities that make him drag down his friends to make himself feel better.
Though he's the victim of an abusive upbringing, he allows it to infect his life to such a degree that he alienates himself from everyone he holds dear. BoJack is a well-written but utterly toxic character.
2. The Wire (2002)
Created by David Simon
Starring Dominic West, Lance Reddick, Sonja Sohn
Crime, Drama, Thriller
60 episodes (5 seasons)
In The Wire, we get an ensemble cast of characters. Some are on the side of the law, some are on the other side, but none of them are good. Everyone in this seminal show has moral ambiguities.
Both police and criminals are shown breaking the law in various ways, and not a single character in the entire series is squeaky clean.
The Wire is a fascinating portrayal of the realities of bureaucratic institutions—not just in Baltimore, not just in America, but around the world. Oftentimes, being good doesn't help you get ahead.
Omar Little is one of the best anti-heroes in television history, a crook who robs and kills drug dealers but also lives by a code to never harm innocents and to help those around him when they need it.
You also have Jimmy McNulty, a cop who wants to do what's best for his society even if it means walking a little too precariously on the line between right and wrong.
It's been said before and it can't be repeated enough times: The Wire is arguably the best TV show of all time, and much of its brilliance comes down to the fact that every character is their own anti-hero.
1. Breaking Bad (2008)
Created by Vince Gilligan
Starring Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn
Crime, Drama, Thriller
62 episodes (5 seasons)
Breaking Bad tops our list as the best crime TV show of all time, primarily for giving us the best crime-driven character arc in the history of television as Walter White becomes Heisenberg.
Walter White is a chemistry teacher who lives a normal, slightly mundane suburban life. However, when he's diagnosed with lung cancer, he cooks and sells meth for money.
Along the way, he builds up confidence in himself—to the point where he begins to intimidate opposition, establish himself as a kingpin, and even kill those who get in his way.
Breaking Bad also gave us Jesse Pinkman, an anti-hero of a different kind: he lives in a lawless way but he has a good heart, and he's dragged into all kinds of trouble because of his relationship with Mr. White.
A show that's only rivaled by The Wire as far as moral complexity goes, Breaking Bad isn't just an amazing crime TV show—it will always be remembered as one of the best television shows of all time.