All the best bad guys are British. It’s such an established fact, it’s now the basis of a car advert. In American media, both film and TV, when they need a villain who’s still charismatic and morally ambiguous, they tend to head across the pond. It might just be a national fascination with Received Pronunciation. Or maybe it’s because Brits were once the colonial powers, leaving a lingering mistrust of posh British people in the collective consciousness.
And it is generally that quite posh, RP accent that American TV turns to. Consider the difference between the Lannister and Stark families. At the start of the series, it felt like the two families were set up to contrast each other. Both old families, still powerful in Westeros. Compare Catelyn Stark, faithful wife, to Cersei, shagging her brother on the side. The Starks are essentially the idiotic good guys of Westeros (so much bloodshed could be averted by the Starks making rational decisions), and the Lannisters keep on surreptitiously killing people to gain power. Now consider their accents – Sean Bean is never going to attempt any accent other than Sheffieldian, and Ned Stark’s elder sons aim for the same accent.
Buffy gets a lot of (rightly deserved) praise for the ways in which it subverted horror movie tropes, putting the power to retaliate in the hands of an ordinary schoolgirl. But it still goes back to the same old British villains. Not all the time, obviously. And not all British people are evil – Giles, in the early seasons, is the epitome of the repressed Englishman, and he’s a good guy. But first off, let’s look at Spike and Dru. They’re two of Buffy’s most interesting villains, Spike’s journey from villain to reluctant hero as compelling a character arc as Buffy’s own.
Also, while we’re talking about ambiguously bad characters in Buffy, the Watcher’s Council has to get a mention. Ostensibly an organisation for good, out to train and look after the teenage Slayers, the UK-located Council becomes an egotistical and arrogant force. Rather than serving the Slayers, they view the Slayers as their tools, going so far as to endanger their lives in order to make sure that the Slayers are good enough. Individually, they might be decent guys, but institutionally, the British bunch are a load of tossers, right up until the organisation is destroyed.
When you’re creating a large fantasy or science fiction world, viewers will clamour for an interior logic. If your story involves people from different areas, there has to be a consistency in accents. But to save on exposition, why not give your main (arguably) bad guy a British accent? Gaius Baltar stands out amongst Battlestar Galactica’s main cast for his accent. it’s not like this can just be explained by the actor’s nationality – James Callis might be from London, but so is Jamie Bamber, and he had to attempt an American accent for four years. In universe, it’s explained by Gaius’ natural accent being some kind of generic, farmer folk accent, with him affecting a ‘Caprican’ accent to distance himself from his roots. Never mind the fact that almost everyone else from Caprica speaks with an American accent.
But is Gaius the villain of the piece? Yes. Kind of. Yet again, though, this comes with a disclaimer of “ambiguously so.” His actions seem to come from a place of being misguided, as opposed to out and out evil. Seeing himself as the God-anointed saviour of the Cylon race, he constantly betrays humanity, abandoning several people to their deaths. He does do a bit of saving of the fleet, but that’s always down to his own self-interest. For Gaius, it’s all about making sure he survives, rather than compassion.
This article has only begun to scratch the surface, failing to mention the phenomenon of American villains played by British actors (Homeland’s Nicholas Brody isn’t exactly a villain, but neither is he a good guy – morally tormented!), or animated characters like Mitch in Phineas and Ferb (he might be an alien, but because he’s a competent bad guy, he’s British as opposed to Meep’s all-American hero). From Supernatural’s Crowley to Chuck’s Alexei Volkoff (bad guy who turns out not to be bad, again), British villains on American TV screens aren’t going away.