Miranda Sings, the character created and inhabited by actress-comedian Colleen Ballinger, became a famous internet personality primarily because her existence satirizes the way people try to become famous on the internet. Her YouTube videos — in which she dispenses useless advice, does magic tricks, caterwauls in an attempt to demonstrate her vocal chops, and complains about her “haters” — have accumulated millions upon millions of views, leading to successful live tours, the New York Times best-selling book Selp-Helf (misspelled and mispronounced words are totally Miranda’s jam) and, now, the inevitable TV series built around her blinkered persona.
That series, the marginally amusing Haters Back Off!, starts streaming Friday on Netflix and essentially operates as the Miranda Sings origin story. The first episode opens from the beginning of Miranda’s quest for stardom, as she makes and posts her inaugural online video, featuring an absolutely wretched rendition of “Defying Gravity” from Wicked, then alternately revels in its genius (“It’s really good,” she brags to Patrick, the neighbor who routinely brings her complimentary popsicles) and freaks out over negative comments.
The seven episodes that follow continue to widen one’s understanding of Miranda beyond the limits of embeddable video. Among other things, we learn why Miranda is so persistent in her pursuit of fame (answer: her equally delusional mother and uncle-manager encourage her), why she colors way outside the lines with her red lipstick (again: partly uncle-manager’s fault), and why she started wearing sweatpants so frequently (that’s a long story; just watch episode four). Miranda, who appears, like Ballinger, to be in her 20s but says she is “home schooled,” exists in a protective bubble that nurtures her narcissism. The only person willing to pop it is her sister Emily (Francesca Reale), who gets zero backup from anyone else in the family. “Someone needs to be honest with her and tell her that she’s got no talent,” Emily says in the first episode. Spoiler alert: No one is going to be honest with Miranda and tell her she’s got no talent.
Literally nothing will stop Miranda and her chief enabler Uncle Jim (Steve Little of Eastbound and Down and The Grinder) from pursuing their five phase plan for fame, an effort that involves misguided attempts to join church choirs, perform at karaoke nights, and stage reimagined productions of Annie in which Daddy Warbucks and Annie have a vaguely romantic relationship. The Warbucks-Annie jokes would be dicey under any circumstances. In the current climate — where Donald Trump is currently serving as the nation’s actual perverted, less generous Daddy Warbucks — they land with a loud “oof.”
In other words, not everything in Haters Back Off! works. In fact, a lot of it doesn’t. It’s a show whose title basically serves as a warning: If you find Miranda Sings irritating after watching a two-minute YouTube clip, you should find something else to put in your queue. But Mirfandas — that’s fans of Miranda, duh — who have a reasonable amount of patience will likely find some redeeming qualities to latch onto, especially as the episodes progress.
With her nasal voice, propensity to under enunciate, and her out of whack sense of entitlement, Miranda is a purposely maddening character. But Ballinger commits to her so fully and with such specific physicality — the way she pops out her eyeballs and yanks down the corners of her Ronald McDonald mouth make Miranda look like a talking human hand from an old Señor Wences routine — that she’s often mesmerizing to watch. Her scenes with Patrick — the popsicle salesman played by Erik Stocklin, who looks like a young, disheveled Andrew McCarthy and obviously carries a raging torch for Miranda — have an oddball, yet sweet tone that’s reminiscent of Napoleon Dynamite. The dynamic between Miranda and Emily contains shades of the sibling dynamic in that sitcom on which Little recently co-starred, The Grinder. Like Rob Lowe’s Dean, Miranda has an outsize impression of her own importance and skill that’s reinforced by many of the people around her. Like Fred Savage’s Stu, Emily is constantly flummoxed and frustrated by everyone’s refusal to see reality. But because even she isn’t immune to her family’s genetic predisposition toward epic failure, every time Emily tries to call Miranda on her shit, she’s the one who winds up sounding crazy.
“We are not here for a show, okay?” Emily shouts in the middle of a funeral where Miranda has been asked to give the eulogy for a man she hardly knows and is using the opportunity to perform a horrifying one-woman show. “We’re here to look at this dead man, say a few nice things about him, and then put him in the ground.” The other funeral goers gasp. Miranda pitches a fit and storms out. “Emily, inappropriate,” whispers their mother Bethany (Angela Kinsey of The Office).
I wish the writers of Haters Back Off!, who include executive producers Ballinger and her brother Chris Ballinger, had leaned a little harder and deeper into moments like that, which speak directly to the show’s underlying themes about how hard it to stop performing in the age of Vine, Snapchat, and Facebook Live. Too often, the episodes feel padded with unfunny side plots — including one about the romance between Bethany, who gets attention in her own way by pretending to suffer from fibromyalgia, and the church pastor — that dilute its focus. At times, the show feels like an online video unfolding in real time while, off in the wings, a producer is pantomiming, “Streeeetch.”
Shows like Broad City, High Maintenance, and Insecure are testament to the fact that online works can translate into great television. The difference is that even in their original internet incarnations, those three shows were web series, with episodes that had narrative arcs. Miranda Sings is a personality; her videos aren’t stories so much as funny riffs. Turning her YouTube presence into a series is akin to taking a Saturday Night Live character and making a whole movie about him. Sometimes you get surprising greatness, like The Blues Brothers or Wayne’s World, and sometimes you get It’s Pat. Haters Back Off! rests somewhere in between those extremes in quality. It’s by no means awful, not at all. But as you watch, you can’t help but think that, even for the non-haters, maybe Miranda Sings is better in shorter doses.