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Lack Of Empathy / Live-Action TV

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People with a Lack of Empathy in live-action TV.

  • In an episode of 30 Rock, the cast became concerned that Jenna might be a sociopath, but at the end she expresses remorse and it's concluded that she's "only" an "extreme narcissist".
  • The Big Bang Theory:
    • Sheldon is a subversion. He is capable of understanding basic emotional responses, but because Sheldon is neurotic and is socially awkward, he lacks the ability to understand the more subtle social cues, such as sarcasm, and has a hard time understand why people get upset over certain things. Sheldon is also extremely blunt with his opinions and tells everything exactly as how he sees it, which upsets people and Sheldon is confused as to why they react that way.
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    • Leonard's mother however, plays it very straight. For example Leonard has a very human reaction to finding out his childhood dog died and his dad left (and finds out in an off hand way several months after these events happen). How one Dr. Beverly Hofstadter responds:
      Beverly: Mitzy's the one that's dead, I'm the one that getting a divorce. Leonard, why are you making a fuss?
  • A common theme in the series Black Mirror is how our use of technology can make us lose empathy with each other and make us dehumanise others around us:
    • In "The National Anthem", the British public force the Prime Minister to have sex with a pig on live television in order to save a princess. After it was revealed that he was trying to fake the footage.
    • In "White Christmas", electronic "cookies" containing a AI replica of a person are used as slaves contained within virtual prisons, despite being as seemingly sentient as the persons they originated from.
    • In "White Bear", an amnesiac criminal is tortured by subjecting them to a fake zombie apocalypse-like scenario.
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    • In "Men Against Fire", a soldier fighting in a future war against horrifying mutants finds out that he is actually participating in a genocide program; the mutants he is slaughtering are in reality human undesirables for the regime, but the implants he has makes him see them as literal monsters.
    • In "USS Callister", a nerdy social loser game designer plays a homebrew video game mod based on his favourite TV show (an ersatz Star Trek), he is the bold heroic captain and his crew are sentient digital copies of his co-workers who he made for trivial workplace slights and subjects them to Video Game Cruelty Potential if they don't play along.
  • Breaking Bad:
    • By the end of season four, Walter White has evolved to this point. If they aren't a part of his family, they're just acceptable collateral damage. This is exemplified in a scene where he tries to assure Jesse how broken up he is about Todd shooting a kid. Immediately after, he starts whistling a joyful tune, coincidentally "The Lily of the Valley". Jesse is noticeably disturbed by this.
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    • Todd himself, whose reaction to the aforementioned child-shooting is "shit happens." He's willing to do anything to make more money or get closer to Lydia, and doesn't seem to understand other peoples' objections. It initially seems like he's being nice to Jesse out of sympathy but he is only doing it because Jesse is the only one who can cook good meth.
  • Buffyverse:
    • Due to their lack of human souls, vampires are explicitly described as being Always Chaotic Evil, lacking a conscience and being incapable of remorse. Some vampires, like Spike, avert this, but even then, their sense of love and empathy is twisted at best.
    • A given for those who work for Wolfram & Hart. When Angel calls him out on endangering innocent people, Holland Manners point-blank tells him that he "just can't seem to care."
    • Glory wants to go home, and doesn't care how many people she'll kill if that should happen. This does start to fade in the Season 5 finale of Buffy, due to the personalities of Glory and Ben starting to merge and swap a little.
    • Even before Warren's Not-So-Harmless Villain moment in "Dead Things," he's shown to be the one among the Trio most willing to take real risks and least willing to care about doing real harm to people. In "Flooded," he willingly gave the M'Fashnik demon they hired to rob a bank Buffy's address and let it go after her, and in "Gone," he was completely indifferent to the fact that Buffy was dissolving at a molecular level as a result of her exposure to their Invisibility Ray, even trying to speed up the process. In short, unlike Jonathan and Andrew, who thought it was all a game, Warren played to win, and wasn't afraid to cheat.
    • Quentin has little regard for the relationship between Buffy and Giles and regards their emotional attachment as a distraction and weakness.
    • Illyria. Wesley gets roped into becoming her instructor in this regard. In an ironic twist, Illyria discovers her sense of empathy all too well — with Wesley's death.
  • Some of the killers in Criminal Minds, although a number of episodes have subverted it by having a killer who profiles as psychopathic, yet shows some evidence of caring about at least one other person. They even had one killer who once showed all this signs of fitting this trope, yet actually had a Heel Realization and tried to make up for what he'd done, which the show points out as being virtually unheard of.
