There’s a class of people who are, at their very core, endlessly annoying. Usually white, vaguely artistic, and vocally educated, they ooze privilege while denying it. The downwardly mobile, as a professor of mine once put it. Young people with maybe too many options.
But it’s not just a bunch of hipsters or whatever. This is as old as time. Or at least as old as color TV. Rob Reiner’s hippie “Meathead” on All in the Family. Jack in Three’s Company.
Or, take the ultimate sitcom of 1980s and its female lead. She may look like a yuppie, and have some of the trappings of a yuppie, but she is no yuppie:
“You know, I should tell you, parenthetically, that you are the first people that I have ever served. In fact, if anyone had told me a week ago that I would be doing this, I would have thought them insane. When Sam over there offered me the job, I laughed in his face. But then it occurred to me, here I am, I’m a student — not just in an academic sense, but a student of life. And where better than here to study life in all its many facets. People meet in bars, they part, they rejoice, they suffer, they come here to be with their own kind. What can I get you?”
Diane Chambers was the original snobby, elite, too-smart-for-her-own-good it girl. Every week through the first five seasons of Cheers, audiences would watch as she stumbled over a go-nowhere non-career, to the chagrin of her well-off and well-educated parents.
We see Diane waiver between the complete confidence of privilege and the despair when that privilege fails her. We see her expect the best for herself without contributing anything to the world. We see her look down at her “working class” coworkers. We see her proudly pledge her dedication to feminism and we see her constantly compromise those same values.
And, as the audience, we’re supposed to hate her for that privilege, but also, like Sam Malone, her on-again-off-again boyfriend played by the forever-handsome Ted Danson, love her for it.
In her neon silk blouses, straight bangs and occasional shoulder-padded blazer, she’s like the ultimate cuddly hipster. Try as she might to be too-cool-for-school, her constant fuckups and breakdowns play to our own hearts, even if she’s quoting John Donne poems or forcing a barful of drunks to stage Othello.
And it made sense to toy with these class divides. The early 1980s in particular were a shit time — we were in a recession, unemployment was through the roof, the culture was (as always) shifting, and blue-collar jobs were being replaced by technology or sent abroad. The sports-loving, beer-swilling regular Joes at the bar were getting hit the worse. Of course Diane seemed like some kind of hell mutant. Of course she was annoying. Of course it was cathartic for people to tune in every week to watch her make a fool of herself. She was the enemy, even if (sometimes) we could see in her insecurity little bits of ourselves. We had to hate her to care about her.
After the show left the air in 1992, or maybe even earlier, when Diane was replaced by Kirstie Alley’s Rebecca — complex and annoying in her own right — TV lost that voice. But we see its echos in the bookish nerdy girls: Lisa Simpson, Rory Gilmore, and the messes, a Rachel, a Monica and a Pheobe mixed together, a Lisa Miller from News Radio. And we hear it in Jess in The New Girl and in Leslie Knope’s endless optimism. But more than anything, we see her working at Grumpy’s in Brooklyn. Girls is no Sex in the City. It’s just a Cheers with less community: we’re supposed to hate Hannah, we’re supposed to think the characters are ridiculous. Good TV exercises our societal fears and struggles — and the downwardly mobile are low-hanging fruit. In a time when everything’s going down the tubes, the ultimate entertainment catharsis is to hate the ones who are doing it on purpose.