Felix Quinonez Jr.
What is it about asshole protagonists that makes them so popular with audiences? You see them in movies, TV shows and just about everywhere. Sure, they make for entertaining, even endearing protagonists. But why do we become so engrossed by the lives of people we probably wouldn’t want to be friends with, or even know?
Netflix’s Love, starring Paul Rust and Gillian Jacobs, is a perfect example. The show centers on not one but two assholes. Gus, (Paul Rust) one of the protagonists, is an on the surface “nice guy.” He continues a very long tradition of dorky guys who have way too hot girlfriends. But that probably comes from the fact that Rust is one of the series’ creators. And that in itself is another long tradition of creators using their shows as a sort of wish fulfillment.
Love is about the tentative, often frustrating relationship between Gus and Mickey. (Gillian Jacobs) Their courtship moves in fits and starts. Every step forward equals two steps back. Their relationship can sometimes feel so toxic you have to wonder if seeing them end up together would even qualify as a happy ending.
Gus, like many Apatow protagonists is a well intentioned, under achieving dork. But his nice guy veneer conceals a litany of self absorbed, narcissistic tendencies. And his incessant grand gestures are more often than not, self-serving ways to win over the favor of Mickey or co-workers, rather than genuinely kind acts.
And for someone who wears his supposed “niceness” as a sort of self-defining badge, he can be very inconsiderate, thoughtless and condescending. He also seems to go out of his way to ruin every great opportunity that happens to fall on his lap.
Mickey is the special brand of asshole who is always ready to call out others on their shit while at the same time having a total blind spot for most of her own failings. To be fair she is trying to improve but she too often mistakes callousness for honesty. She is insensitive and obnoxious, at one point she smashes a $2,000 crystal bowl that belongs to the person Gus is dog sitting for. It makes for an entertaining scene but it’s such an asshole thing to do. And she’s one of those people who seem to think it’s somehow endearing to rummage through other people’s belongings. (Sometimes right in front of them.) They also share the habit of making terrible decisions.
And they are disastrously oblivious to their surroundings. They treat everyone else like unwilling participants in their petty drama theater. In one instance they block people in at a gas station because they decide their relationship problems take precedence over others’ lives. And they seem genuinely surprised that people are annoyed by them. In another episode Mickey pretends to want to spend the day with her roommate Bertie. (Claudia O'Doherty) But she actually uses her as a cover to go stalk Gus at the studio where he works.
Another show that centers on the lives of very unlikeable characters is You’re the Worst. Like Love, it deals with the relationship of two people with very toxic personalities who have serious psychological issues and are probably in need of some urgent attention. Jimmy (Chris Geere) is a writer and Gretchen (Aya Cash) is a PR executive. They are the stars of the show but pretty much the entire ensemble is lacking anything vaguely resembling human decency.
Gretchen is a self destructive, incredibly insensitive person who at certain times resembles a spoiled 10 year old in an adult’s body. Jimmy on the other hand is no better, in fact he might be worse. He’s a completely self-entitled, arrogant prick. When we first meet Jimmy he is on a mission to destroy the wedding of his ex who rejected a proposal from him. And he constantly treats people like garbage.
And the rest of the cast isn’t any better. Gretchen’s best friend Lindsay (Kether Donohue) is awful in too many ways to count. She is the picture of entitlement and lacks almost any trace of regard for others. And the awfulness seems to run in her family because her sister Becca (Janet Varney) is somehow just as bad, in her own ways. She is a petty and an all around horrible person. Her husband Vernon (Todd Robert Anderson) is one of those mentally stunted frat bros who are constantly trying to relive the “old days.” In fact, Edgar (Desmin Borges) is probably the only one of the regulars who isn’t aggressively terrible.
But what is it about these ostensibly horrible people that makes us like them? Do we see ourselves in them? Perhaps being attracted to these messy characters comes from that fact that we’re somewhat messy in our own ways? Or is it something as simple as the fact that they say and do the things we secretly wished we could get away with?
Another reason could be that fact that beneath all of their flaws, they do have some redeeming qualities and are in their own various ways slouching towards some measure of self-improvement. And most audiences want some kind of payoff. Their flaws allow us to get emotionally invested and cheer as they better themselves or get frustrated at their bad decisions.
Of course a lot of it also has to do with the performances themselves. It’s hard to find anything bad about the casting of these shows. Gillian Jacobs, easily the MVP on Love, has a cool confidence. But at the same there is a vulnerability and darkness always peeking from beneath the surface. Paul Rust gives Gus a quiet, dorky sense of charm that, like his character, can grow on you. And even at his most tedious, you get the sense that he has generally good intentions.
And on You’re the Worst, Aya Cash is a comedic genius and often times heartbreakingly vulnerable. Chris Greer is almost begrudgingly charming. His grumpy and bitter demeanor hides a softer side.
But yet another reason could be that they are both really well written, smart shows that tackle their subject matters in honest ways. Love refuses to sugar coat the dating experience. It highlights the fact that sometimes love isn’t all that grand.
And You’re the Worst not only upends typical genre tropes but it also tackles some heavy topics like depression and PTSD. When Gretchen reveals her depression to Jimmy in one episode it’s a quietly heartbreaking moment. It’s an honest and brave depiction of depression. It’s also a great reminder why you care so much about a character who often times makes it very hard to do so.
In the end it’s hard to say why unlikable characters make for such entertaining stories or why we love them so much. Maybe there isn’t even a simple answer. But as long as they keep inspiring such great shows like these two, bring them on.