“Likability” is a tricky concept. Are these characters likable? It’s a network note showrunners bristle at, and it’s a goalpost that moves around an awful lot. Mindy Kaling said recently that she cared about relatability rather than likability, and that seems like a much more relevant standard. Audiences don’t need to like characters to like their shows; certainly the antihero era demonstrates aspects of that, as does the excellence and popularity of shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Curb Your Enthusiasm. I care not at all if the characters themselves are likable. But I care tremendously that the show itself like its characters.
Early era Office didn’t ask its audience to like Dwight or Michael. How could it? The characters were awkward, inappropriate, often plainly offensive. And while the other Dunder-Mifflinites rolled their eyes and worse, the overall universe of the show still granted Michael and Dwight dignity, an identity, and a sense of self. I didn’t like Michael, but I didn’t want to watch him suffer, either. Just about everyone on Arrested Development is despicable in some capacity, but the show has a real tenderness and affection for everyone’s depravity. I’m meant to find Jonah on Veep unbearable, and I often do. (Oh, Jonad.) Somehow, though, the show doesn’t expect us to revel in Jonah’s torture, or to look at him with cruelty in our hearts.
Fox’s new sitcom Weird Loners hates its characters to an almost pathological degree. Nate Torrence (Hello Ladies) plays Eric, a doofy but hugely enthusiastic tollbooth operator whose dad just died. Eric’s cousin Stosh (Zachary Knighton, Happy Endings) is a douchey sex addict and chronic liar, and he offers to move in — to keep Eric company, but actually because he lost his job and apartment. They encounter their romance-impaired neighbor Caryn (Becki Newton, Ugly Betty), and a commitment-phobic artist Zara (Meera Rohit Kumbhani, a newbie). Isn’t Eric so stupid? Hahahaha. Isn’t Caryn so crazy? Hahahaha. Man, that Stosh — he sure is a monster! Hahahaha. The show feels like bullying. If Eric wants to make sock puppets and be weird, he’s not hurting anyone! Just let him! The other characters don’t even seem to mind; it’s the show that’s holding him up for cruel ridicule. No, thank you.
Being Brooklyn Nine-Nine is harder than it looks. Weird Loners wants to have that same flexibility of having mean characters and goofy characters and maybe a love story here and there, but B99 treasures its little weirdos. Yeah, Boyle’s an odd guy, but you’re not supposed to hate him for it, or mock him. (Diaz and Gina mock him enough for everyone.) On Loners, the show does want us to mock Eric, and it’s unnecessary and mean-spirited. What a loser! He misses his dead dad!
Comedies need at least a little regard for their characters, so those characters’ choices have stakes and meaning and context. When a show dislikes its own characters and presents their shortcomings as the only aspects of their identity, there’s nothing to care about. Long-form comedy structures rely on repeating and breaking patterns, and for that to be a source of meaningful humor, the audience has to invest in that pattern. I’m invested in the rhythms of Marnie Michaels’s life on Girls, even though I would not be friends with her in life. BoJack Horseman isn’t some kind of undercover sweetheart, but I care enough about the character to be surprised by his behavior. I can only take characters as seriously as their own show takes them, and I can only care about them as much as the show does.
TV Land’s Younger isn’t a masterpiece, but boy, does it ever love its characters. Sutton Foster stars as Liza, a newly divorced mom of an 18-year-old, trying and failing to get back into the work force. With the help of her BFF Maggie (Debi Mazar), she winds up pretending to be 26 and then handily landing a job as an assistant to the marketing director at a publishing house. (I feel like Indiana Jones here, but why did it have to be publishing? It’s always publishing!) Miriam Shor plays her mean boss, and Hilary Duff plays her kicky 20-something work buddy. Liza, of course, falls for a hunky Brooklyn tattoo artist whom she lies to about her age.
There’s a lot of dumb crap afoot here: Foster is charming, but … 26? Oh, this whole episode is about how dumb Twitter is? Williamsburg is like, full of “hipsters”? Oy, Younger. The youths: How come they can drink so much?
And yet. There’s a sweetness to the series, an almost admiration for the various crummy behaviors. Shor plays it very campy, while Foster is more in straight sitcom mode, and everything gets peppered with creator Darren Star’s signature cartoonishly naughty sex talk. Duff in particular is terrific as Kelsey, who makes lots of bad decisions but also plenty of good ones, and mercifully, the show resisted the urge to make her stupid. She’s bright and capable, and whenever her relationship with Liza seems like it’s about to crack in some way, the show pushes things back to safe and upbeat because those two are girlfriends, darn it, and sisters gotta stick together.
Don’t you just love them? the show seems to be asking. The answer isn’t a full-on yes, but it’s much closer to yes than no, which is how I wound up watching all 12 episodes in one weekend. I wish Younger had a longer first season not just because I liked it, but more because it’s featherweight, and as its current run stands, might have been better off as a feature-length rom-com.
Younger is better than Weird Loners, though in plenty of ways it’s not that much better. Both shows have moments of egregious phoniness, and neither seems to care much about New York particulars. They both need characters to be credulous enough to believe pretty obvious lies but credible enough that we don’t worry about their intellectual capabilities. So how does Younger come out so far ahead of Loners? By seeing its characters in the best possible light. By presenting them as people worth spending time with.