Millennials are a cringe. Everyone thinks that. I know because I am one, and I think it myself. We reminisce too much about MSN Messenger and know too much about Harry Potter. But, to my relief, it also turns out that we are geriatrics when it comes to the zeitgeist. Watching the almost abrasively acerbic Australian comedy Why Are You Like This, which arrives on Netflix this weekend, gave me the same sinking feeling as when I realised that all of the pop stars are younger than me now. The trio of Very Online twentysomethings at the show’s heart are unapologetically Gen Z, and it’s their turn to be parodied.
The three main characters have no time for fragility – and if they do feel a bit sad, they express it through memes. Penny (Naomi Higgins, also one of the show’s writers) is on the quest to be the perfect ally: forcing her company to run mental health seminars and have a Queer Visibility Day is her meat and drink. Her friend Mia (Olivia Junkeer), who keeps losing her job, extorts money from men on dating apps and chastises Penny for not wearing her Mooncup. Their flatmate Austin (Wil King) has an evening gig as a drag queen – his persona is murdered child pageant princess JonBenet Ramsay.
If these characters sound insufferable, that’s because they are. Watching the show can sometimes feel like having your Twitter timeline shout at you for 20 minutes, and anyone who didn’t grow up with the internet will probably be faintly bemused. But the show smartly and affectionately unpicks why this internet-savvy generation are always so keen to start arguments, revealing the economic instability that underpins their existence. In a world where jobs and housing feel constantly insecure, these over-educated but under-paid characters weaponise their fluency in identity politics to terrorise their clueless elders, who are tone-deaf and terrified of being cancelled.
The internet, which rules their lives, is an absurd place. In her brilliant debut novel this year, Patricia Lockwood cleverly spoofed how people can become influential voices on social media by crafting surreal nonsense (her narrator’s livelihood is based on a viral tweet that said ‘can a dog be twins’). Why Are You Like This captures the darker side of the nonsense, exploring how a well-intentioned fury at social inequality can end up manifesting itself in inane and militant ways. Penny is hell-bent on proving her colleague is a homophobe – the fact he doesn’t watch RuPaul’s Drag Race is the ultimate proof – until it turns out that he is, in fact, gay. Elsewhere, a boomer manager ends up deferring to a chart of who is allowed to talk over whom in order of their oppressed social status.
Many lines feel like they are ready-made memes. “If I get murdered, I don’t want any political discourse” and “White men: it’s like they want me NOT to f*** them” are two choice utterances from Mia. “I’m aware of the pressures of late capitalism, Richard,” says Penny. I can already see this being tweeted in response to mansplaining centrist dads all over Twitter. It’s an indication of just how far the blunt, lower-case vernacular of the internet has seeped into the way we speak in real life. Even the title of the show itself comes from a meme.
But the show also hints at an exhaustion felt by the characters, most particularly by Austin, who finds himself googling: how to motivate yourself to leave the house when you are tired but there are no underlying symptoms (I can relate). In a fast-moving, take-no-prisoners online discourse of their own crafting, they must always be one step ahead, catching out others and always getting it right themselves. Economic instability is one thing, but the censorious climate of the internet makes everyone feel on edge. The digital realm is a puritanical hellscape. The innocent MSN Messenger days are dead. Maybe allowing us to laugh about that will be one step to calming the place down.
Why Are You Like This is on Netflix