“Unlikable” seems to be a buzzword in television criticism these days.
No matter where you look, someone has an opinion about a character’s likability. Some cite an offensive character as a cancer to a series—one of its downfalls preventing viewers from feeling sympathy. Lena Dunham has caught quite a bit of heat for the characters of her HBO comedy series being conceited millenials. Although that identifier correctly defines the girls and guys of Girls, Dunham is not the only writer to create characters that polarize the viewing public.
HBO’s new anthology series True Detective stars Matthew McConaughey as Rust Cohle and Woody Harrelson as Martin Hart, two lead characters whose actions and attitudes grate rather than charm. McConaughey’s Cohle is a distant thinker with eccentric ideals and unfiltered, brash communication instincts. He chain smokes cigarettes and drinks to ease the pain of his past (which includes killing a man). Both habits take a toll on his appearance. Frequent time jumps to present day reveal a stark physical transformation. Cohle’s demeanor and bleak exterior aside, the death of his young daughter and the subsequent demise of his marriage lend some credence to his faults.
Cohle’s partner, Martin Hart, is the typical American family man through and through. His no-nonsense mindset, however, causes friction in his partnership. Cohle expresses his out-there beliefs, which Hart finds obnoxious. But it grants him the power to feel superior. It is this certain conceit that eats away at his marriage. It’s also his affair that is ruining his marriage. He justifies his infidelity by equating it to a release of tension for the sake of his family. Logical.
Cleary, both characters have issues that would, to the common viewer, make it a challenge to root for them. When it comes down to it, they are bad people who do/have done bad things. Yet True Detective’s unlikable characters haven’t caused the media firestorm that Girls’ did when the show premiered two years ago.
It was puzzling as to why there was such a negative reaction to Dunham’s characters. They aren’t Walter White level anti-heroes and don’t exhibit Victoria Grayson’s sociopathic tendencies. So, why did the media and viewers have a loud response?
Yes, Girls and True Detective are different species, tonally and stylistically extreme opposites. Boil them down to their core—their characters—and similarities are identifiable. If there’s one thing at which each show excels, that is characterization. Every character has a unique voice and qualities that define only them.
Dunham stars as Hannah Horvath, the hapless and self-centered writer who is struggling to get her life to fall into place. Hannah, like most teenagers, can find a way to make any situation about her: “I mean, we’re picking up our friend from rehab and I just thought there’d be something I can write about in my book. It seems like a very rich area, but I’m just realizing this road trip is not a metaphor, it just isn’t.”
Marnie, on the other hand, strives for perfection. She was once described as “too self-involved to commit suicide.”
Another character, Jessa, refuses to accept that she is living her life recklessly. She has the answers for everyone else, but she is too busy being right to see the error of her own ways.
But haven’t we all droned on and on about an unfulfilling road trip? Don’t we make illogical justifications all the time?
Girls is not candy coated, and neither is True Detective. Girls is about that ugly time when altruism might be indefinitely thrown on the back burner while committing all the right wrongs. It’s about the complexity of friendship and how one can simultaneously be selfish and selfless. True Detective follows two broken characters as they try to solve mysteries—none of which will make them any less broken—and it is remarkable in its execution.
These shows take the risk on realism to supplement the narrative rather than confining the story to a quick wrap-up with forced, unnatural character growth. We can still root for characters to grow, to become fully self-actualized. Characters don’t always have to make the right choice. That would be boring and downright unrealistic. We watch television for entertainment. Why watch a show with characters that never trip and fall? And even if they do fall, why allow them an uncomplicated “Oops, sorry!” to get out of it?
Why do we need our characters to be likable? Why is that so important?
We like when we can see our best qualities in our entertainment instead of our worst. Sometimes we need to be reminded (through tropes) that we can fix any familial fight with a hug or that we can be forgiven and forgiving by admitting our mistakes. Life isn’t that easy, though. There are no easy resolves; life’s messes run over into the next episode. Sometimes we need to see ourselves in Cohle’s eccentricities and Hannah’s egocentrism.
Because somehow and somewhere, we’re all a little bit unlikable.