  • Dark Oracle: Blaze, Violet, and comic!Sage all fully subscribe to It's All About Me, and have no empathy for anyone but themselves. Omen starts out this way, but gets better. As Cally notes they're all "ink on paper" and as such, have no innate ability to care about others.
  • Daredevil (2015): Benjamin "Dex" Poindexter is so sociopathic that his psychiatrist has to teach him how to fake empathy. He often falls back on a practice phrase, "It's hard, it's really hard" when he's supposed to be empathizing with colleagues.
  • Dexter likes to think he's one of these, and keeps claiming as much in his narration. His actions, on the other hand, prove otherwise.
  • Doc Martin has no bedside manner and is probably a candidate for schizoid personality disorder. He routinely tells people about their illness in the most abrasive way possible.
  • Doctor Who:
    • The Daleks are bred to be xenophobic omnicidal maniacs revolted by all other life-forms. There's a perfect example in "Doomsday" when a scientist is willing to tell the Daleks everything they want to know, and instead they just suck his brain dry of the information while turning his head into a pile of ash.
      Rose: You didn't need to kill him!
      Dalek: Neither did we need him alive.
      • There's also a good example of a Dalek actually developing empathy and being utterly horrified at the feeling.
        Rose: I'm begging you, don't kill them. You didn't kill me!
        Dalek: But why not? Why are you alive? My function is to kill. What am I? What AM I?!
      • And later:
        Dalek: I can feel so many ideas... so much darkness...
        Dalek: This is not life, this is sickness!
    • Non-Dalek example: The Lady Me, née Ashildr from "The Woman Who Lived" desperately wanted to bury her empathy; after living for centuries while everyone else died around her she felt it was the only way to maintain her sanity. Once she helped Leandro open a portal into space and Leandro betrayed her by using the portal to launch an invasion of the Earth, she realized that she did still care about the lives of others, and helped the Doctor close the portal.
  • Naturally, many of the criminals in Dragnet lack empathy. One of the most notable is the hit-and-run driver who, after the bereaved says his piece, comments very matter of factly, "Pretty upset, isn't he?" and is only concerned with how long he'll be in the slammer.
    • In the final episode a guy robs a corner grocery store. Then when the grocer Julio begs him not to take all the money as there are bills to pay, the robber says, "That's just too bad. Here, let me help you pay them," and shoots him in the stomach thrice. He is unmoved later when Julio's corpse is being wheeled out of the ICU and the widow is being consoled by the priest who gave Julio has last rites.
  • In The Expanse Dr. Dresden is a verifiable sociopath and all of his assistants had the part of their brains that enable empathy disabled by transcranial magnetic stimulation.
  • Madalena from Galavant wants the jewel of Valencia, and doesn't seem to care how many people have to die for her to acquire it.
  • Game of Thrones:
    • If you wondered where Cersei and Joffrey got it from, it's Tywin. He will let the North and Riverlands be ruled by psychotic monsters if it means his family can win the war.
    • Aside from his immediate family, Jaime has a lot of trouble understanding the emotional state of other people. Or at least taking such into account when thinking. This is either because he's genuinely an idiot in regards to this, or much like his brother, he can't resist a snark, though it turns out he does have a Hidden Heart of Gold, the same thing which led him to make his life-defining choice of killing Aerys. It was hidden so well, even he's forgotten about it. Brienne brings it out in him and he has trouble adjusting to his post-douchebag life in King's Landing, populated as it is by his family.
  • Explored in The Good Doctor. The main character is a young autistic man working as a doctor. Jumping the gun and giving false hope to a family because he might be able to save their terminally ill son's life is something he would do regardless of how painful it would be for them and ultimately is. He's not The Sociopath, he's just more concerned with saving lives over sparing feelings.
  • Apollo on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. When Hercules confronts and defeats him after he attacks a village with fireballs, Hercules angrily goes, "You could have killed those people!" Apollo, "Who cares... besides you anyway."
  • The second season finale of House is House's own conscience confronting him on his Lack of Empathy to his patients, climaxing in a heartfelt "I'm sorry," to the man he has wronged.
  • Played for Laughs very early on How I Met Your Mother with Barney Stinson. He rarely had empathy for anyone. Once when a stripper broke her leg (from something Barney did) he then asked her if she was going to finish the show. And once when Marshall was upset about something, Barney took an opportunity of silence to tell Marshall that he had called eternal shotgun in Ted's car.
