Colleen Ballinger’s alter-ego Miranda Sings parodies all of the negative things the term “YouTube personality” has come to imply: minimal to no talent, an inflated ego and a phony persona. So when you find out Miranda’s getting a show on Netflix, you’re expecting a “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” for the internet age in the form of a heavily lipsticked young woman living in a funhouse flooded with the echoes of shrieky singing, walls cluttered with finger-painted self portraits and maybe a few unusual puppet pals. That type of quirky surrealism could have lent itself well to Miranda’s offbeat vibe. Instead, television Miranda — as featured on “Haters Back Off” — lives a frumpy family life, appropriately filmed in desaturated, unflattering lighting.
Miranda lives in a dreary, cluttered suburban home with her hypochondriac mother Bethany (Angela Kinsey), bookish sister Emily (played with impeccable deadpan comedic timing by Francesca Reale) and Uncle Jim (Steve Little), with whom she shares a disquietingly close relationship.
With the help of her uncle, she uploads her first video to YouTube. Miranda mugs for the camera and wails a rendition of “Defying Gravity” — wide-eyed, passionate, utterly talentless. By the time the video reaches 52 views, she’s off to the races and ready to appear at fan meet and greets, hit the Broadway stage and embark on a world tour. It’s all a part of Uncle Jim’s delusional “Five Phase Plan for Fame.”
Featuring the first YouTube personality to get a television deal, “Haters Back Off” expands Miranda Sings’ world into the realm of (fictional) human interaction. You get to see her having conversations and living life outside of a camera setup. But we sadly don’t get the same Miranda we get on YouTube.
For starters, the show presents Miranda as a selfish, unsympathetic imbecile. Miranda isn’t exactly cuddly on her YouTube channel, but sustained on an eight-episode television series she comes off as just plain abrasive. She steps all over the nice ice cream boy Patrick (Erik Stocklin), taking advantage of his love and kindness for her to advance her nonexistent career. When Emily applies to art school, she finds that Miranda has completely ruined her paintings, having pasted macaroni and glitter to the canvases. It’s an even combination of idiocy and self obsession.
As an online personality, she is at least likeable, albeit in a self-absorbed, painfully awkward way. We’re seeing two different Mirandas, therefore making her characterization uneven across platforms. The problem is that when you pull Miranda Sings from the confines of a 480 pixel internet video and onto a Netflix television show, you are transplanting her from the alternate universe of the internet to a more realistic (yet still bizarre) television world, where her antics come across as harsh and entirely not charming.
Still, there is an attempt to make Miranda less of an anomaly by positioning her alongside a cast of characters that is just as absurd, but none of whom are particularly funny. Her mother dates Pastor Keith (Chaz Lamar Shepherd) — a man with a “fetish for sick people.” Then, of course, there’s Uncle Jim, the unemployed uncle who is far too concerned with making Miranda famous. There are at least a couple of inappropriate, cringeworthy jokes between him and his niece. For example, he rewrites “Annie” to make Daddy Warbucks Annie’s love interest. Frankly though, the character is disturbing, and not in a guilty pleasure way either. Ballinger’s script leans unnecessarily heavily on the weird uncle-niece relationship for forced laughs.
“Haters Back Off,” strangely, may have had more appeal had it stuck to the hot pink, lipstick-stained shtick you see on YouTube. All Colleen Ballinger had to do was replicate her brilliant performance as Miranda and capitalize on what has worked. The backstory and naturalistic filming style seen on the show isn’t necessary for us to love her. In this experiment of fleshing out a YouTube personality, the show diminishes the power of the character’s parody.
In a surprisingly emotional season finale, Miranda stands on stage, uncharacteristically humiliated as an audience laughs at her delusions of love. She says, “Why is it funny that someone would love me?”
Miranda, trust us, we really want to love you. But the fancy new television series isn’t required for us to do so.