Given my track record of really enjoying deeply flawed or outright horrible people in movies and television, I don’t know why I was initially so unsure about whether or not to watch the Australian series Why Are You Like This, which is now streaming on Netflix. I guess I was worried that a story about three young people who want to find simplistic fixes for the world, but who are “blissfully ignorant of all the people they torment,” would be more cringe than binge, but I was mistaken. Instead, I happily crammed all six episodes into my brain as quickly as humanly possible, and I’m hoping that more episodes are on their way.
Penny (Naomi Higgins), Mia (Olivia Junkeer), and Austin (Wil King), three twenty-somethings living in Melbourne, are extremely socially literate about many hot button issues, including LGBTQA+ rights, mental health, workplace sexism, climate change, and cancel culture. Or, at least inside their own bubble, they are. What they lack is much actual life experience or perspective that might help them see beyond their myopic and self-righteous views to understand the nuance and complexity of, well, pretty much everything and anything. Penny, who works at a male-dominated tech company, and Austin, who is trying to make it on the drag circuit (his current persona is Jon Benet-RamsMe), live together in what can only be described as an aspirational house. I don’t know much about Melbourne real estate, but I still have many questions about how they can afford it, and if they can hook me up with their realtor. Mia has been, in her own words, fired from a lot of jobs recently. She identifies as bisexual and also identifies very strongly with her Muslim culture, even as she adamantly rejects some of the more observant aspects of the religion.
Look, there’s bound to be a lot of chatter about how this show is all about internet culture and social media, and, sure, that is what drives so much today, but I think this show is pretty universal in the way that it talks about the cynicism and moral superiority that is endemic to young people (but also not just young people) across generations. I’ve read several reviews talking about how these people are just the literal worst, but, in the immortal words of Rebecca Bunch in the opening credits of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, “The situation’s a lot more nuanced than that.” These are people that often intend to do the right thing, but don’t think the situation through fully or fail to understand someone else’s perspective, which makes them many things, but none of them qualify as outright horrible. A lot of the scenarios are based on the experiences of the creators Mark Samual Bonanno, Naomi Higgins, and Humyara Mahbub, which I feel adds to the likeability because these characters are based on people reflecting on their own missteps. Plus, I just find the show very, very funny.
In the first episode, which differs somewhat in tone from the other five, as her boss tries to fire her for not doing any work, Mia makes counterclaims that he’s “imposing white normative regulations in order to erase my culture.” When he points out that wearing shoes is just expected. And, he adds, that another Muslim woman in the office said that Mia’s five 15-minute breaks a day (plus lunch) do not coincide with actual times for Muslim prayer, Mia responds that “it’s very sad to hear Fatima is a worse Muslim than me. I will pray for Fatima.” Mia also turned another woman’s phone to silent because it was “triggering her anxiety,” which caused the woman to miss a phone call about her father dying. Only slightly daunted, Mia continues to berate him, saying that she’s the only woman of color in the office, even as only people visible in the background appear to be women of color. Then he mentions she’ll receive a severance package, at which point Mia changes her tune entirely. Is she the worst in this specific situation? Absolutely. But is she also funny and somehow still likeable because we’re in on how ridiculous she’s being? And also because she’s talking about very real workplace issues? Also yes, at least for me. Her intentions aren’t meant as harmful; she’s just so wrapped up in herself that she can’t empathize with others. Did I just make her sound like a sociopath?
Later, she’s utterly convinced she can inseminate cows because she watched some videos on Youtube. I promise that makes sense if you watch the show. Meanwhile, when a man at Penny’s work isn’t totally gung-ho about her glitter and rainbow-filled plans for a Day of Queer and Trans Visibility, she assumes he’s homophobic. She is, without any real evidence to support her assumptions, irate and convinced she can’t just stand by. After much hullabaloo and public shaming of the coworker, she learns that he’s actually very gay and very out, but just not so into big parties about it. And if this feels absolutely too over the top for you, please do note that the show itself gains self-awareness.
In perhaps my favorite episode, Penny goes to train a company on some new technology for their invoicing and is outraged to learn that the women, who are far more more tech savvy than the male employees, are maligned to lesser-paid office jobs by their cheerfully sexist and racist boss. Penny immediately rallies them to revolt, but she does so without thinking through the possible consequences, and ends up getting them all laid off.
Meanwhile, Mia’s menstrual cup gets stuck in her self-described “very tall vagina” and she has to enlist Austin’s help to try to remove it. Ironically, it was only the day before that she was lecturing Penny about using tampons, which would end up hooked together and floating in the ocean like otters. (Side note: This is the third show I have watched in recent memory that has someone needing help unsticking a tampon or menstrual cup. I love the menstrual representation, but worry this will make people unnecessarily anxious about internal menstrual capturing methods.) Anyway, Austin is none too keen to help and offers that they go to a “womany doctor” instead. Mia tells him that some old doctor will just write “haunted cervix in his little notebook and tell me to fuck off.” She goes on to say that the doctors once didn’t believe she had lost her contraceptive implant until she “literally had a heart attack.” Friends, I alway, always appreciate a show that calls out systemic medical bias, and bonus points for one that makes it funny.
Mia and Austin end up having a face-off about who is oppressed more, Austin, who wants to have sex with the man in his room, or Mia, who has a silicone chalice of blood stuck in her vagina. Honestly, if you don’t see the potential for humor in that situation, I strongly advise you find another show to watch. Because later Mia is going to decide that decolonizing her vagina is activism, there’s going to be a whole thing about brown girls vs. drunk white girls in the club bathrooms, a lot about cancel culture, some musings on kindness (or not) during Ramadan, accidentally sexually exploiting a cosplay teenager, a drag show about poverty, coming to terms with the horrors of the patriarchy, and a pretty touching take on depression.
I think another part of what makes this show work is that Austin, Mia, and Penny accept, appreciate, and maybe even celebrate each other’s flaws and faults. Look, in some way or another we’re all not great people in someone else’s eyes. We all make mistakes. We all think we have things figured out until we try to fix something and realize we cause an avalanche of bad shit. Sexuality, sexism, patriarchy, these are all sticky, messy, depressing things that you can’t fix with a glitter party or extorting a few skeevy guys, but it’s immensely fun to watch these people try and fail and finally fall back on their friendship with each other. I, for one, hope to see much more of these people who are sometimes awful, sometimes kind, and almost always funny.