Tuned In

From Tony Soprano to Hannah Horvath: What Does a TV Show “Want” You to Think of Its Characters?

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The ratings are in, and it’s official: more people have written blog posts, reviews and op-ed columns about HBO’s Girls than watched it. Well, not exactly, but praise, buzz and publicity aside, the twentysomethings-in-the-city comedy got under a million viewers for its first airing Sunday night.

I love the show, which to me combines the raw, personal voice of a low-budget movie with the character-based humor of TV shows like (co-producer Judd Apatow’s) Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. But I also expected it to be, like FX’s dark comedy Louie, a niche deal. (I figured it would get somewhat north of a million viewers, so I was surprised but not stunned.) There were plenty of reasons the show might not be for you: just for starters, the Brooklyn-hipster milieu, the privileged backgrounds of the characters (and/or the cast itself), the cringe-y sexual humor, the general indie-film sensibility and so on–not to mention the immense build-up of expectations from rave reviews like my own. (I thought there was also, among some but not all detractors, a double standard about women as opposed to men behaving badly on-screen–but that’s a whole other conversation that plenty of other people are already having.)

What I was surprised by was the number of comments from people who were turned off by creator-director-star Lena Dunham’s character, aspiring writer Hannah Horvath—or rather, why they were turned off. Which is not to say that Hannah is not, in many ways, a bad person. She is–or at least a very immature and entitled one. She’s been out of college for two years, working as an unpaid intern in New York City, sponging off her parents. When they show up and say they’re cutting her off, she throws passive-aggressive tantrums and asks them for $1100 a month. When they don’t, she wakes up in their hotel room and steals $20 they left for the maid.

No, what surprises me is that so many people seem to have thought that we, the viewers, are supposed to be on Hannah’s side in this: that we should want her parents to keep funding her, that we should agree with her entitled self-image, that we should react to her stealing a poor housekeeper’s money with a big, “You go, girl!” In comments at The AV Club, Gawker and numerous other TV-discussion sites, I saw it over and over: Why does Girls expect me to approve of her?

To which I’d answer: it doesn’t. It doesn’t exactly expect the opposite, either, and its ambiguous attitudes are, I think, part of the reason for the Girls backlash. There’s been so much ink spilt on Girls that I don’t want to re-review it here. (Though please jump in and share your thoughts in the comments.) But what interests me in all this is: what does it mean for a TV show to “want” us to feel certain ways about its characters, and how do we decipher a show’s attitudes toward them?

Because make no mistake, shows do have those attitudes. There are all sorts of different, hard-to-identify ways that shows clue you in: music, framing, a joke that is hard to imagine being funny unless you have a certain attitude toward the person telling it. I originally started thinking about this in a Twitter conversation with TV scholar Jason Mittell: a show like The West Wing, for instance, never out-and-out just told you what to think of its characters, but you couldn’t watch it without clearly knowing that you were supposed to like and admire President Bartlet very, very much.

That’s how most people first learn to receive stories. Our default assumption is that if a character is the center of a story, he or she is the hero. This is how the earliest stories we read and hear as kids work: these stories expect you to like the protagonists, to cheer for them, to hope that they achieve their goals. It’s the first way people generally learn to interpret stories, and it takes a long time for people to unlearn that assumption, if they ever do.

And on TV, there’s often no reason to unlearn it. This is still the model for most big-network primetime programming: if a character is the lead, yes, he or she may be flawed, but you can generally assume that the show means for you to generally like and root for that person. (Some broadcast shows stretch that conceit–say, House, M.D.–but they certainly don’t stretch it as far as a show like Breaking Bad does.)


Now, TV has been playing with that model since—well pick your starting point here, be it NYPD Blue or Hill Street Blues or beyond. But it’s fair to say the watershed for TV antiheroes was in 1999, with the debut of The Sopranos. Here was a mob story that wholeheartedly did what had mainly been the territory of movies before (though they have their own, related issues): put a character at the center of the story whose goals you did not relate to, whom a decent person would, by and large, not cheer for.

And yet Tony was not an out-and-out villain. That is, he was a sociopath and many other terrible things, but The Sopranos did not let you simply hate him from a comfortable distance. It put you in his life. It made you, on some level, understand him. It showed him doing vicious and self-interested things, but in the context of situations—trying to raise kids, dealing with hurts from childhood—that might come from your own life.

