Why are TV shows so intent on making us attracted to really bad people?

Image via Netflix
Words by Maeve Kerr-Crowley

Stop trying to make murder sexy.

As someone who watches a lot of television, I’ve noticed a recent trend that is both intriguing and a little concerning. More and more, shows have turned away from likeable, morally sound protagonists and started focusing on characters who are creepy, unhinged or otherwise unsavoury.

And while these murderers and scoundrels obviously aren’t heroes in any sense of the word, viewers are still readily declaring their love for them. I’m talking scribbling their name all over your notebook, farfetched romantic daydream kind of love.

There are plenty of logical reasons why a baddie might get audiences hot under the collar. A lot of writers try to play with themes of psychology and human nature by emphasising the ability of evil people to charm, fool and manipulate others. When an audience finds themselves siding with a villain only to be suddenly reminded of their dark side, it can help develop a character’s complexity.

Also, lots of actors are just really hot. They can’t help that, and neither can we, so the whole attraction thing could be entirely incidental.

But where do we draw the line between healthy fascination and glorification? All it takes is subpar writing, a clumsy judgement call or a lapse in critical thinking skills on the part of your audience, and suddenly people want to date serial killers.

Here’s a look at some of the most dangerous and beloved characters on TV right now, to weigh up whether or not it’s time to start feeling concerned.

Billy Hargrove – Stranger Things

Billy was introduced in season two as a hot new addition to the sometimes interesting, sometimes baffling ‘older teen’ subgroup of Stranger Things characters. He was then quickly established to be a bad, bad, very bad guy. He’s abusive to his step-sister Max, racist towards Lucas, and – let’s not forget – straight up tried to kill multiple children.

Despite all that (and his mullet) people still find him incredibly attractive.

To make matters more confusing, promotion for season three has so far been very Billy-centric. A recent teaser clip was almost entirely focused on him walking around shirtless at the community pool, which is a hard portrayal to reconcile with his previously deplorable behaviour.

Of course, it’s not out of the question that he’s on track for a redemption arc in the next season. But, considering the writers just pulled that move with the infinitely more redeemable Steve Harrington, I don’t like Billy’s chances. It seems much more likely that he’ll become tangled up in the supernatural side of Hawkins and get promoted to an even worse villain – a move I’m totally on board with.

Joe Goldberg – You 

You was an enlightening lesson in an audience’s ability to completely misinterpret a show’s message. So enamoured were viewers with Joe Goldberg’s penchant for stalking and best friend-murdering that it concerned even the actor who played him. Penn Badgley – previously beloved for his stint playing Gossip Girl’s resident ‘nice guy’ Dan Humphrey – took to Twitter to remind fans that Joe is a creepy murderer and not a promising romantic prospect.

Because often, that’s exactly where a show like this goes wrong. There’s a worrying but widespread social phenomenon that confuses controlling, scary guys with troubled hyper-romantics capable of being saved by the right relationship. This gives their partner – or an adoring fan watching a TV show – the feeling of being special or chosen, and grants said creepy dude more power. At the end of the day, You’s writing wasn’t strong enough to actively combat centuries of damaging social brainwashing, and may have just done more harm than good.

Ted Bundy – Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

Okay. Sometimes, serial killers are attractive and charming, and that’s how they manage all of the serial killing. I get it. But, casting Zac Efron? One of the most conventionally attractive, widely liked actors of his generation? Whoever made that decision clearly wanted hordes of women suddenly expressing a desire to bed and/or be kidnapped and murdered by one of the most notorious criminals of all time. Which is just really, really weird.

The psychology of murderers and other assorted bad guys is a source of fascination for many people. Hence why so many directors are pushing out documentaries and docu-series about history’s most disturbing figures. But there’s a line much finer than there should be between wanting to know what makes someone tick and wanting to know what they look like naked.

Something about the intimacy of a well-made documentary coupled with the unnecessary attractiveness of an actor like Efron leaves viewers thinking, “Maybe I could woo him. Maybe I’d be the one woman he wouldn’t kill.” It’s ridiculous – and a little scary – that we live in a world where the constant threat of being brutally murdered is seen as an appealing adrenaline rush.



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