As humans, we’re needy as hell; we crave attention. It doesn’t matter whether we are at our very worst or our utmost best, we long for eyes on us, to validate our experiences. We’re like emotion addicts, always scratching ourselves, eager for the next fix. Each of us has the intrinsic desire to be seen, to be heard, and to be understood. It’s a selfish want, one that produces inside of us a euphoric thrill when we see someone in a similar predicament as us; if we are broken down and bereft, it makes us feel good to see someone else just as low. Conversely, when we’re high as hell on enthusiasm clouds, we cheer other people on who are equally as elated. It’s pretty much science.
Media in general is a powerful tool when it comes to empathy. Television in particular creates artificial relationships between fictional characters and us, the viewers, that are so palatable that we treat them with veneration. None of us knew Jon Stewart (not well enough to go golfing with him, at least) but he was, during his reign, the most trusted personality in media. How is that possible? It’s because he made us feel seen. He represented a voice for the masses, an underdog voice, and he made us feel validation knowing that someone else cared about issues like corruption and injustice. When he was mad, we were mad. When he was sad, so were we. Jon Stewart was part of the nation’s extended family—yet none of us actually met the man.
Shows have power—the kind of power that creates trust. Tori Amos once said, “The sexiest thing is trust.” It’s seductive, It’s pleasurable, and it’s comforting. So how could we possibly trust someone we’ve never met? We trust people who remind us of ourselves, often to detrimental effect—after all, we’re not all trustworthy. But despite the risk of being hurt, we trust anyway. We trust freely. As viewers, we look for characters we can trust. Relatable characters are what we feed on.
I’m not saying you need to get out more. I’m saying you need to get out my office.
It’s easy to see ourselves in the characters from the Brooklyn College series Unproductive. They are essentially a series of tropes: there’s the bitter heart throb jilted by the confused girl trying to find herself, there’s the angsty lesbian coming to terms with homophobic parents, there’s the sheltered virginal girl who’s new in town and whose arrives shakes things up, there’s the awkward, quirky nerd with social anxiety who learns to breathe, there’s the harsh but well-meaning professor whose unorthodox teaching is ultimately the most rewarding, and of course there’s the Black comedic relief—because you always have to have the Black comedic relief, I guess.
These characters are cookie cutter versions of ourselves. But are they truly relatable? Surely straight people watching Sam struggle with her identity have never felt what she felt. Certainly sexually active people can’t relate to Bracha’s callowness. In fact, I doubt anyone who isn’t a college kid knows the stress these characters endure trying to meet deadlines and finish their projects without chewing each other’s heads off. Add TV and Radio majors to the mix and you have a pretty niche audience you’re catering to
GUISE THIS IS LITERALLY ME WOW MUCH RELATABILITY.
So are these people relatable? Of course they are. Because regardless of the specifics, we have all had stages in our lives like these characters. Everyone’s been Bracha at some point in their life: naive, unassuming, eager to take on the world until they actually see how hard that really is. Everyone’s had a dilemma like Sam’s—sexuality aside— by simply being your own person when your parents want you to be their dream child. Everyone has been—or will be—heart broken at some point in their life like Ben. And everyone will break a heart like Cate did.
I am a feeble human being and my happiness and success is dependent on our relationship!
These characters are human. Their archetypes are universal. They are the stereotypes of every college kid across the country. And they make decisions we don’t always like. But so do the people we love; and so do we. These characters are flawed, and more relatable because of it.
Friends—how many of us have them? Friends—the ones we can depend on… to exploit our deepest insecurities. #BFFs
That’s not to say they’re likeable—relatability and likeability are two separate entities. I’m completely unimpressed by these characters, their narcissism and their lack of maturity and self-awareness. I think Ben is a bumbling, bratty loser with a Tom Hansen complex and an inability to think any original thoughts. In fact, I think all of these characters would fit perfectly in M.T. Anderson sci-fi satire ‘Feed’ with their lack of identity that isn’t media-centric and unoriginal.
FEED my meter. COINCIDENCE? I think not.
I think the characters—including Professor Parker— use Bracha and Cate as scapegoats for their horrible personalities and decisions. That’s not to say those two are perfect—I think Cate is totally self-serving but blameless, and Bracha is a try-hard geek but equally guilt-free—however, accountability for entire friendships crumbling has to be evenly divided. But nobody wants to own up to it. Everyone in this show has a serious case of BPD. Oh, and the Black comedic relief was just that, nothing more. I know he has a name—Theo— but like no one cares, Deborah.
She’s looking for ways to appeal to angsty Tumblr-users watching—she’s considering henna.
However, disliking the characters doesn’t dehumanize them—it makes them more real. Real people do things that aren’t always ideal. Real people make mistakes. Real people are selfish. Real people are immature. And real people like the cast of Unproductive inhabit the world. Relatability is the center of humanity; Unproductive knows this and exploits it shamelessly. Whenever it seems like the characters can’t get any more relatable, they stop, look you straight in the eyes, and say, “Is that what you want Mary? You want more relatability?” then proceed to pull you deeper and deeper into their world—more than likely with a cheesy movie quote.
The best shows appeal to that guttural desire we all have to be understood, to be seen, and to be related to, and these are the shows that do the best. How else do you think shows like ‘How To Get Away With Murder’ fare so well? Look at their adorable smiles!
I relate to these casual killers so hard!
*repeats that outloud*
On second thought… *pulls out Bible* maybe I watch too much TV, let me go pray.