Haters Back Off: Horrifying, sad, awful, and gutsy

I like Miranda Sings quite a bit. Colleen Ballinger’s Youtube show is a master class in spoof humor. It takes on home schooling, the mindset of children, popular Youtube trends, and modern political issues all through the lens of an egotistical singer who is delightfully terrible at singing. It hits way more often than it misses, and is an electric display of the extreme talent Ballinger has for writing, directing, and acting a one-woman show.

Netflix’s Haters Back Off has almost none of these qualities. It’s a reboot/origin story for Miranda Sings, with an extremely dark tone and many questionable writing decisions.

It’s also one of the best slow burn emotional gut- punches I’ve ever watched.

I’ve never been more conflicted about a piece of television. I will try not to spoil too much plot-critical stuff in the discussion below, so read with confidence if you haven’t watched it yet.

I think this Netflix Square(tm) originally just said “Haters Back Off,” but someone wisely added the Miranda Sings part. It’s nothing like the Youtube Miranda Sings show.

Set in a version of Tacoma, Washington that’s obviously actually a suburb of Vancouver, Canada, Haters Back Off tells the story of Miranda(Colleen Ballinger), a home-schooled child/teenager/adult of indeterminate age who wants to become famous. Her Uncle Jim (Steve Little) has created a five step plan to fame, which her mother Bethany(Angela Kinsey, The Office) is highly skeptical of. Rounding out the cast are Miranda’s best friend Patrick(Erik Stocklin)…and her sister Emily(Francesca Reale).

My biggest worry for this show was that going from a one-woman series to a show filled with other characters would be tough. Colleen has aluded to characters over the years, but we’ve never actually seen them.

Unfortunately, my fear turned out to be right. And then some.

Emily is where the show starts to go off the rails. It’s not the fault of the actress, she’s actually really good. Rather, the writing totally misses the mark. Unlike all the other characters, Emily was created solely for the Netflix show, and never mentioned in the Youtube series. They try to write around this, but it feels forced. Emily is the “normal” person in her family. She’s not homeschooled. She thinks everyone else in her home is crazy. She spends a bunch of time locked up in the garage painting morose scenes of darkness and despair.

I suppose that she’s there to provide contrast to the wacky antics of the rest of the family, and a way “in” for us normal folks in the audience. But it never totally works. Her entire plot line feels like it fell in out of a different show. Her story would be interesting on its own, and her acting is really good, but apart from a few key moments at the end, she never provides much function to the story.

Bethany, Miranda’s mom, has fake fibromyalgia. It’s the main arc of her character for 80 percent of the show. It’s mean and insensitive to make fun of people who actually suffer from fibromyalgia. When her character arc takes a turn towards the end of the show, it was a relief. Angela Kinsey has exceptional acting skills, and it’s sad and lame that she spends most of the show using them on fake injury/disease humor.

Uncle Jim is kind of a one-note character, and he’s the first sign that this whole exercise might actually just be Napoleon Dynamite Only Bad Now. If you’ve ever seen that movie, then you’re familiar with Uncle Rico. Uncle Jim is Uncle Rico. That’s it. He’s a doofy guy who is nostalgic for his past and disappointed with his present failure. He creates five step plans for everything in his life which is kind of funny. But he’s never allowed to develop.

Patrick is the most successful non-Miranda character in the show. He’s awkward and sweet. He lives next door and delivers ice cream for a living. He thinks Miranda is great. The interactions between Miranda and Patrick are the closest to the flavor of the original Youtube production, and thus the most successful. They have an innocent, doofy sweetness to them that captures the fun of being a child mixed with the awkward uncertainty of adulthood.

I’ve done all this rambling and I haven’t even talked about Miranda. Colleen gives the best performance in the show, and she does everything she can to try and make this dour nightmare funny. She’s constantly surrounded by awful situations, but she does everything she can with her facial expressions and wacky line deliveries to keep the audience interested. At times, it feels like she’s improvising better material than the writers provided her. When the show takes a dark turn at the end, she shows her full emotional range, and allays my fears that this show would otherwise be career-damaging for her.

Make no mistake. Most of this show is terrible. The humor is unfunny. The situations are sad and horrifying instead of fun. Characters make awful, mean, hateful decisions on a constant basis. By the end of the first episode, my face was twisted into a dour frown. “How could this keep being so bad and awful?,” I kept thinking. And then it kept being bad and awful.

I’m sure that moments like “All the fish die at once in a fish store,” “a yard is filled with poop,” and “Miranda stabs people in a magic trick” were funny in a production meeting. But in actuality they’re kind of horrible. A notable standout humor moment is a backyard production of a heavily re-written Annie, which makes fun of community theatre tropes. As a former participant in community theatre myself, this story had a lot of good laughs…but outside of Miranda’s fun ridiculousness, laughs are few and far between. Not a good thing for a comedy show.

The show dabbles in casual offensive humor like it’s going out of style. Casual racism and mild transphobia both make an appearance, and the “humor” is not anywhere near the deft progressivity of the Youtube show. The music is strange. It’s haunting and lyrical. It sounds like it drifted in out of a fantasy horror movie that was filming next door.

If you manage to get through all 8 episodes of this baffling thing, you’ll reach its hidden secret: it’s all a set up for an explosively emotional thud of an ending. Throughout the show, you’ll see how several parts of Youtube Miranda’s backstory come into being, and by the end of the show, she’s more or less at the start of her successful real-world Youtube career. But she has to go through some serious business to get there.

The last two episodes veer hard into dark and heartbreaking territory, paying off the logical conclusions to so many of the awful decisions the characters have made along the way. All of the actors come together to completely sell these emotional moments. If you can manage to stomach the terrible humor up to that point…the ending is really effective and soul- crushing. I couldn’t believe it.

It’s completely unexpected. And it’s a huge problem.

It’s not right at all for a Miranda show.

Miranda Sings has always been funny. It’s a brilliant one-woman send up of Youtube, homeschooling, and many aspects of American pop culture.

Haters Back Off feels like an elaborate troll of a show. It’s a deep, dark exploration of the creation of Miranda’s psyche, something that will probably terrify most of the young fans that the Youtube show attracts. It’s awkward, at times unwatchable, occasionally offensive…and weirdly satisfying at the end.

If you like a good cry out of your entertainment and you can stomach eight episodes of awful decisions, this might actually pay off for you if you reach the end.

If you love Miranda Sings…maybe stick to the Youtube show.