  • Reese from Malcolm in the Middle needs to have empathy explained to him by his parents after this exchange:
    Lois: How would you feel if you were that woman whose quiche you salted?
    Reese: ...Fat?
    • At the end, he can't understand why anyone would want it, as it would just make them feel bad if they hurt people.
      • However; this only seems to go into Comedic Sociopathy territory; he can show empathy, at least towards positive emotions.
    • Reese also once bought an expensive toy plane for Dewey and broke it in front of him just so he could see Dewey's face when he does it, and gleefully confirms to Dewey when the latter angrily tells Reese that he's the worst brother ever that he is indeed the worst, apparently taking pride in it.
    • Francis may have even less empathy than Reese. Aside from his usual delinquent behavior, he also admitted that he had frequently tortured Reese and Malcolm, locked them up in a closet, stole their toys, and scarred Reese on the shoulder with a bayonet, apparently without regret, when he was supposed to be encouraging Dewey about being a good brother.
  • Several of the murderers of the day in Monk do commit heinous crimes, although few truly stand out as having lack of empathy.
    • Evan Coker, the man who murdered a tow truck driver in order to retrieve something from his repossessed car, and also nearly caused Karen Stottlemeyer's death as a result, was shown in the ending while being arrested by the police as chuckling and smiling after Stottlemeyer almost went ballistic and beat him down because his wife was almost killed by him.
  • Rocheforte from The Musketeers. He has no feelings for absolutely anyone, including Queen Anne who he claims to love. When her son is dangerously ill, he only sees it as an opportunity to get closer to her and doesn't reflect on her feelings at all or even consider what impact her son's death might have on her. He has no sympathy or remorse for her after she rejects and injures him when he tries to force himself on her. Even when he has her arrested and taunts her about the death of her loved ones, it's more to punish Anne and can't understand why she thinks love is a good thing. He also couldn't care less about Marguerite's conflicted feelings and has no reaction to her suicide or the crying prince. It's in stark contrast to the musketeers themselves who detest Rocheforte as much as he does them but sympathise with his torture in a Spanish jail.
    • Gaston and Grimaud from Season 3 aren't much better. Gaston has no problem teaming up with the man who murders his half-brother and cousin and is perfectly fine with plotting the deaths of his brother, sister-in-law and nephew as well as killing veterans himself if it gets what he wants or even just happens to feel like it. He's positively gleeful over King Louis' corpse. Grimaud will blackmail, murder, frame and engineer war and famine to suit his own purposes and is genuinely baffled as to why anyone would have a child.
    • Averted with the Cardinal and Milady who are Pragmatic Villainy. They aren't very compassionate but are both capable of feeling and understanding emotions as shown by the Cardinal's near death experience in episode seven and willingness to spare Ninon and Milady's acknowledgement of the musketeers bond and her remorse and desire to turn over a new leaf in season two.
  • C.C. Babcock on The Nanny, as demonstrated by this exchange:
    Fran: Question: When they shot Bambi's mother, did you find that a sad moment?... At all?
    C.C.: (almost gleefully) I'm sure she's mounted on a nice wall in a fine home somewhere.
  • Ned in Ned & Stacey thinks of himself like this and usually up is, but eventually comes to feel empathy with Stacey. At one point Stacey tells him that he has no compassion for the people in the muffin shop because he cannot imagine being them. He then has a dream in which he is ever person in the muffin shop. Since he "can't say no to me," he is empathetic and refuses to shut it down. Of course this is a huge Jerkass move towards his partner Amanda, Stacey's sister and Ned shows no empathy towards her.
  • In the TNT miniseries Nuremberg, the psychiatrist Gustav Gilbert (played by Matt Craven), is tasked with talking with the defendants (including Hermann Goering) to try to figure out how they, seemingly civilized men, could commit the terrible deeds of the Nazi Party. Talking with the prosecutor, Justice Robert Jackson (Alec Baldwin), he lays it out:
    I told you once that I was searching for the nature of evil. I think I've come close to defining it: a lack of empathy. It's the one characteristic that connects all the defendants: a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow man. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.
  • Oz has a few characters like this. There's Chris Keller though it seems that he acts this way in part because of his twisted affection for Beecher. Claire Howell, who has no qualms about physically assaulting/harassing men who refuse her lustful advances, practically rapes a few of the male inmates, and murders one by dropping a hairdryer into his bathtub.
