As Laird firebombed Hannah Horvath in the season finale of Girls, it struck me that just about every popular drama on TV today could use a similar scene in which its main character is roasted for being cold, cruel, and downright unlikable. As I began to list off the other characters in my head, it became clear that the risk taken by Lena Dunham, creating an insufferable lead, is actually the new recipe for success in TV land.
In the interest of tidiness, let's lump together a couple shows that cover a similar subject matter. Netflix's House of Cards and Starz's Boss both deal with political animals and their obsession with power. Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood is a truly awful man. Underwood is able to check off murder, adultery, and blackmail from his list in just one season, complete with delightful Zach Morris direct-to-camera commentary.
Kelsey Grammer's Tom Kane, not to be outdone, orchestrated a murder, used his daughter's drug issues as political subterfuge, and displaced thousands of residents as part of a larger political shell game. Both characters harbor secrets that are meant to soften their coarse exteriors, in hopes of the audience empathizing with them. Tom Kane is suffering from lewy body dementia, a degenerative disease that is slowly destroying his mind. For every cringe-worthy outburst from the mayor of Chicago, the show offers up a sobering shot of a man trapped inside his own dying body. The show achieves its goal of trapping its viewers between disdain and empathy for its mercurial lead.
Frank Underwood's secret is far less destructive, yet remains effective in terms of humanizing a cold, calculating shark of a human being. In Chapter 8 of the first season, Frank reveals previous homosexual desires, which were surely buried in the name of career and life advancement. Unrequited love, while not as effective as naked mortality, can be a way to draw sympathy for a character.
As long as we're lumping together leads, why not two of the big hitters from the AMC universe, Don Draper and Walter White? Our previous odd couple coaxed audiences into pity and sympathy, while the Kings of AMC made rooting for the bad guy cool. From the very first shot, Don Draper establishes himself as the self confident, dashing, and intelligent fox that every woman wants and every man wants to be. In five seasons, Don has attempted to destroy every personal relationship, reveals he deserted his post in Korea, and subsequently steals another person's identity, all while being an unstable alcoholic. But man, can he wear a suit.
Walter White is a far more complicated figure, having transformed himself from a nebbish high school teacher to a fire-breathing drug king pin. Along the way, he uses his cancer as a reason for fellow characters and the audience to root for him, but if anyone is still rooting for WW, it comes from Bryan Cranston's mastery of cool. The one-liners, the artful manipulation of Jesse, and the end game with Gus make Walter out to be a mastermind with sex appeal. Most viewers would be hard-pressed to say exactly why they still root for Don or Walt, having slowly discovered their rottenness over the years, like a frog slowly boiling to death in a pot of repulsiveness.
Which brings us back to Ms. Hannah Horvath. Despite Girls revealing her OCD this season, it's a far cry from Kane's LBD, and while she misses Adam, it's more a testament to her never-ending neediness than her actual love for him. Her interpersonal skills at times are on the same level as Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock, another unlikable character, but the difference is that Sherlock is a valued asset in his world. The same can be said for Carrie Mathison from Homeland, a character who pushes the audience's tolerance for ugly crying and manic episodes to the breaking point. In the end, Carrie has done things that have actually helped other people.
So where does that leave Hannah? Not sick enough to be pitied, not cool enough to be envied, and not useful enough to be valued. The only question that remains is, will Hannah ever bring something positive to the table or will viewers tune in each week hoping something bad happens to her again? It's a formula that works for Game of Thrones, but then again, GoT has the prospect of dragons incinerating its disliked characters. Girls is testing the depths of what an audience will put up with before abandoning a lead character and subsequently the show. We'll see how much rope Girls has left in season three.