TV’s Greatest On-screen Rivalries

TV’s Greatest On-screen Rivalries

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Tuesday, 10th August 2021
Killing Eve, Peep Show & Breaking Bad (credit: BBC/Sid Gentle Films/Jason Bell, Channel 4 & Ben Leuner/AMC)

In any series, every hero needs a villain.

For drama to arise, the hero’s intention must meet an obstacle, and what better obstacle than an arch-rival.

But rivalries come in all forms, from the most petty to the most fierce, and are therefore wellsprings of drama and hilarity that can be found in series of all genres.

Here are some of the greatest to have graced the small screen.

Tim and Gareth – The Office

Gareth Keenan (Mackenzie Crook) was the easiest of targets.

A deadly combination of self-important and sensitive, the school milk monitor turned Wernham Hogg team leader was ever-craving the respect of his colleagues, but it ever-eluded his grasp. He was both extremely flappable and gullible, which made any pranks played on him all the more satisfying for the culprits (and us viewers).

Just ask Tim (Martin Freeman), for whom Gareth-pranking was a favourite workplace boredom buster and one which him and Dawn (Lucy Davis) were always bonding over. Their battle of wits was almost completely one-sided - sometimes bordering on bullying - but it made for a hilarious dynamic.

Sherlock and Moriarty – Sherlock

Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a sleuth of superheroic proportions, for whom every case is solvable and any criminal stoppable. But the consulting detective more than met his match in consulting criminal Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott).

Both thoroughly belonged on the psychopathy spectrum and were classic cases of when genius intellect meets dangerous arrogance. Thankfully, Sherlock managed to harness his for good, but for the malevolent Moriarty, the aim of the game was simply to outsmart, and it was in The Great Game (series one, episode three) that he first roped Sherlock into playing.

In that very first confrontation, Moriarty established himself as the perfect villain: similar to the hero, equal in ability and one who brings out the best in him. By the end of series two, he had driven the oft-selfish Sherlock to the point of self-sacrifice and perhaps his greatest stunt of all in The Reichenbach Fall (series two, episode three).

Homer Simpson and Ned Flanders – The Simpsons

Arguably TV’s greatest rivalry in the domestic domain. Ned Flanders (Harry Shearer) is Homer Simpson’s (Dan Castellaneta) benevolent nemesis, the patriarch of the perfect family next door, reminding his neighborino of his own family’s imperfection with every “howdily doodily.”

Projecting his insecurities, Homer’s tried his utmost to avenge Ned’s good deeds over the years: constantly robbing him, teaching his kids to blaspheme, even forcing him out of his own bomb shelter into an oncoming meteor. But his loathing is no match for Ned’s unconditional love.

Walter White and Gus Fring – Breaking Bad

Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) were a business partnership made in hell: the one running his drug ring like clockwork, the other a ticking time bomb.

It came as no surprise, then, that Gus initially refused to meet the ragtag duo of Walt and then meth head Jesse (Aaron Paul). But Walt was nothing if not persistent, and even Gus couldn’t resist his crystal clear blue product.

From that first deal to the very last strike, the coldly calculating Gus versus The One Who Knocks made for a thrilling and brutal drug war. They were so evenly matched that only by teaming up with sworn enemy (Hector Salamanca) and exploiting Gus’s one weakness (his irrepressible hatred for Hector Salamanca) did Walt pull off a plot elaborate enough to kill the most cautious of kingpins. Do business with a time bomb and best believe it will detonate.

It was a partnership made in hell, but a dramatic rivalry made in heaven.

Eve and Villanelle – Killing Eve

Killing Eve is a gloriously fun cat and mouse game largely thanks to the cat and mouse and their confounding relationship.

Both parts are perfectly cast, with Sandra Oh playing the obsessive but very funny titular MI5 agent, Eve, hot on the trail of TV’s most playful psychopath, Villanelle (Jodie Comer), who draws from a repertoire of disguises and weapons as diverse as the list of her targets.

The pair’s relationship is beguiling, both romantic and vindictive, each the other’s femme fatale. It’s impossible to tell who will come out on top.

Fleabag and Godmother – Fleabag

Equipped with the sharpest of wits and a demagnetised moral compass, Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) was a force to be reckoned with.

After the deaths of her mother and her best friend, Boo, the grief and guilt-addled Fleabag was treading a dangerously self-destructive path. Her father (Bill Paterson) was simply too meek and emotionally unavailable to be of any help, having been tamed by his leeching fiancé, Godmother (Olivia Colman).

The story goes that Colman asked Waller-Bridge for an evil part, and in return she conjured a passive aggressive monster. With a perma-grin that’s a window to the coldest of souls, Godmother barely hides her contempt for her stepdaughter under the thinnest veneer of care. “Please look after yourself, you really do look ghastly darling,” she tells Fleabag in their first confrontation.

Godmother’s verbal savagery is mordantly funny, but the revenge Fleabag wreaks tastes much sweeter. She first retaliates by nicking Godmother’s golden sculpture: the first in a series of escalating skirmishes which culminates in all out, art exhibit-sabotage come the series one finale.

Tommy Shelby and Major Chester Campbell – Peaky Blinders

Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) has faced attacks from all angles in the five series to date. Coppers, gangsters, mafiosos, fascists, and even fellow Shelbys have come for the Brummie king.

Major Chester Campbell (Sam Neill) was the first to come close and perhaps the fiercest, backed as he was by the full force of the law despite his own moral bankruptcy. But the icy cool Tommy remained unfazed by Campbell and all his threats.

Tommy outmanoeuvred the Major's political machinations to not only beat him, but humiliate him: expanding his business, escaping assassination and winning Grace’s (Annabelle Wallis) hand in marriage. It was a satisfying humbling of an evil man, who, as Tommy constantly reminded, was ultimately a coward who never even served his country in the First World War.

Mark and Jez – Peep Show

As are most flatmates, the El Dude Brothers were both close friends and sworn enemies.

But what elevated their rivalry to top tier comedy was the clash of their two polar opposite personalities: Mark (David Mitchell), the despondent bread winner scrambling for little more than dignity, and Jez (Robert Webb), the big dreaming slacker just out to have a good time.

There were sparse moments of bonding but almost constant bickering over anything and everything. From something as trivial as the boiler temperature to something as life-changing as the love of both their lives (poor Dobby).

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In any series, every hero needs a villain.