  • Most every character on Seinfeld, with the occasional exception of Kramer (the only one of the four regulars who is shown to take an interest in the well-being of others). Kramer's main problem in this regard is his constant breaking into Jerry's house and stealing his food.
    • This comes back to bite them in the Grand Finale, as they simply joke about a mugging they witness rather than trying to help in any capacity, and they get charged with violating a local Good Samaritan statute by doing so.
  • Another self-diagnosed (or so we assume) example is Sherlock, who honestly seems to believe that emotions like worry, guilt and sympathy hamper his ability to be useful: hence why he doesn't bother with them. At least until John gets wired up to a bomb, whereupon Sherlock freaks out. Ditto for the season 2 finale, in which he subverts many of the features of this trope.
    • Wholly contrasted when Moriarty, who is most likely the only character who suffers from actual Anti-social Personality Disorder, shows up, and jests at Sherlock about their "game":
      Sherlock: People have died.
      Moriarty: That's what people do!
    • Mycroft Holmes is another example. By the beginning of series 2, Sherlock is at least considering that there might be something to this "empathy" thing, and asks Mycroft if he ever wonders whether there's something wrong with the two of them. Mycroft's answer? "All lives end; all hearts are broken. Caring's not an advantage, Sherlock."
      Mycroft: My brother has the brain of a scientist or a philosopher, and yet he elects to be a detective. What might we deduce about his heart?
  • Lionel, Lex, and Zod all demonstrate degrees of this on Smallville, with Earth-2 Lionel and Clark Luthor doing them all one better, but the show's crowning example of Lack of Empathy would have to be Brainiac. Void of emotions, he manipulates every member of the Season 5 cast without batting an eye, and later attempts to destroy the world in Seasons 7 & 8 out of a more or less intellectual dislike for people. Post-reprogramming he gains emotions as Brainiac 5 and is quite horrified at his previous incarnation's actions.
  • In season 6 of Supernatural Sam loses his empathy as a result of losing his soul. He'll still put himself at risk to help Dean, but he'll also risk his life if it's advantageous. Helping him is clearly either a habit or because he's aware that he should care and goes along with it. In one episode while Dean is being panicking while being attacked by (apparent) aliens, Sam casually asks him over the phone what's going on, then when he loses connection checks out a waitress, has a beer, and calmly goes to look for him.
    • And when he can't seem to find him, he shrugs, gives up, and picks up a chick. He doesn't understand why Dean is upset to return and walk in on Sam having sex instead of looking for or worrying about him.
  • Jackie on That '70s Show is a prime example of this. She's even called out for it on occasion, like when Kelso's van sinks into frozen water in the Arctic:
    Kelso: Jackie, are you losing your van?
    Jackie: (snidely) No.
    Kelso: THEN SHUT UP!
  • Victorious featured a student of this type. Ryder Daniels had no problem approaching a girl to work on a project solely for a favorable grade. Nor did he have any problem pulling a You Have Outlived Your Usefulness on her once he achieved this grade. He was a true Jerkass. Too bad for him they all found out.
  • Drug kingpin and mass murderer Marlo Stanfield of The Wire ticks nearly every possible box for a sociopath, and will kill anyone in order to achieve power and prestige in the criminal underworld, regardless of whether they be rival drug dealers, an Evil Mentor who tried to take a fatherly interest in him, Innocent Bystanders, or even a security guard who Marlo committed some petty theft in front of, and simply begged for Marlo to respect him enough not to do so. For the people of the Baltimore slums, Marlo's reign is a period of paranoid terror, as even the rumor that you said something derogatory about Marlo may result in him killing you and your entire family, whether you actually did or not. It gets so bad that veteran criminal and drug dealer Bodie, who has been in the drug game since he was 12 and seemed completely hardened to it, has an Even Evil Has Standards reaction when a group of Marlo's victims, (including Bodie's friend Little Kevin) are discovered all at once.
    Nigga kill motherfuckers just 'cause he can. Not cause they snitchin', not 'cause it's business, 'cause... this shit just come natural to him. I mean, Little Kevin is GONE! This nigga don't feel nuthin'. And all them motherfuckers in them row houses... nobody means a fucking thing to him! Fuck Marlo, man, fuck him! And anybody that thinks it's all right to do people this way!


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