“Girls”, “Last Man on Earth”, and the Art of Being Unlikeable

When I was thirteen, I was in love with this girl named (hmm…let’s call her) Jenny. Jenny had no idea who I was, and if she did, she was keeping it way on the down-low. One day, I saw her talking to a boy named Tristan, whom I knew to be a student with special needs (we did not call them that then…).

I saw Tristan as my “in”, and if I could establish some rapport with Tristan, establish some bonafides with Jenny (I’m nice, I talk to “special” kids), then establish that Tristan could go away, I might be able to finagle the situation into something resembling a come-on.

Foolproof.

Except, Jenny really had no idea who I was, and when I approached, asked Tristan if I was his “little friend.” Forget that she was patronizing: that’s what cool, pretty, popular junior high school girls did, as far as my thirteen-year-old brain could tell. Hell, the only boys with the stones to approach them without some hare-brained scheme were the kids blessed with lowered faculties for manipulation, abuse, and exploitation (This is, of course, not necessarily true; I’m sure those with different, perhaps even objectively diminished mental faculties are just as capable of manipulation as Mensa-grade diplomats in war-torn Darfur, but it did not seem that way to my thirteen-year-old brain. I chose Tristan because I saw him not as a person but as an opportunity). Anyway, I took her comment as an affront and more importantly a wedge in my genius plan, so I back-pedaled, informed everyone who would listen that Tristan was not my friend because I was not in the same classes as him, because I was not retarded.

Yep. Retarded. Said it at least three times, once in that junior high voice that signified to assholes everywhere the idea of “retarded.”

Jenny and I are Facebook friends now. That’s the extent of our romance. I do not remember one conversation we had after that afternoon that did not begin with “Do you have a pencil?” and end with “Yes/No.” It never occurred to me to apologize to Tristan, which is shameful. He is, as far as I can tell, not on Facebook.

I am tiptoeing like a ballerina on hot coals to distance myself from that disgusting little thirteen-year-old bastard. Except, I still am that disgusting little bastard, in my heart. Insecure, sneaky, manipulative, and consciously striving to approach others with honesty and integrity and without prejudice, especially when I have the opportunity to make someone I perceive as “less-than-I” look dumber, weaker, angrier, or meaner, therefore making me look smarter, stronger, happier, and kinder to someone I want to impress. Especially if I think it’s funny.

I mention this not as some mea culpa (25 years late…) but because the season finale of “Girls” and a particularly gnarly pair of episodes of “Last Man on Earth” aired on Sunday (3/22). The shows could not be more different, except that both have a particularly interesting knack for making the protaganist(s) artfully, if bludgeoningly, unlikeable.

The lack of likeable characters is a knock that’s dogged “Girls” since its premiere–spoiled, entitled, manipulative, bafflingly overconfident (to the point of psychosis–Marnie makes “Eastbound and Down’s” Kenny Powers look almost Buddhist)–and perhaps most damningly “hip to the point of insufferable triviality.” And yet the show leans into these criticisms, which leaves room for grace notes that seem earned. When Jessa surprises herself by taking control of the gonzo water-birth of Adam’s sister, it’s affecting, undercut by her decision later in the episode to become a therapist (she lacks the skill, education, empathy, and rigor to train a pet, let alone become a licensed therapist for other human beings). And yet you pull for her, just as you pull for Hannah and Adam and Ray–whether they’re trying or not, their weaknesses are the same weaknesses I see in myself (pretension, deflection, projection, self-pity, etc.).  Marnie and Desi suck, suck, suck, though.

Sunday’s “The Last Man on Earth” was surprising in its cruelty, even if it knew exactly what it was doing. Phil Miller’s (Will Forte) treatment of the new “last man” is so transparently immature and shitty (he talks of “the Fats” as if they are a racial subset) that it becomes a parody of insecure Alpha-male posturing (and done so ineptly as to be a kind of performance art). I actually think these two episodes could skew viewership, as Phil has become so unsavory, needy, and unlikeable that it transcends satire. It is only pathetic; there is no meta-agenda. I personally think it’s brave–it’s the most daringly awful a purportedly “comedic” show has consciously allowed its main character to act since Ricky Gervais’s David Brent in the British “Office”.

Many people like shows with “likeable” protaganists. What are these shows, objectively speaking? “The Big Bang Theory”? “Friends”? “Mike and Molly”? I’m cherry-picking, of course, and bashing on traditional, laughtrack-based shows of a certain ilk, and yet these shows have terrible human beings at their center. Whiny, unrealistic, grabby, awful people. Chandler Bing is such a profound homophobe he hates his own transgender dad and uses her as a point of ridicule. Ross’s codependency is borderline sociopathic. Rachel is a callow, materialistic man-eater. Joey is a stupid, amoral, gluttonous, womanizing douchebag. Take away the laugh track and it becomes an Andrew Jarecki documentary. The only reason we do not see that is because the conflicts and co-stars are even worse. We root for the protagonists because even though they are ethical monsters, the people they have to deal with and challenges they have to overcome are beyond the pale. The unlikeable is masked by the overall misanthropy of the writers and creators.

I enjoy “Girls” and “Last Man…” because they don’t just needle, they explore. We are asked not just to laugh at the characters, but come to terms with them. It’s the difference between “this is humanity” and “that is humanity”–one points in, the other out. The comedy pricks because the unsavory behavior is rooted in what we (OK…I) feel is endemic to our (my) insecurity, our (my) shitty behavior, our (…my) inept attempts to act like a human being. Which probably makes it that much more human.

Random Recommendation: “Headhunters” (Netflix), Morten Tyldum’s debut, is crazy and fun and risky. Basically everything his solid but staid second film “The Imitation Game” is not. At one point there is a chase involving a forklift, a dead dog, and a very, very dirty outhouse.

Can’t wait for: “Bitch Planet” by Kelly Sue DeConnick. Graphic novel that explores feminism and patriarchy through a combination of sci-fi and women-in-prison exploitation films of the 1970’s. Basically the weird bastard child of Betty Friedan and Russ Meyer.

 

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Filed under My Issues, Television

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