Why Are You Like This takes aim at Gen Z: ‘This is the most humiliating thing I’ve done’

A new ABC comedy skewers identity politics and cancel culture with the nihilism that defines today’s twentysomethings – and that defines the show’s creators too

For the past decade on television, the joke has been on millennials. Or, more specifically, Shameless Millennials: the self-obsessed and clueless grifters of Girls and Bondi Hipsters and Search Party; privileged inner-city twenty- and thirtysomethings who feel entitled to far more than they currently have.

In many ways, ABC’s new comedy series Why Are You Like This continues that trope. It’s a show about three friends in their early 20s “barely coping with their growing independence, struggles with money, and dreams that seem unachievable”.

But these Shameless Millennials aren’t millennials at all – anyone in their early 20s is now squarely Gen Z. And like most younger people, who often see millennials as embarrassing and over-earnest, they have a far more complex relationship with shame.

“This is the most humiliating thing I’ve done in my life,” says Humyara Mahbub, one of the show’s three creators.

“This is my first TV writing role. My first big professional creative thing. As someone who’s been railing against creatives for the past 10 years, it’s deeply embarrassing to publicly be ‘a writer’.”

Mahbub, a lawyer and freelance illustrator, is in this situation because of her friend, comedian Naomi Higgins (who also stars in the show): it was Higgins’ idea to create a series about their friendship. They then worked together, alongside Aunty Donna’s Mark Bonanno, to create a pilot for ABC’s comedy Fresh Blood 2018 initiative and “it just sort of went from there”.

“Now here we are with a TV show about our awful personalities,” Higgins says.

“It’s every girl’s dream!” Mahbub adds.

Mia (Olivia Junkeer) and Penny (Naomi Higgins) in Why Are You Like This.
‘Here we are with a TV show about our awful personalities’: Mia (Olivia Junkeer) and Penny (Naomi Higgins) in Why Are You Like This. Photograph: ABC

The pair, aged 31 and 27, are being self-deprecating but they kind of are living the dream. Their show is getting promising early reviews ahead of its ABC premiere and it’s already secured an international release on Netflix. Yes, the characters have awful personalities. But more often than not, awful people make for entertaining TV. Right?

Maybe! Your enjoyment of the show will probably depend on how much you like comedy the creators’ lovingly describe as “cunty”.

Mahbub and Higgins’ onscreen personas are Mia (Olivia Junkeer) and Penny (played by Higgins herself), two hyper-socially aware women who handle complex modern problems in completely contradictory ways.

Mia, who is bisexual and south Asian, is totally self-assured: she is strong, self-serving and often plain cruel. By the end of the first episode she has extorted an innocent man and wilfully withheld medical care from someone having a health crisis. Penny, who is straight and white, is racked with anxiety. She wants to be the perfect friend and ally to everyone around her – even those who do not want her friendship or advocacy.

Mia and Penny are joined by housemate Austin (Wil King), a self-obsessed baby drag queen who is hiding his declining mental health behind Swarovski diamonds and depression memes. Together, the trio are faced with sitcom hijinks concerning identity politics, cancel culture and – as the show’s logline reads – “the divisive sociopolitical hellscape that is 2021”.

That’s a lot of buzzwords to say they’re Very Online. It’s an affliction the creators have shared up until recently when Mahbub quit the “doom machine” that is Twitter.

“The rage powered me for several years, but I think I might have shortened my lifespan,” she says. “It was just getting to a point where my entire emotional feedback system was based on words being typed by people I hated in Melbourne. Like, it’s not necessary.”

Still from Why Are You Like This
The characters are ‘awful’, sure, but Naomi Higgins says it’s not because of their age: ‘I think all people are awful.’ Photograph: ABC

That disdain is often clear in the show – particularly through Mia, who has no patience for Penny’s hand-wringing about being woke and the outrage of “losers” online. Although they are looking forward to making some people uncomfortable (“I want every conservative white man enraged by the idea that a woman has a period in a cup. That’s funny to me,” Mahbub says), it’s not their intention to make any big statements about the state of the world or Gen Z and millennials.

“I think all people are awful,” says Higgins. “I think all people are good and all people are awful. I think that if baby boomers grew up in this time, they would be this way [too].”

Mahbub agrees. “The world has always been [bad]. It wasn’t better when our parents were kids. There were just heaps more marital rapes and serial killings. Now there’s more whatever this is.

“I guess maybe the difference [is] we have all internalised the idea that we’re meant to be vocally and visibly outraged about all the bad stuff. And while in some cases that is activism, it is also a fine line between letting a news cycle ruin your life and brain.

“When I was 22, I was like ‘everyone sucks’. But then I turned 28 and I was like ‘AND I SUCK’. That’s the real realisation of your 20s.”

Aunty Donna’s Mark Bonanno, Naomi Higgins and Humyara Mahbub, who created Why Are You Like This.
Aunty Donna’s Mark Bonanno, Naomi Higgins and Humyara Mahbub, who created Why Are You Like This. Photograph: ABC

Why Are You Like This is perched right on the edge of those two ideas, never fully redeeming or condemning its “awful” characters and their actions. In true ABC style, the show’s press kit says “the aim of the show is to never present people or phenomena as good or bad, and never give any sort of solution”.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s actually a perfect representation of the nihilism that defines the new wave of twentysomethings. The show description goes on: “The world is a horrible place where bad things happen to people who don’t deserve it and there’s nothing we can do about it and nothing really matters.

“[The show’s] main aim above all to make people laugh.”

That style of comedy has dominated the internet for years now (the show’s name is literally named after a meme), but it feels quite fresh for TV – especially in Australia, a market that doesn’t tend towards youth and/or risk.

Mahbub, who speaks very positively of her experience with ABC, says “that exemplifies the gap between who’s running broadcast media and the content that’s already getting made … People say to us, ‘Wow, I haven’t seen this on TV before’ and it’s like, ‘Babe, who’s watching TV?’”

She pauses for a second before adding, “Please watch it!”

Why Are You Like This premieres on the ABC at 8.45pm on Tuesday 16 February; all episodes will be available to watch on iView that day.


Meg Watson

The GuardianTramp

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