The Sopranos caused a lot of controversy in its day from people who argued that it “celebrated” violence, and the easy thing to say is that those critics were processing the story on a simplistic, kids’-story level: if he’s the main character, then the story therefore “wants” you to approve of his crimes. It’s the easy explanation for the criticism and I think largely true, but there was more to it. As creator David Chase seemed to find over the seasons, there was a set of viewers that rooted for Tony, or who at least saw him as much more relatable and sympathetic than Chase himself ever meant the character to be. The entire finale arc of The Sopranos was in a way a response to this; by having Tony become more baldly evil than ever, killing in cold blood, acting solely out of self-preservation, Chase seemed to be underlining that, no, this is not a guy whose side you’re supposed to be on.

Dramas since then (mostly on cable) have played with and refined this antihero model (and sometimes made it its own kind of cliché). Breaking Bad, Damages, The Shield, Mad Men and many, many more shows established the model of giving us protagonists whom we could admire in some ways (or at least share some of their goals, like arresting criminals), while making them despicable in other ways.

It’s more familiar now, but still uncomfortable. Breaking Bad gave us Walter White as a man we might sympathize with, stricken with cancer and concerned for his family; it turned him into a criminal acting from hubris and vanity, killing coldly and endangering innocents. And yet you might watch its season four finale with your breath held, not wanting him to die, even though in many ways he deserves it. Do you feel that way simply because you love Breaking Bad, and if Walter dies, the show’s over? Because however bad he is, someone else—Gus Fring, say—is worse? Or do you still see a shred of good in Walter? What does Breaking Bad “want” you to think?

Dramas have experimented with all this to the point that—even if antiheroes are not mainstream TV on shows like NCIS—it’s at least a familiar conflict. Sitcoms have also played with the ways they present their characters, but they still work by different rules. There have been sitcoms for decades about buffoons (Fawlty Towers) or selfish characters (Buffalo Bill). But comedies have tended, at least, to draw the lines a little more firmly. If a protagonist on a sitcom is bad or selfish or idiotic, there are usually broad cues to read them that way: think Eastbound and Down, Two and a Half Men, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Absolutely Fabulous,  the British The Office. (Arrested Development may qualify too, though it at least had Michael as a center—and in any case, the “why do we like these people?” factor was probably what kept its ratings low.)

On pay cable in the last few years, there’s been a move toward half-hours that combine elements of drama and comedy—what people call “comedies that aren’t funny,” like Nurse Jackie, Weeds and Hung. And yes, part of what throws off viewers about these hybrids is they don’t rely on as much ha-ha comedy as most sitcoms. But also, their attitudes toward their protagonists are closer to the ambiguity we’ve gotten with cable antiheroes, and I’m not sure even niche-show viewers are totally used to processing it.

To me, Girls is different from some of these shows, in that it’s more flatly ha-ha funny. (YMMV, definitely, but to me its eye for things like the awkwardness of wrestling off a pair of tights pre-sex was hilarious.) But in the way it presents its characters, it’s much more on the model of a cable antihero drama than even Curb Your Enthusiasm. Unfortunately my review of the show is behind a paywall, but I likened Hannah’s stealing the housekeeper tip to the sitcom equivalent of Vic Mackey murdering a police informer in The Shield: a defining, complicating moment, which Girls further complicates by not giving her any comeuppance.

Maybe because the show is a comedy, some viewers can’t help believing the show “wants” us to sympathize with Hannah in stealing the money,* but I think that couldn’t be less true. The interest of the show is in showing her as an intelligent, unformed, selfish, self-pitying young screw-up. She’s funny, and she’s irritating. She’s sometimes perceptive, and yet stunningly un-self-aware. She cares deeply for her friends, and sees her parents as ATMs. The show is not about seeing her as a good person, it’s about wanting to see her—hopefully, by taking on some responsibility, growing up and seeing beyond herself—become one.

Now Girls may have not made you feel that at all, and fair enough: maybe it’s not the show for you. But I hope we see more comedies that try and follow this antihero model. It’s one thing to try to figure out what a show wants to to feel about its characters. But really great stories are about figuring out what you yourself want, and why.

*Update: I also suspect that some viewers assume the show wants you to approve of Hannah because of her autobiographical similarities to Dunham: liberal-arts grad in New York City with “voice of a generation” aspirations, etc. But I’m not sure that many TV viewers really keep up with all this background minutiae.