Tell Me Lies – Castle on a Cloud – Episode 107 – The group goes to Evan’s lake house to celebrate his 21st birthday. Stephen (Jackson White) and Lucy (Grace Van Patten), pictured. (Photo by: Josh Stringer/Hulu)
spoilers ahead. I can pinpoint the exact moment I realized I hated just about every single character in Hulu’s Tell Me Lies. It was in the final moments of the series’ penultimate episode that Stephen DeMarco (Jackson White) returned to his girlfriend Lucy Albright’s (Grace Van Patten) dorm room to find her sobbing on the floor. The Sparknotes version states that after learning the truth about who was responsible for the car accident that killed her roommate, she slipped an anonymous message to the college administration and set in motion a series of events that resulted in those around them being ostracized and even physically harmed. Up to this point, Lucy has adamantly denied having anything to do with it, instead pitting her friends against each other. Essentially, she is unwilling to own up to her own actions. Stephen – equally self-serving – reaffirms her decision and tells her he loves her no matter what. They are a horrible couple made in hell and two extremely unsympathetic people.
The finale, which airs Wednesday, only further emphasizes this fact as both Stephen and Lucy continue to make selfish, harmful decisions that affect everyone around them, and so do other characters on the show (*ahem* Evan and Lydia *um*). . They’re toxic, manipulative, inauthentic… and I absolutely love it. Because no matter how awful these people are to each other, I can’t stop watching them. Which really shouldn’t be that surprising, given that people love watching shows — and characters — that they might actually hate.
It’s called hate watching, and chances are you’ve heard of it and done it—because it’s been around forever. “Hate watching is when people watch a show they enjoy not because it’s great, but because we find it kind of awful,” says Elizabeth Cohen, associate professor of communications at West Virginia University. “It’s the act of enjoying a show’s absurdities.” This can mean poor or cheesy acting, a holey plot, terrible (or, in HBO’s case, way too dark) production quality, or unintentionally shallow characters. “The reasons why we want to hate different programs can vary,” Cohen continues, but the big upside is the fact that we still choose to watch—and engage with—that content rather than just turn it off . “Usually, when we hate something, it’s because we consciously choose to do it. We look for it because it’s bad,” says Cohen.
We’ve seen this countless times, most recently on shows like Netflix’s Emily In Paris, a series that borrows from French stereotypes, even more offensive fashion, and the titular heroine (Lily Collins) that’s pretty much vilified across the internet — and yet It was also Netflix’s most-watched comedy of 2020 and received two Golden Globe nominations. Our reasons for wanting to hate watching Lily Collins’ Emily strutting around Paris with mispronounced words and having an affair with her friend’s boyfriend are different. It can be a form of social bonding with others who may have similar feelings and want to share their feelings. It can make people feel smarter or more sophisticated than the producers or characters they look down on. It’s also just plain fun. “Part of it is just humor and irony,” says Cohen. “Often it’s just plain funny, and humor is good entertainment in itself, even if the film or show wasn’t designed to be a comedy.”
Like Lucy and Stephen’s relationship status, hate watching is a bit complicated.
But what if the characters aren’t bad because they overdo it, or the storylines aren’t cheesy? The characters of Tell Me Lies are actually incredibly well developed and the acting is believable but why I dislike the majority of the characters in Tell Me Lies is that they are so harmful and toxic to both themselves and those around them and continue to make ethically and morally bad decisions. So what does it say about me that I can’t stop watching Lucy and Stephen play with people’s feelings and lie straight to their face, or that Evan is cheating on his perfect girlfriend? (To paraphrase Tyra Banks, we all loved you, Evan!)
Like Lucy and Stephen’s relationship status, hate watching is a bit complicated. As Justin Rawlins, an assistant professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Tulsa, explains to Refinery29, we could have very different reasons for watching a show with a cheesy plot and one that features outrageous, despicable characters. One of them can be comfort. In the same way, we may engage with TV shows and movies about subjects that scare us, like Euphoria’s exploration of drug use and sexual abuse. “We might be drawn to these characters because there’s a level of safety in exploring these characters — and giving them the space to explore — more in fiction than in real life,” says Rawlins.
For many viewers, seeing characters go through these experiences can provide a neutral space to gauge or elaborate on our own feelings about certain situations. For example, when we see Lucy blatantly lying to her friends and refusing to follow the letter, we might consider our own actions if we were in a similar spot. Watching Lucy and Stephen play games and manipulate their different partners’ emotions can help us become more aware of and recognize these red flags in our own relationships. And seeing Evan stark naked next to Lucy after cheating on Bree might help us realize that people aren’t always what they seem – and that mistakes can be made.
Or this fascination could be chalked up to plain old glee, the joy felt at another person’s misfortune. The experience of schadenfreude, according to Cohen, is rooted somewhat in sadism, the tendency to take pleasure in another’s humiliation (nothing abnormal, she points out), but also in social comparison. “We’re social animals, so we’re always trying to figure out how we’re doing by comparing ourselves to other people,” she says. “Sometimes we do upward social comparisons when we compare ourselves to others who are better than us. That can make us feel bad. But sometimes we do a social downward comparison, comparing ourselves to people who are worse off than us.” In the case of a TV show, this can help us feel better about not making the same choices—choices that which we may see as wrong. “It’s like, ‘Okay, I’m not perfect, but at least I’m not as bad off as that poor git on the reality TV show,'” says Cohen. “Some of the joy of glee is partly rooted in our need to feel like we’re okay.”
Being watchable and interesting is not always the same as being personable.
For Meaghan Oppenheimer, the creator of the Tell Me Lies series, it doesn’t matter why fans don’t like the characters, the fact is that they don’t necessarily have to because that doesn’t really matter. “What’s important and what makes the TV show live or die is whether people want to see the characters,” Oppenheimer told Refinery29. “And being watchable and interesting isn’t always the same as being personable.”
Ultimately, a large part of the series is understandable. While Stephen is an extreme example of a toxic fuckboy, “the reality of being in such toxic relationships or even friendships with the rest of the group is [is that] you’re not acting like the best version of yourself,” says Oppenheimer. “If I looked back at one of the darker times in my life and only saw a snapshot of my behavior, I probably would [think], “Oh, Lucy is a really unsympathetic person” because you don’t behave well, you don’t treat other people well, when you’re totally emotionally manipulated and traumatized… I think a lot of people I know have acted like Lucy or acted like Pippa; People make mistakes.”
“It’s the cycle of being in your 20s,” adds actor Robin Wright, who directed the finale. “There’s a lot of falling in love and then lying and deceit and cheating and wanting to have your cake and eat it too, and bad choices are made. And yet they are all good people at heart. It’s just a fascinating story of the human condition at that age.”
And maybe that’s the real reason I don’t like the show that much, or at least want to pull my hair out and yell at the TV every episode. Because as insufferable and self-sabotaging as Lucy may seem (a sentiment many fans share, Oppenheimer says, and one that surprises them — because Stephen is the super-toxic one), I can relate to her, and to Pippa, and to Evan. I may never have slept with a friend’s friend or sent an anonymous message and then lied, but I made spontaneous decisions based on emotion and impractical thinking that I later deeply regret. And seeing this behavior so nakedly can be confronting and uncomfortable.
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