10 TV Shows Where the Good Guys Don’t Win

For those television show lovers, the idea of a routine narrative arc involving a heroic protagonist suffering setbacks before emerging as the victor has become boring. We like happy endings with nuance, though serious television geeks love it when their protagonist is an anti-hero, or better still, they don’t win.

Some of the greatest TV shows revealed the main protagonist was the villain; others just didn’t let their hero win.

1. Veep (2012 – 2019)

Veep (2012) Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Image Credit: HBO Entertainment.

Among the ensemble of Veep’s detestable, self-obsessed-but-brilliant characters (including Selina Meyer, who by the end has lost any shred of decency she had), there is one hero — possibly. Gary Walsh, Meyer’s doormat and personal assistant, remains devoted to his beloved Selina right up until the end, even after serving time as an involuntary presidential criminal patsy. Gary might be a walking cringe machine, but he (along with Richard Splett) is one of the show’s few good guys, even serving time for his perceived soulmate.

2. The Wire (2002 – 2008)

The Wire (2002) Sam Freed
Image Credit: HBO Entertainment.

The exhaustive HBO classic is still revered years after its conclusion in 2008, bringing us several stellar movie and television careers. Top of the success stories list is Idris Elba, who plays the cerebral gangbanger, Stringer Bell. His downfall might be his devotion to going straight — Stringer’s business school efforts are ultimately in vain as he falls to an Omar Little bullet after his partner-in-crime Avon Barksdale betrays him. One can argue Stringer isn’t a hero due to his criminality, but compared to most of The Wire’s other borderline characters, he is. Moreover, let’s add Omar Little to the equation while we are at it — he exemplifies an anti-hero.

3. The Sopranos (1999 – 2007)

The Sopranos James Gandolfini, Edie Falco
Image Credit: HBO Entertainment.

Having re-watched The Sopranos recently, it is hard to see Tony as an archetypal good guy, though he is the story’s beloved hero. In perhaps the most contested finale of all time, Tony’s run on HBO’s finest series (arguably) ends suddenly at Holsten’s Brookdale Confectionery. A contested hypothesis is that the scene represents those approaching hitmen whacking him. We will never know, according to show creator David Chase, who still refuses to confirm or deny most fans’ suspicions. Come on, David — you know Tony died; just say it!

4. Dexter (2006 – Current)

Dexter Michael C. Hall
Image Credit: Showtime Networks.

Like Tony Soprano, we find it hard to decide whether Dexter is a good guy or not. Dexter strode into his first two seasons using his “code” to eradicate bad guys. However, in the final serving, Dexter: New Blood, we see him abandon his ethics for cold-hearted survival, ultimately ending his life. He may not be a hero by this point, but up until the end, we still root for the hitherto likable Dexter. Furthermore, some of us will never understand why Showtime had to go and bring Dexter back just to send him to his grave.

5. Sons of Anarchy (2008 – 2014)

Sons of Anarchy (2008) Charlie Hunnam
Image Credit: FX Productions.

Jax Teller’s journey as the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Order’s leader follows a tragic hero narrative similar to Hamlet. We have a suspicion things will end badly for Jax – his mother, Gemma, is too volatile for a peaceful resolution. Her distrust of Jax’s wife, Tara, ends in murderous disaster for our protagonist (and his mom), and in the end, he has no choice but to join his deceased wife as the world he once knew implodes.

6. Game of Thrones (2011 – 2019)

Game of Thrones (2011) Maisie Williams, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Sophie Turner
Image Credit: HBO Entertainment.

HBO’s exhaustively brilliant Game of Thrones* has so many abrupt character endings and surprises that it is hard to gauge who the protagonists are. Of course, we follow the Starks as their family is ripped apart by a series of betrayals and bad alliances, so they represent the heroes on this journey. Yes, Bran becomes King of Westeros, but does the family win? After all, they had already lost Ned Stark, his wife Catelyn, his eldest son Robb, and their youngest son, Rickon. *Season Eight notwithstanding.

7. Rosemary’s Baby (2014)

Image Credit: NBCUniversal Media, LLC.

I remember seeing the original 1968 Rosemary’s Baby movie as a child, being terrified of the demonic neighbors who sell poor Rosemary’s child to the Devil. In Britain, the movie had government health warnings advising expectant mothers not to watch it. In 2014, it became a derided mini-TV series starring Zoe Saldana as Rosemary and Patrick J. Adams as her Satanically inclined husband, Guy. We can safely say the show’s protagonist loses out in the end — having your newborn’s soul designated for Hell is an L-shaped ending.

8. House of Cards (2013 – 2018)

House of Cards (2013) Kate Mara
Image Credit: Trigger Street Productions.

House of Cards put Kevin Spacey on the television acting map with a crowd-pleasing protagonist, Frank Underwood, who brought viewers along for a journey into politics’ dark side. In Season One, Frank leads young journalist Zoe along, giving viewers the false suspicion she will one day sink the corrupt official. However, Frank has other ideas, and the show’s temporary hero reporter meets a dark end in a D.C. Metro station. She isn’t the protagonist, but Zoe has heroic qualities that sadly end up under a train.

9. The Shield (2002 – 2008)

The Shield (2002) Michael Chiklis
Image Credit: Fox Television Studios.

Michael Chiklis played Vic Mackey for a six-year stint in the Los Angeles police drama The Shield, and his character is an anti-hero who somehow keeps viewers on his side. Vic’s crooked crew will stop at nothing to protect their end, including whacking each other — or themselves. In the final moments, Vic’s cubicle desk purgatory swansong is fitting, yet we still somehow feel for him as he comes to terms with his new position in life.

10. Dinosaurs (1991)

Dinosaurs (1991)
Image Credit: Walt Disney Television.

Those of us born toward the end of the last century grew up on a diet of ’90s Saturday night family sitcoms such as Alf, Home Improvement, and Dinosaurs. However, the latter had a surprise in store for kids everywhere, leaving an unambiguous fate for the lovable Sinclair family, with more than a hint of environmentalism thrown in. The show’s unethical WESAYSO company’s Fruit Co. subsidiary creates an ecological disaster, which sparks an ice age, leading to a sadly bizarre, end-of-the-world goodbye scene. While the ecological messaging was admirable, adolescents everywhere got to school the following Monday feeling somewhat traumatized.

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