Sociopaths On Television: Why Do We Love Them?

Courtesy of Tumblr
Courtesy of Tumblr

In classic academic fashion let’s begin with a definition. A sociopath is supposedly “a person with a personality disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behaviour”. Or, in more common terms, a charismatic nut job.

There has always been a fine line of differentiation between a sociopath, a psychopath, and various other personality disorders, there are, however, plenty of characters who fit this description in some way gracing our television screens each week. You may be able to think of some yourself, but the very brief list of ones that spring to my mind are Dexter (Dexter), Hannibal Lecter (Hannibal), Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Don Drape (Mad Men), and you could even go so far to suggest infant Stewie Griffin from Family Guy.

Here I wish to focus on self-confessed “high-functioning sociopath” Sherlock Holmes from the BBC adaptation of Sherlock, and ripper Niklaus Mikaelson from CW dramas The Vampire Diaries and The Originals. Both of these characters effectively illustrate many of the typical attributes of a sociopath, such as a lack of empathy and compassion, sometimes stretching to a lack of conscience and humanity, as well as struggling with feelings such as shame, guilt or remorse. Looking at the number of deaths Klaus Mikaelson is responsible for, or Sherlock’s (admittedly funny) attempt to surprise John Watson as he ‘returned from the dead’, pretty much supports this point. In addition to this, sociopaths seek to dominate others and ‘win’ at all costs, as seen in Sherlock’s continuing feeling of superiority over “average minds”, and just the character of Klaus in general, his interactions with others and quest to regain New Orleans from Marcel.

So why on earth do we love these characters so much? Despite these unappealing qualities, hoards of Sherlockians are still in awe of our deerstalker-wearing detective, and many viewers find hybrid werewolf/vampire Klaus and his British accent ridiculously attractive.

Well, as Adam Kotsko points out, there is a huge disparity between contemporary sociopaths in the media and real-life sociopaths, who have often undergone severe childhood trauma and are not nearly as in control of their lives as television depictions make them seem. In this way, television writers and producers get to pick and choose the sociopathic traits they wish to use, and so create successful characters that are appealing to their audiences. That’s reason number one.

Furthermore, sociopaths tend to be highly intelligent, as shown most successfully through Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. Brainpower is a quality that most people, no matter their own intellect, find attractive and intriguing. Ta da, reason number two.

In addition to this, and seen in the cases of both Sherlock and Klaus amongst many others, is that sociopaths veer towards speaking poetically. In this way, their advanced skills as a wordsmith are almost hypnotic, and easily charm audiences. This is almost a form of manipulation, and allows the characters to favourably influence the observer’s views. Reason number three.

What’s more, it has been suggested by many that we live in the age of awkwardness, where feeling self-conscious and embarrassed in social situations is becoming more and more common. A sociopath, however, may be seen as the exact opposite of an awkward character, free from social norms and emotions such as shame. This idea of living outside of the restrictions imposed by civilisation is one that may seem desirable to many as they recall a particularly uncomfortable situation.

Many, use the mediums of television, and arguably fiction in general, as an escape from ‘real world’ problems. In this way, sociopaths on television present a further escape, from society and the social nature of humanity. This shows its not so much a case of love between audiences and our favourite sociopathic characters, but more a case of envying the power and freedom these characters represent.