With all due respect to television drama’s greatest villains, it’s in comedy where the bad guys sometimes have way more power. After all, one of the truest tests of a comedy may be how much we empathize with the villain or nemesis over the lead character—especially when it comes to one of the most categorically irritating characters on TV this year.
“I think Shane thinks he’s a good guy. I wouldn’t go so far as to say in a lot of ways he’s right, but I do think in this story he didn’t get what he paid for, so he’s justified in his frustration,” actor Jake Lacy says of the character he played in The White Lotus, creator Mike White’s HBO vacation dramedy.
An entitled trust-funder obsessed with not getting the hotel’s grand Pineapple Suite even though he’d booked it, Shane didn’t think he’d come to the five-star resort for his honeymoon braced for battle. “This is a guy who thinks that he just wants to be here with his beautiful bride in this beautiful place and have some drinks and maybe go deep sea fishing,” Lacy says. “When in reality, whether he’s aware of it or not, he wants the drama and wants the chaos and the thing to pick at and to be able to feel like the victim and also then feel dominance over his aggressor.”
Meanwhile, Lacy’s costar Sydney Sweeney plays the beautiful and intimidating Olivia Mossbacher, a “woke” college sophomore who believes she’s fully aware of her privilege but also believes that society is still indebted to her. “I think the best villains are the ones that truly believe they are making the world better,” Sweeney says with a laugh when asked about Olivia’s increasingly strained relationship with her friend, Paula (Brittany O’Grady), who came along with Olivia’s family on vacation but does not necessarily share the same background.
“I think Olivia has this hard back-and-forth with her own privilege. She wants to be this big activist and understand Paula and fight for Paula for everything that our generation is fighting for,” Sweeney says. But after a botched robbery draws an uncrossable line between the two friends, Sweeney says there was “a sadness for Olivia where she knew exactly where Paula was coming from. And it’s something that Olivia can never fix.”
Like Shane and Olivia, a lot of recent TV comedy’s most enjoyable villains are those who come from a place of privilege and are used to getting what they want. “There is a great way with comedy of actually being more truthful, almost in the drama of laughing at it and [having it be] more palatable,” says Nicholas Hoult, who for two seasons has played Peter III on creator Tony McNamara’s sometimes historically accurate The Great.
The Russian emperor was—at least according to the way the Hulu series tells it—a conceited doofus who was overthrown by his wife, Catherine (Elle Fanning). His only true talents are throwing raucous parties and satisfying women in bed. (When asked if his jaw hurt from spending a day with a dopey smile on his face, Hoult laughs and says, “I thought you were going to say something else. That was not the line of questioning I was expecting.”)
In seriousness, Hoult says that audiences “get to take all these things in because you’re having fun; you’re enjoying it. And then suddenly, you start to see the similarities, perhaps between the current situations or current characters or [between] people and climates.”
A theme of the second season of The Great was parenting as Catherine went through her first pregnancy while Peter reflected on his own neglectful parents. “Things that make him sympathetic are the things that are very human about him,” says Hoult, adding that this season “you also see him as a doting, caring father. He’s not always great at it. But you see that he really loves being a dad and cares so much for Paul and what that means to him. And he cares about being a dad way more than he ever was into being an emperor.”