By Hank Stuever
The Washington Post
Today's TV fan spends a lot of time subconsciously managing a personal tolerance for despicableness. Bad behavior -- from the violently criminal down to the basically ill-mannered -- carries the day, but it has to be a certain flavor of bad for a show to really work, and tastes do differ.
Over in the world of literature, readers and reviewers argue these days about a character's "likability" (particularly the likability of female characters in novels written by women) and whether or not likability is a reason to set a book down after 50 pages or so. "I just didn't like her" is viewed as an intolerably facile criticism, often with good reason.
But over here on the couch, with remotes in hand and the broadband flowing like a river, we deal all the time with despicableness because our best and favorite TV series are nearly always built around flawed, often very unlikable people -- mostly men -- who make terrible choices and suffer from a provocative degree of narcissism. Despicableness is seen as a sure way to hook us in. I'd love to start watching a few shows about intensely likable people, but I can hardly think of any ("Call the Midwife," maybe?) and life's too short to watch Hallmark movies.
The likability factor once more brings me -- unwillingly, this time -- to the overanalyzed subject of Hannah Horvath, the still-24-year-old protagonist of the HBO series Girls, which recently returned for a third season.
I wouldn't go that far, but I do interpret the scene as yet another subliminal admission by Lena Dunham (Girls creator and celebrated showrunner, who stars as Hannah) that she is essentially trolling for outraged responses from her detractors and fans alike. The point of watching is to exhaust oneself by tut-tutting Hannah for her perpetual entitlement and self-sabotaging journey toward adulthood. In 60 years of television, we've come to a point where we want this particular Lucy to literally choke on the chocolates coming off that conveyer belt -- or, as it happens, the free snacks Hannah discovers in the corporate break room.
At its best and worst, Girls enables an ongoing conversation about a very real generation gap. People older than 35 can use the show as a way to decide if people under 30 are as inept and self-absorbed as they're depicted (mostly anecdotally) in media reports and socio-psycho-economic-demographic studies. Others of us can watch Girls as an opportunity to be patronizingly amused by the growing pains of the younger generation.
Rather than rise up against the very narrow millennial stereotype depicted in Girls, viewers in their 20s are drawn to it, and drawn to affirming the show in quasi-critical essays and recaps posted online. And I do understand why: Girls is about a despicably self-centered young woman and her mostly despicable social circle. It is both an indictment and an exaltation of an entire subspecies of young adult.
In this season, all of Girls problems and quarter-life crises remain firmly intact. The once-ascendant Marnie (Allison Williams) is now just heartsick and aimlessly adrift in her dreams of singing success (and singing humiliation, via an Edie Brickell cover on YouTube); Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) regrets dumping Ray (Alex Karpovsky); the cartoonishly irritating Jessa (Jemima Kirke) is tormenting her fellow addicts at a bucolic rehab center upstate.
The grittiness of Girls crossed a line last season into abject disgust. The show became less about satire and more of an obsessive downer. It's a lot less fun now.
What I said above, about despicableness being a personal taste? Here's proof: Over on Showtime, is a much more welcome return of horrible people: Shameless, John Wells's Americanized version of the British drama, returns for a fourth season.
With surprisingly little acclaim and virtually no need for Girls-style analytical unpacking, Shameless chugs (and chugs) along. Relentless prurience is certainly a hurdle here (Shameless is filled with sex, as well as puking, lying, stealing -- you name it) but the despicableness is of a much more contextual variety, as we catch up with the downtrodden Gallagher clan of Chicago, held together by eldest daughter Fiona (the splendidly on-point Emmy Rossum).
Fiona is a contemporary of Hannah Horvath in age only, saddled with raising her siblings after her no-good father Frank (William Macy) went on a never-ending bender years ago; Fiona is now on the precipice of solvency, as a cubicle job gives her just a hint of life with an honest paycheck, a health plan and a 401(k).
It can't last, not when one is a Gallagher, because a Gallagher cannot have nice things. The show is held together by a sort of "Gee, Officer Krupke" sense of morality: They're depraved onna-count'a they're deprived. (Whereas in Girls, they're depraved onna-count'a they went to Oberlin?)
Second-oldest Lip (Jeremy Allen White) is attending college across town on scholarship, chafing against the privilege all around him in the dorms and classrooms, and also discovering that he's not the academic genius he'd believed himself to be. Younger sister Debbie (Emma Kenney) depressingly approaches the gritty, brutal and ever-present sexuality all around her, while little brother Carl (Ethan Cutkosky) finds trouble on his own. Neighbors provide a large part of Shameless's version of comic relief: Steve Howey and Shanola Hampton are consistently watchable as the hypersexual couple-next-door; Joan Cusack's immeasurable talents have been put to good use as the Gallagher family's quirky agoraphobic neighbor.
And although the show ostensibly centers around him, Macy's Frank seems the least relevant or interesting this time around -- perhaps gearing up for a timely exit, as Frank crashes back into the Gallagher household with a non-functioning liver, reduced to imbibing alcohol via eye-drops and enemas.
Like I said: Gross, disgusting, despicable. And yet it's a dramedy I find myself routinely encouraging restless viewers to go back and watch from season 1. Shameless's balance between humor and despicableness is a lesson in narrative wallowing that Girls ought to study.