There's a quote in Jia Tolentino's recent essay collection Trick Mirror about how hard it is to be a good person online: "It makes communication about morality very easy, but makes actual moral living very hard". That tension is at the core of Why Are You Like This, a new six-part ABC/Netflix comedy that follows the travails of three 20-somethings – Penny, Mia and Austin – in Melbourne, attempting to navigate their lives with internet-literate moral superiority (while failing in egocentricity).
Co-created and written by comedian Naomi Higgins, Aunty Donna's Mark Bonanno, and illustrator/lawyer Humyara Mahbub, Why Are You Like This is Australia's answer to the immoral millennial ennui of Search Party crossed with the "no hugs, no learning" philosophy of Curb Your Enthusiasm. It's the most transgressive thing the public broadcaster has shown in years.
"There are a lot of people online who would tell you to see things as black and white and there's a right in the wrong, but the actual world isn't like that," Higgins, the show's Penny and co-creator tells MTV Australia. "Sure, they're right about a lot of things… but, I think one of the things we wanted to do with the show, is demonstrate how putting that stuff into practice doesn't always go the way you want it to."
Those failed progressive betterments include Penny mercilessly embarrassing a co-worker (played by a wonderfully understated Lawrence Leung) she believes to be homophobic into admitting he is gay, accidentally getting all the female workers fired in a regressive workplace by unionising them, or Mia attempting to wrangle the sexualisation of a young female cosplayer into Patreon profitability for herself. For Higgins, "no learning" from any of these moral quandaries is key to the characters.
"When characters grow, then they have to get better and that's boring to me. Sorry. I don't think that's very true to life; people don't grow that much in real life," she says. "Although there are shows with heart that I like, I prefer shows without it."
It also incisively reflects the way moments online can feel immense, permanent and consequential for the world one day and then entirely ephemeral and meaningless the next. There's almost nothing to be learnt from the divisive discourse other than that it will repeat itself over and over.
MTV speaks to Higgins via Zoom on her birthday, while in the last day of Melbourne's short, sharp five-day lockdown. It's a fitting period to chat, as Why Are You Like This is also likely the only debut television series to have been produced largely under Melbourne's four-month period of strict COVID-19 restrictions. Higgins grimaces as she recounts the stifling rules during that time on set.
"Right before they call action, you take your face masks off and put them in a GLAD bag, put the GLAD bag in your pocket, while making sure you can't see the GLAD bag. I would be worried that if my makeup had rubbed off my nose and I had a red nose. I'm sure I definitely do in some shots. And then you have to put [the mask] back on, and go and sit two meters away from everyone," she recalls.
Some of Why Are You Like This' influences are helpfully framed behind her in poster form: Broad City and It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. A singlet-wearing Mark Bonanno floats into Zoom shot momentarily – his presence in the show is a marked departure from the surreal absurdity of Aunty Donna. Higgins articulated Bonanno's differing creative pipes in a flow-chart on her Instagram: "silly" thoughts go to Aunty Donna, "cunty" ones go to Why Are You Like This.
"I think it's really fun for Mark to do something that is so different to Aunty Donna. They have their own style and they are completely apolitical and our show is like the fucking opposite of that," she says.
Much of Why Are You Like This' situations and characterisation are heightened autobiography from Higgins and co-creator Mahbub – the mutual exchange of their friendship manifests between Mia (played by Neighbours' Olivia Junkeer) and Penny. Their real life traits are somewhat muddled between them – Higgins says she funnelled all her "bullying tendencies" into Mia to create more character friction – but they otherwise reflect the nihilistic, progressive fervour of their respective early 20s.
"I'd say Penny's closer to who I was a few years ago. And it's back in that early twenties phase, I think, especially women go through this. Where you just realise how shit the world is, and you're just so angry, and you just want to change it," Higgins explained.
"A few years later, you just get tired. And so you're able to look back at it and laugh a little more. And it's been really fun to go back and play that kind of character, but then go home and sleep at night and feel fine. Not feel like I have to save the world every single day."
Why Are You Like This remains focused on the universality of this experience to avoid becoming a parochial series of Melbourne in-jokes about coffee, laneways or hating The Herald Sun. That's a large part of why its 2018 pilot, part of the ABC's 'Fresh Blood' program, caught the eye of Netflix for an international release later this year. But despite its international pedigree, Why Are You Like This' greatest triumph still feels like its ability to exist on Australian television, an increasingly stodgy and uncreative place.
"I'm very grateful that ABC gave us money," Higgins says. "I can't think of anywhere else on Australian TV with a youth bent at all. Like on the streaming services, there's stuff for young people, but on the main networks, not so much unless we're talking about reality television."
The show's lifeblood is more the absurdities of online than generational identity however – and Higgins' only ambition for the second season is more of the same.
"I just want to put them through more hell. I'll just wait for someone else to say something stupid on Twitter, so I can go 'lets put that in'. There's always going to be more discourse."
All six episodes of 'Why Are You Like This' are currently streaming on ABC iView, before an international Netflix release later this year. Watch the trailer below.
Words and interview by Josh Martin, a Melbourne-based freelance music and media writer with words in MTV Australia, NME, Junkee, Crikey, etc. Follow him on Twitter @joshmartjourn.
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