Well I dreamed there was an island that rolled up from the sea
And everybody on the island was somebody from TV.
And there was a beautiful view that nobody could see
Because everybody on the island was shouting “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!”
– Laurie Anderson, “Language is a Virus”
– Valerie Cherish, The Comeback
-Stuart Pritchard, Hello Ladies
I’m having a hard time watching TV lately. I mean that literally, or at least the Jane Fonda definition of literally. I literally can’t watch a lot of TV these days. It makes me squirm. I have to get up and move around, or bake, or keep myself occupied. Sometimes I will go hide in the kitchen so I can still hear the dialogue of a show, but I don’t have to actually watch it. Sometimes I put my hands over my ears and hum until a certain scene is over.
I don’t do this because I’m squeamish about zombie blood or clown torture porn or Noah Solloway’s cloying pout-faces on The Affair. I have to leave the room because of the resurgence of that awkward, Curb Your Enthusiasm type of humor on HBO, coinciding with the revivals of canceled seriesThe Comeback and Hello Ladies. (I should clarify: Hello Ladies isn’t getting a second season, but it now has a movie-length special out on HBO.) I’ll take a long shot and put Girls in this category as well, but not Getting On as I haven’t really gotten to it yet.
At first I chalked it up to taste. I can handle Eli Roth, but can’t stand watching a know-it-all misanthrope or chirpy over-achiever get put in their place for deeming to exist. It’s easy laughs, I guess, but my version of torture porn is watching the slow trainwreck of characters whose every interaction has to immediately escalate into some form of public shaming and/or sexual humiliation. (I also don’t watch The Kardashians or cable news for the same reason.) Why should I have to take a Xanax just to watch Valerie Cherish or Stuart Pritchard try to succeed at life, when it is so obvious to me that they should both just give up. There is just something about them that rubs people the wrong way, even before they open their mouths. Game over.
On the other hand, maybe it’s not the shows’ meanness that I hate. Maybe it’s the characters themselves. What’s not to loathe? These aren’t nice people. They aren’t inherently good, or decent, or kind. (Which would make for a whole other type of terrible television.) But they aren’t the dark, complex antiheroes we’re used to seeing on premium cable. Instead, we’re seeing the rise of what I’m calling the annoyinghero. (Until I found something better. Any ideas?) These are the unlikely protagonists who aren’t even bad enough to warrant credit for achieving something epic. They are just annoying. Obnoxious. Bad party guests. Rude to the waitstaff. Terrible tippers. Annoyingheroes are privileged narcissists with whiny, reedy voices and a million paper cuts worth of tiny, itsy bitsy grievances that they’d like you to take care of, please. But the most repugnant quality of them all? Annoyingheroes universally desire upward mobility, and their naked ambition can seem at times more obscene than the bare breasts we’re used to seeing on HBO. The annoyingheroes are strivers. They aspire. They want it so bad that YOU can taste it! Annoyingheroes are so desperate to climb the ladders of status and recognition and fame that they make Francis Underwood look like K-PAX. And they’re not even good at it!
Originally I said I wasn’t going to watch the Hello Ladies movie, because of sexism and men’s rights and privilege and a bunch of other words in lieu of the clunkier-sounding “This makes me uncomfortable and I’m a woman and that character is a man.” I mean, there is a problem with Stuart (and the show’s) portrayal of male-female dynamics, but it turns out that was not what I found so repugnant. Because whatever it was, I also found it in on The Comeback, in which Lisa Kudrow plays an actress dealing with the hypocrisy of Hollywood and the bullshit sexism and ageism that is rampant in even the most lofty of television’s programming. So…that sounds like something I should relate to, right? Especially with my interests in privilege–comma–male, etc.,?
But that theory doesn’t work anymore, because as much as I didn’t like Stuart, I hate Valerie Cherish. I’m sorry. It’s irrational. But I just hate her and all her fake smiling and flippant dismissal of all her “people.” That unwarranted self-regard that makes her think she deserves her own HBO show within an HBO show. (And a reality show! I mean, come on, no celeb gets to have their comeback both ways.) I think I maybe hate Valerie more than Stuart. For expending all her energy trying to win over disgusting pigs like Paulie G. Her willingness to debase and humiliate herself, and the way she believes her own lies about why it’s totally normal to be treated like she’s not even worthy to suck a obese former junkie’s penis. And most of all, I hate the way Valerie Cherish turns around and demands princess treatment from the few people who unconditionally love her. If you don’t believe me, please read Sean Collins’ recap of what happened on last night’s episode.
Also she just seems really needy and intense and “difficult” in a way that makes me feel physically ill.
So. Fine. I don’t like this trend of annoying people on TV. But that doesn’t explain my extreme reaction to watching these shows, either. Because if it’s their grandiosity that I find…aggressive…well the shows themselves constantly put them in their place. Many times in ways that seems to border on actual cruelty.
And while being unlikable, or vapid, or a social sledgehammer or whatever might be the most obvious trait you’d notice in someone you’ve just met, it is never, ever the vital one. It seems personality-defining to be rude and graceless, but it’s not. Like I said: these are not evil people. They are not even bad people, which is perhaps the source of their misery: if only they fought dirty, or had gone on a murder spree or ran B613, then perhaps their histrionics would be compelling!
But unfortunately, there’s little we actually know about either Valerie or Stuart, other than they are obnoxious and presumptuous and people don’t really like them. Since they’re always “on,” desperate to impress, the only glimpses we have of their true nature comes out in ugly little scenes that could serve as a series of vignettes titled “They Had It Coming.”
