Film

Netflix Kills the YouTube Star in ‘Haters Back Off!,’ a Comedy About the Joys of Hatin’

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Haters Back Off!, a new eight-episode comedy streaming on Netflix, is about putting yourself out there, ignoring the haters, following your dreams no matter who or what stands in your way and utterly humiliating yourself on YouTube. Also at church socials, gay bars, funerals, rest homes — really anywhere Miranda Sings opens her mouth — with the viewer rooting for more and greater humiliations because this fame-obsessed teen is so narcissistic, cruel, controlling, delusional, sullen, phlegmatic and homeschooled that you can barely stand to be on the same internet as her.

In that regard it’s a mean-spirited show, bringing out our worst impulses — that desire to see a delusional teen with no talent destroyed — but that’s OK. It’s a dark comedy. You’re supposed to feel this way. And it feels very good watching so unsympathetic a character (the sort who berates her mom for failing to give her an A-plus on her homeschool quiz) get her comeuppances — until, of course, it suddenly doesn’t, which happens with great force in the season ender, when we’re forced to reckon with just what we have wished for. But that happens later; there’s a whole season of hatin’ to get through first!

The Netflix show is the origin story of lipstick-smeared Miranda Sings, a real-life YouTube character created by comedian and (actually very good!) singer Colleen Ballinger. She’s been posting videos of Miranda wretchedly singing pop songs in her bedroom since 2008, satirizing the many fame-hungry yet vocally challenged singers belting out covers on YouTube. She’s done her job well — Miranda sounds like Ariana Grande after stepping on a flash grenade — and her YouTube channel has more than one billion views, putting her in the top echelon of YouTube stars, with comedy tours and a best-selling book, Selp-Helf.

In the Netflix show, Ballinger fleshes out the home life of Miranda, making her the despot of a dysfunctional ranch-house kingdom in Tacoma, Washington. It looks like a dinner-table primetime family comedy, but strewn with microwaved Lunchables, existing on the same weird block as Napoleon Dynamite or Malcolm in the Middle‘s more cough-syrupy episodes. (One delightfully strange recurring joke is Miranda devouring ice cream in front of her house; you can almost imagine Napoleon peeking at her through the curtains next door.) Her fantastically enabling mom, Bethany (The Office‘s Angela Kinsey), is quietly horrified by Miranda’s attempts to become famous, but she has her own issues, like grappling with “undiagnosed fibromyalgia,” which doesn’t exist, and wooing a suitor who has an illness fetish. Also on her list is homeschooling Miranda by giving her As with an ever-expanding series of pluses to keep her quiet.

In this ramshackle house — it’s so cluttered with the detritus of Middle American life that it could be an art installation about the decline of the suburbs — Miranda and Uncle Jim, played at full tilt by Steve Little (Eastbound & Down), plot their absurd schemes to make Miranda famous. Uncle Jim is Miranda’s manager-slash-biggest fan, who propels the show along with his childlike “five-phase plan for fame” (working as a magician is #5) when he’s not having “innocent” conversations with Miranda full of creepy subtext. (“Oh, some cream shot out of my package!” he says when opening his Lunchables and some frosting squirts on Miranda. “Oh, that’s all right, it landed on my buns!” she replies. “I like them extra sticky.”) The designated normal, Miranda’s sister Emily (Francesca Reale), spends her time painting, reading philosophy and plotting her escape.

After Miranda posts a video (titled “My Fist Video,” delightfully) in the first episode of her singing “Defying Gravity,” the views pile up, the haters crawl into the comments and Haters Back Off! seems hellbent on sending Miranda into viral infamy, à la Rebecca Black. Instead, it feints. How you wish it didn’t. How you wish this self-involved character got shamed nationwide from the get-go, but that would be unwrapping the show’s promised gift too soon, and well before it stirs some sympathy. Instead, Miranda spends the rest of the season engaged in more terrestrial quests for fame, each more disastrous than the last.

She sings at a rest home (if you’re nice to the elderly you’ll get their stuff), she sings for a movie producer (he dies during the song), then she sings at his funeral (she was supposed to deliver a eulogy). Most of these plot lines are enjoyable but forgettable, save for the hilarious and highly inappropriate staging of Annie in her backyard, which Uncle Jim rewrites as a love story between Annie and Daddy Warbucks, giving Jim and Miranda’s creepy-uncle subtext all the room it needs to really gross you out. Also nice is her unhinged “All That Jazz” performance in a karaoke gay bar (she thinks it’s Seattle’s finest theater).

Haters Back Off! is peppered with funny dialogue (when she’s asked by a choir member if she’s alto or soprano, Miranda says, “I’m an American”), but it’s ultimately all about Ballinger showing off her Miranda. She’s had years to hone her star’s mannerisms and tics, and they’re a joy to watch, from the frown of her resting face to her awkward dancing to the way she stomps out of rooms, which the camera never fails to catch.

The cartoon quality of the show keeps the darker questions at bay, but there are legions: Why is Miranda so cruel? Why can’t she see herself as she is? Has she ever been diagnosed? Is her mother to blame? In a scene where Bethany and Jim have to share a bed for the night, the show makes a mockery of real familial affection. The two bond over bread. Jim compliments Bethany’s choice of bread — “even if it’s from the day-old shelf” — and they share a fond memory of discovering that bread works just fine as a hot dog bun, for those times when you don’t have a hot dog bun. Before they drift off to sleep, Jim loudly hocks up something disgusting, breaking the sweet mood caused by … bread.

In some ways, the series end can’t come fast enough. What starts as an exploration of going viral online turns into a bumbling trip down the entertainment back alleys of church choirs, CD-release parties and magic shows. The promise of the first episode — that Miranda would go truly viral, breaking her world apart — is teased at the very end, but not before she suffers through her greatest humiliation yet. But after hearing her devastating words shouted at a mocking audience — “Why are you laughing? Why is it funny that someone would love me?” — suddenly we’re not in the mood to see her get hurt anymore.

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