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Why ‘unlikeable’ isn’t a bad word anymore for TV comedy

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You’re The Worst, Bojack Horseman, and Difficult People do bad better

"I’m having a problem."

"Having a problem is your defining characteristic."

This exchange, between Edgar (Desmin Borges) and Jimmy (Chris Geere), early on in You’re The Worst’s third season might as well serve as the mission statement of the show. Almost every character in the FX comedy, including Jimmy’s girlfriend Gretchen (Aya Cash) and Gretchen’s spoiled best friend Lindsey (Kether Donohue), is defined by their problems. Edgar’s problem is physical; the new anxiety medication he’s taking has dulled his sex drive. Lindsey’s problem is that she’s pregnant and back together with Paul — her ex-husband with whom she has little in common. And Jimmy and Gretchen, the show’s premiere worst couple, are struggling with the fact that they said "I love you" at the end of the last season.

More difficult to articulate than the sociopathy of 'Seinfeld'

In recent years, there’s been a proliferation of unlikeable characters on television. Not loveable idiots like The Office’s Michael Scott or Eastbound & Down’s Kenny Powers, nor golden age antiheroes like Mad Men’s Don Draper and Breaking Bad’s Walter White. This New Unlikeable character is one that emerged in its most current form on HBO’s Girls, a show about a group of friends who were unlikeable in a way that was more difficult to articulate than the broader sociopathy of, say Seinfeld. The characters on Girls were narcissistic and rude, but that was also the point. And so criticism started to balance on how you viewed that unlikeability: do you enjoy the show because of these characters or in spite of them? Now, along with You’re the Worst, Hulu’s Difficult People and Netflix’s Bojack Horseman are the current triumvirate experimenting with iterations of the New Unlikeable.

you're-the-worst

New Unlikeable protagonists have a few defining traits. They tend to lead comedies, or at least what critic Matt Zoller Seitz calls "comedies in theory"; their social ineptitude is mined for (oftentimes dark) humor. On Difficult People, Julie and Billy (played by Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner) are prone to misreading social cues to disastrous effect, like when Julie gets cast on a TV show and doesn’t realize she’s playing a part meant for a mentally handicapped person. Bojack Horseman’s namesake wants to connect to other people, but he doesn’t want to accept their flaws — "It’s so sad that when you see someone as they truly are, it ruins them," he muses after spying on a woman he’s been sleeping with. New Unlikeable characters force an air of superiority to mask insecurities, be they romantic, career-related, or both. They’re selfish, vain, prone to self-sabotage, and unable to handle criticism or rejection. The opening pitches of these New Unlikeable shows have been relatively similar: "Can you believe these assholes?" But as they age and advance into their second and third seasons, the way their characters have changed distinguish them from one another.

You’re The Worst’s Gretchen and Jimmy start this season (which premieres Wednesday on FX) as a stronger couple than they’ve ever been before, largely due to a drunk, late-night conversation at the end of last season where they admit to being in love. It was a big moment in the show’s history, because up until that moment, Jimmy and Gretchen had mostly proven to be incapable of thinking about anyone but themselves. But this isn’t a fairy tale yet: Jimmy’s fear of abandonment rears its head, and he begins listing the reasons why he’s not actually in love: he was drunk when he said it, and he doesn’t really know anything about Gretchen. "It’s actually madness," he says of their moving in together. "Willingly living with a wild animal, but one with thumbs who can steal your money and hurt you emotionally." Still, the fact that they’re having this conversation at all means that both he and Gretchen have changed since the first season. Their acceptance of change comes from each other, instead of within. But they have a coping mechanism for dealing with the change: plotting an escape route. "The only way I can stomach any of this is knowing I can just bail at any time," Gretchen says one night.

BoJack Horseman

Bojack Horseman has done his own share of disappearing (he goes on yet another escapist road trip at the end of season three) but much of this season is about Bojack attempting to be there. His relationship with his roommate and best friend Todd has shifted from something he puts up with to something he puts up with but admits that he enjoys. Now Bojack wants to change (at least a little), but he still gets in his own way and can’t understand why people have stopped giving him passes. In one episode, Secretariat’s director Kelsey Jannings, along with help from Bojack, attempts to shoot a scene that studio head Lenny Turtletaub doesn’t want her to shoot. Eventually, she gets fired while Bojack lets her take the blame. Midway through the season, during an episode that takes place entirely underwater, Bojack attempts to apologize to Kelsey, something an earlier version of Bojack might not have attempted at all. But when she and so many others are rightfully doubtful that Bojack has changed, he doubles back down on the behavior that alienated them in the first place.

Difficult People has proven to be an outlier when it comes to its characters, not least of all because Julie and Billy might be the two most stubborn characters on television. Difficult People is more of a traditional sitcom, so it’s less serialized, and tends to more or less reset at the beginning of each episode. Julie and Billy are rarely given the space to change, because it’s difficult to change a history of being unlikeable in 30 minutes. If they attempt to change (like when Billy tries to date a man who lives as an 18th century dandy, or when Julie befriends the permed and glossy women she meets in New Jersey), it’s cyclical. By the end of the episode, they’re back to where they started. You’re The Worst and Bojack Horseman offer smart, nuanced portrayals of mental illness (Gretchen and Bojack both deal with depression), but the characters in Difficult People aren’t meant to be a study of complex interiority. Julie and Billy can make gestures toward change without ever having to do it.

difficult-people

All of these characters might be unlikeable, but they’re not unsympathetic. Their actions — the snide comments, the destructive behavior — make these shows feel more human than happy-go-lucky comedies like New Girl and The Mindy Project. It’s the sympathy we have for them that allows us to keep watching week after week, even when it’s not that much fun.

It's the sympathy that allows us to keep watching week after week

Part of the reason why the New Unlikeable might be appealing is because the characters have a greater potential for redemption. Even the smallest acts of remorse or kindness in an unlikeable person can feel like a massive shift. A nice person is, comparatively, less likely to impress us, because we already expect them to be nice. And so Gretchen and Jimmy admitting they care about each other, Bojack apologizing for being an asshole, and even Julie and Billy half-heartedly attempting kindness feels momentous. What the New Unlikeable gives us as viewers is permission to recognize the worst parts of ourselves, and take pleasure in small, generally unimpressive changes. If television is about escaping reality, the New Unlikeable is about plowing right through it.