Say what you will about our anti-hero fetish on TV. At least those men (yep, mostly men,) were complex characters. Tony Soprano wasn’t JUST a mobster. Walter White wasn’t JUST a meth kingpin. Nucky Thompson wasn’t JUST a…I guess he was a mobster, too. Don Draper wasn’t JUST a philandering drunk. Frank Underwood wasn’t JUST a guy who really, really liked ribs. Those guys from Sons of Anarchy and Justified weren’t just…well, shit, it’s mobsters all the way down, isn’t it?
You can say that comedy is a different genre; that its characters are painted in broader strokes. But a TV show means we’re not getting a character portrait, we’re getting an ongoing narrative. It can’t just be “Look at this horrible person we’ve made and isn’t he/she just terrible?” You need characters that can evolve, or devolve. We don’t need to see every time Stuart opens his mouth to projectile vomit noxious desperation like a lanky British Linda Blair. We get it. We got it the first time. Desperation IS unattractive.
But you know what’s even more unattractive? Feeling repulsed by someone else’s desperation, and knowing that what we’re reacting to is our fear that deep down, we’re just like them. They are constant reminders that maybe we’re talking too loud, or too much or at the wrong time (say, while someone else is talking). That behind our backs, everyone is mugging to the camera like Tim or Jim or Jane. (Though Laura Silverman’s affectation on The Comeback is more of a pleading wince to please, God, let this not be her life.)
And look, here’s what I realized: People feel differently than me about these shows than I do. My reaction is shared by some, but certainly not all, and not in such an extreme physical discomfort. My theory is that people who like these shows aren’t bothered by the pathetic desperation of annoyingheroes; they think that the characters are funny, or maybe they like awkward humor, or I don’t know. But from the sample study I’ve informally gathered, these viewers are probably not neurotic, self-loathing types that need an emergency therapy session after the Bojack Horseman finale. Some people, I’ve learned, aren’t intensely scanning the flickering images of TV like some kind of magic mirror, jumping at the first sign of recognition.
Some people don’t feel that needy desperation to recognize themselves in characters dreamt up in a writers’ room. Unlike Valerie, they will not hold an acquaintance hostage while they rewind a scene from an old TV show and talk the entire way through it, over and over.
Look at me. Look at me. LOOK AT ME.
I hate Valerie and Stuart because they are oblivious to how basically everyone wants them to go away forever; the way I fear I’m oblivious to how basically everyone wants me to go away forever. I want to believe that there is more to me than just my most annoying habits: the tendency to steamroll over other people’s conversations, say, or my ability to hijack a TV review with a personal essay. I have to believe that the sum of all these things I do, the compulsive name-dropping and reflexive snark and my inability to just stop talking for five seconds and let someone else get a word in…that this doesn’t total up to who I am as a person. I have good qualities, too.
So does Stuart! Thank god! Finally! The Hello Ladies movie was actually brilliant. The best comparison would be to The Office’s Christmas Special (written by Merchant and Gervais) where David Brent finally breaks out of his Cockup Jail by defending his date and standing up to his former employees, whose approval he so desperately seeks. Stuart similarly stops trying to be at “the cool kid’s table,” by defending his dorky friends at a party. We finally see Merchant’s character direct some of that heterodox and vitriol in the right direction: not at the women who reject him, but at the dick-heads who get off denying you entrance past the velvet rope just because they can. And because they too are scared of Stuart’s buzzkill properties: what if he makes a bad joke and it gets all quiet and suddenly everyone realizes that a champagne-and-Red-Bull-drenched yacht parties full of Russian models from central casting doesn’t actually sound that fun.
Look, Hello Ladies wasn’t perfect even by my newly forgiving standards and Stuart’s transformation from a misogynistic twat to a socially awkward but ultimately kind-hearted man involves some serious suspension of disbelief. But it’s worth it for the scene with Nicole Kidman–who Stuart initially charms at a star-studded event with his hapless story of wanting to impress an ex by pretending to know her, only to continue to bother her with increasingly pushy demands for his ruse (photographs, drop the Australian accent, and let him tell his friends that they used to date). It’s brilliant and devastating and painful in the good way because it happened only once and not over and over and over. That scene was the only point where I had to leave the room to go hide in an empty bathtub with my blanket and rock back and forth for awhile. But even then, I kept the door open so I could hear what was going on and still yell things at the TV like “No NO NO! SHUT UP, SHUT UP YOU ARE RUINING EVERYTHING JUST STOP TALKING!”
That’s improvement, right?
Valerie too, has become someone I’m interested in watching, but not because she’s gone soft, like Stuart. Rather it’s because she’s hardening–slowly but surely–into someone who one day might not even give a shit what Paulie G. thinks of her. I hate that sadistic Jabba the Hutt so much that I’m warming to Valerie just to spite him. Or maybe it’s that Ms. Cherish seems more brittle now, more easy to flare to anger. She’s less able to hide her feelings this time around.
And I know that when Valerie Cherish eventually snaps–as she did in the finale of the first season–it will be a thing of epic glory to behold. Lisa Kudrow’s got some Katniss in her.
That’s good, because I want to root for Valerie. I want to root for the annoyinghero. And most of all, I want to be able to make it through a whole TV episode again. Or maybe just go outside and let someone else do the talking for the change. But, you know, baby steps.