Think about some of TV’s most sinister, twisted, deeply flawed characters. They might be sociopaths, but at least they have skills.
Dexter Morgan on “Dexter” may have been a serial killer — but he was a vigilante who went after bad guys. Walter White on “Breaking Bad” cooked meth — and happened to be a brilliant scientist. Don Draper on “Mad Men” was a sociopath — and a genius ad executive. Dr. Gregory House on “House” was a rude drug addict — but he saved lives.
Looking back, viewers took this fact for granted in the age of the anti-hero as our screens were cluttered with awful but brilliant protagonists. These people were horrible, yet they contributed something to society, which gave audiences a reason to cautiously root for them. However, this anti-hero era is largely over.
So, we have entered another phase with a brand-new TV archetype: The anti-hero with no discernible talents... and who is simply just a jerk. These characters are awful, and none of them even have hearts of gold.
Yet people flock to the shows with these characters, as viewers still enjoy their various adventures. (Hey, it makes you feel better about your own life.) The newest of the bunch, Hulu’s comedy “Casual,” premieres on Wednesday. Here are the most common types of unimpressive anti-heroes that you see on TV these days.
The group of friends who are all mean to each other.
This type was perfected in “It’s Always Sunny in Philadephia,” about pals who drink in a bar all day and think of ways to torture one another — although sometimes they take a break to get hooked on drugs so they can apply for welfare.
Even in less extreme cases, it’s a popular trope: On the lighter side, think the late “Happy Endings,” centered on a group of six inherently selfish — and as a result, hilarious — friends who take delight in making fun of everyone. (Like that time they convinced Max he won the lottery.) Or “Girls,” HBO’s polarizing dramedy about a bunch of 20-something women all going through growing pains, though they’re all so self-involved that they can’t even be supportive at a friend’s jazz brunch or bother to tell another that her ex-boyfriend has moved in with another woman.
Comedy Central’s “Workaholics” falls into this trap; and if you swap “friends” for “family,” Showtime’s “Shameless” fits in this category as well.
The characters who take their low self-esteem and self-loathing out on relationships.
Hulu’s “Casual” follows this path, kicking off with the characters mocking family members at a funeral. The show stars Michaela Watkins and Tommy Dewey as Valerie and Alex, dysfunctional 30-something siblings. Eternal bachelor Alex runs a dating Web site, skewing the algorithm in his favor so he’ll only get matched with hot girls. After one lame date, he still decides to bring the woman home: “The sex will suck and she won’t call and then it will be on her for not putting in more effort,” he explains. Meanwhile, recently divorced, cynical Valerie tries the disastrous world of online dating with depressing results, and winds up in an ill-fated one-night stand.
It rings similar to “You’re the Worst,” FXX’s clever sophomore comedy that grew a solid following in its first season. Gretchen and Jimmy are two extreme narcissists who have a fling that turns into a real relationship, surprising given they are so toxic to everyone else in their lives. Jimmy wears his best friend’s “war costume” (military uniform) to get diner discounts; Gretchen swipes a book store owner’s cat; they steal a car together while on drugs. Yet they complement each other’s worst qualities so well that their couple status works.
The people who do things you might do if you didn’t have a moral compass.
Haven’t you ever wanted to force your niece to take a dance class so you could meet famous showbiz parents? Secretly transform your boss’s restaurant into an eatery that only serves delicious food on the children’s menu? Meet Billy and Julie in “Difficult People,” Hulu’s comedy that premiered over the summer. The duo — underemployed aspiring comedians — spends every episode mocking everyone around them, and acting in thoughtless, completely self-centered ways that you might secretly wish could happen in real life.
Same with Abbi and Ilana in “Broad City,” who traipse around New York City having all kinds of 20-something adventures (skipping work and getting out of bad parties with elaborate lies), scamming everyone and having little to no filter on any of their thoughts. Kind of horrifying — and also kind of tempting, which is why viewers tune in.