One of the greatest accomplishments in literature or film is to create a likeable villain or antagonist. Two examples of this are Barnabas Collins from the original gothic soap opera “Dark Shadows,” and Sharpay Evans from the wildly successful “High School Musical” productions on the Disney Channel.
Played by the late Canadian actor Jonathan Frid, the vampire Barnabas Collins emerged from his coffin to torment many necks in Collinsport, Maine, the fictional setting for “Dark Shadows.” The soap opera was a low-rated program well on its way to extinction when Barnabas Collins was introduced about a year into its five-year run from 1966-1971. Barnabas Collins immediately energized the show and became its leading character. The victims of his bites were supposed to be the sympathetic ones that fans rallied behind, but before long it was Barnabas himself that fans cared about.
Frid accomplished this metamorphosis by portraying Barnabas not as an evil monster who came back from the dead, but as a tormented, self-loathing man who had an overwhelming need that drove him to commit evil acts. That need was of course an insatiable desire for blood, and to fulfill this requirement, Barnabas would inflict pain and sometimes death on his victims. But the rest of the time, when he wasn’t pursuing a “drink,” Barnabas was racked with guilt over the things he had done, and he was erudite, cultured, compassionate and romantic.
Actors who subsequently played Barnabas in movies and in the 1991 prime-time TV revival of the show, didn’t quite pull off the transformation from antagonist to protagonist that Frid was able to achieve.
Similarly, the character of Sharpay Evans in the three “High School Musical” productions was intended to be the shallow, self-centered antagonist who tortured the female lead, Gabriella Montez, and pursued her boyfriend, Troy Bolton. However, Ashley Tisdale’s subtle portrayal of Sharpay soon had fans pulling for her as much as, if not more, than the male and female leads. Sharpay was a mean girl only because of an unquenchable need to be the lead in her high school’s musical productions. When she wasn’t so busy trying to undercut and sabotage her competition, Sharpay was witty, funny, intelligent and engaging. Over the course of the three movies, Tisdale turned Sharpay into the most interesting character on the show, so much so that when a sequel to “High School Musical” was done, it was called “Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure” and Tisdale was chosen to star as the protagonist.
Many shows fail because they treat characters in stark, good versus evil terms. To have a great show, the protagonist and antagonist must be on equal footing. To accomplish this, the protagonist must have flaws and the villain, or antagonist, must have redeeming characteristics. If Sharpay had been presented as just a merciless, raging diva and drama queen that no one liked, the entire “High School Musical” shows would have been a bust. And if Barnabas Collins had been portrayed as just a vicious, sadistic, 200-year-old vampire, lusting for the next neck to munch on, “Dark Shadows” would have never become the cult hit show it became. Both of these shows had young people as the heart of their audience, and both shows were successful because the actor and actress who played the biggest villain and antagonist made these characters into the ones fans rooted for.
“High School Musical,” the Disney Channel, 2006, 2007, 2008