- Connecticut Critic
In 2008, actress and comedienne Colleen Ballinger started posting YouTube videos as Miranda Sings, an untalented and delusional wannabe diva with a propensity for hysterics, malapropisms and a heavy application of red lipstick. Since then, Miranda has become one of the best comic creations of the Internet age – a perfect, fun house mirror embodiment of web culture gone wrong. She has toured the world in solo stage shows, accrued millions of video views and written a New York Times bestseller. While her devoted fan base is largely made up of tweens and teens, she has also found a home within the musical theater community. Not just does Miranda have a love of Broadway, she’s collaborated with the likes of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Seth Rudetsky, Shoshana Bean and Ariana Grande. Now, Miranda has her own series, an ambitious, funny and somewhat uneven Netflix show called “Haters Back Off,” which explores the mysterious character’s backstory.
For the first half of the season, “Haters” is an amusing and quirky domestic comedy that drew me in right away. Part of that may be that I too, like Miranda, was homeschooled, that I too was (and am) an aspiring performer who has posted YouTube videos, I too have a family member with fibromyalgia (although a medically diagnosed version). It may have been the similarities that peaked my interest, but it was the eccentric cast of characters that made me stay. Over the first few episodes we meet Miranda’s single mom Bethany (“The Office’s” Angela Kinsey, in turn quietly hysterical and heartbreakingly pitiful), a hypochondriacal grocery store clerk who wears wrist splints for attention, her schlubby Uncle Jim (a very funny and slightly creepy Steve Little) who shares Miranda’s dream of stardom and her overlooked, artistically talented sister Emily (Francesca Reale, making a very strong television debut). With the exception of Miranda’s friend and potential love interest Patrick (Erik Stocklin, channeling Jon Heder), who sells ice pops out of the back of his bike, the action largely centers on Miranda’s nuclear family. This is a smart move by Ballinger and her co-creator (and brother) Christopher Ballinger as the show’s weakest moments often occur when we leave their ramshackle house for too long. Although a talented enough comic actor, Chaz Lamar Stepherd mostly distracts from the main attraction as a local pastor with an unusual fetish.
Here we see Miranda posting her first YouTube video under the tutelage of her idiotic uncle, the first step in Jim’s terrible plan to make Miranda a famous singer-actor-dancer-model-magician (don’t ask). She also tries to book her first gig, join the church choir and star in a disastrous, homemade version of “Annie.” That episode, “Staring in a Musicall,” is not just one of the show’s funniest (once you accept cringe-worthy idea of an incestuous relationship between the red-haired orphan and her rich adopted Daddy) but the moment when you realize Ballinger is going for something a bit richer and more audacious than previously expected.
Like “BoJack Horseman,” another Netflix series on the flipside of fame, “Haters” is a show split in two. For long stretches of time it is a quirky and slightly cartoony family comedy. There are hints of “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” and “Arrested Development” in the stilted dialogue, larger-than-life characters, awkward pauses and off-kilter camera angles. The material is witty but broad, with pratfalls and double entendres. A great comedic set piece in the first episode involves Uncle Jim’s disastrous video shoot at pet store. But as the show goes on, things become increasingly dark and tragic. It’s a great direction for the show to go in and Ballinger pulls off the herculean task of making Miranda pitiable (if not always likeable), resulting in a memorable and surprisingly devastating finale where an on-stage Miranda asks a question of such monumental pain and uncharacteristic lucidity that you almost feel bad about laughing at her over the previous eight episodes.
But perhaps that’s the problem. Ballinger wants Miranda to be a laughingstock and a deeply wounded leading character we can empathize with. That duality is not impossible (again, see “BoJack Horseman’s” stellar second and third season) but Colleen and Chris Ballinger are not quite yet strong enough filmmakers to pull it off. When you follow an episode where Miranda rides on a homemade parade float made to look like Uncle Jim on all fours next to one where the entire family fights like characters in a Tracy Letts drama, neither end up playing as strongly as they could have.
The root of the problem isn’t Miranda herself but placing her in a wider context. On stage and in three-minute videos, Miranda looks like the cross between a crazy cat lady and a clown, talks with the oddest of inflections and is rude, brash and hyper-egomaniacal. In those mediums, it works because she exists in her own universe. When placed alongside other human beings (some of whom are outlandish, others who are vaguely normal), you begin to view Miranda differently. She is not just an overly confident caricature but a delusional, emotionally stilted and seemingly mentally ill woman of indeterminate age who shares a folie a deux with her desperate and dim uncle. With the exception of Emily, who provides the show’s only voice of reason, everyone else is either clueless to Miranda’s eccentricities or too selfish to care, which makes her quest for fame far more depressing than the YouTube videos suggest.
“Haters Back Off” is a bit lopsided and perhaps tries to be the servant of too many masters. It wants to be family friendly and winkingly naughty, a light, quirky sitcom and a dark comedic satire, a show that wants you to mock and then sympathize with its cast of crazy characters. It doesn’t always work and yet I can’t help but recommend “Haters Back Off” to those who like daring and offbeat comedies. There were many moments that made me laugh out loud and others that left me shockingly moved. I hope Ballinger gets a second season to continue Miranda’s story, a parable of 21st century fame we haven’t yet seen. She is a huge talent and a very brave writer for taking a marketable YouTube character and giving her such a complicated and gloomy world to live in. The bargain pays off and I can only assume Ballinger (unlike her alter-ego Miranda) will keep improving and honing her skills both as a comedian and a filmmaker.