So I caught the premiere of season two of Looking last night — the HBO show about a group of gay friends in San Francisco. I didn’t think much of the first season: a bunch of extremely unpleasant characters in storylines that alternated between “way too slight” and “stupid soap opera.”
The problems with the first season seemed so obvious — and so widely shared by so many people I know — that I simply assumed the creators of Looking would listen and adjust their show accordingly. After all, it has an appealing cast of actors, and the show usually looks fantastic.
Based on the first episode of season two, I guess they decided to stick to their original vision and didn’t change a damn thing (which on some level, I admire).
So I guess I’ll be sitting this one out. But that makes me a little sad, because, even today, there is so little on TV about gay men.
The more interesting question is: what in the world is going on with all the “asshole” characters on TV today? I’m thinking of Looking, Girls, Togetherness, and virtually every animated show right now.
It’s definitely a meme. Suddenly, people can get enough of shallow, selfish, hateful, and/or self-absorbed characters, especially in their pseudo-comedies.
For the record, I have nothing against a good anti-hero. I absolutely think Breaking Bad will be remembered a hundred years from now, along with a handful of movies and books and plays, as some of the best art of the 21st century.
What is it about these shows I like? The characters are all mostly assholes, but the shows themselves have a very clear perspective on them: basically that their characters are assholes.
Assholes are the joke because assholes are a joke.
For the record, I also like TV characters who are, in general, flawed. The concept of “Mary Sue” came into existence for a very good reason.
But some of these shows, especially Girls and Looking, just leave me confused. I watch Jessa and I think, “Is she supposed to be psychotic? No one except an actual psychopath would act that way.” Or on Looking, I think, “Why would anyone stay friends with Agustin? He’s a horrible human being. Is the point that Patrick has absolutely no self-esteem?”
No, seriously. I don’t get it.
These shows don’t seem to me to be satires; in some sense, they seem like they’re trying to be “realistic.” Then there’s the fact that so many viewers clearly do identify with their characters, and the creators of these shows often talk like they’re more or less representing their actual lives and the people they know.
This can’t possibly be true, can it? I know almost no people this self-absorbed, this selfish, this bitchy, or this horrible to their friends. Is it a New York thing, or a San Francisco thing? (I doubt it; no one I know in those cities is like this.) And I think it’s downright offensive to somehow suggest these characters represent twentysomethings; these characters aren’t anything like the twentysomethings I know.
So what’s going on?
Honestly, part of me thinks these shows are just the television equivalent of “online click-bait”: in an extremely cluttered media environment, one way you “break out” is by having your characters do and say shocking and provocative things, even if they’re totally unrealistic. These are characters you haven’t seen on TV before (until lately), so the show seems hip and fresh and edgy and irreverent.
Mostly, these shows and characters bore me. And sometimes they kinda freak me out, because I think, “Is this really where society is headed? Where this kind of behavior is common or acceptable?”
Incidentally, I said I liked The Comeback. Part of the reason why I thought the latest season was so brilliant was because they were clearly satirizing the trend of HBO giving TV deals to the most miserable and pathetic of people, who were, in turn, using their shows to lionize miserable, pathetic characters just like themselves.
Once again, The Comeback is light years ahead of everything else on TV. They also doing it on HBO. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you!
Not coincidentally, I talk about “asshole” characters a lot in my latest book, The Thing I Didn’t Know I Didn’t Know, when Russel worries if he’s becoming an asshole character in his own storyline. How’s that for meta?