An increasingly popular American television trope is the archetype of the lovable cynic. These are your Bojack Horsemans, your Harvey Specters, your Tyrion Lannisters and Bronns of Blackwater, and your Ricks of C-137. They hate the world, yet the world adores them for it. It’s counterintuitive that such unlovable men are such lovable characters — so why can’t we stop watching them?
Take Bojack Horseman, with its titular character playing the quintessential Hollywood cynic. Writer Raphael Bob-Waksberg imbues Bojack with all of his own political mistrust and existential angst, making Bojack a successfully angry voice of reason.
Despite all his personal issues and career failings, he is generally one of few characters within the show who can aptly critique life, Hollywood’s failings, and Todd Chavez’s ridiculous business plans. When Bojack compares people to marbles “bouncing around… in the game of Hungry Hungry Hippos that is our cruel and random universe” and notes that “life is just a series of closing doors,” the audience is left with a question: is the world worth braving at all?
We celebrate Bojack and his contemporaries because he’s a mouthpiece to express what we are often too afraid to express ourselves. The lovable cynic is symbolic of our own nihilism, our own anger, but also our own latent badassery. His flaws, in particular fury and hatred, are compelling because they are relatable.
The cynic shines not because he is good but because he is rarely good. We view this light-through-the-crack goodness in relation to all his other actions. Once you’ve established that a character does not care about others or what they think, softening those traits throughout the series becomes an easy way to draw a compelling character arc.
And yes, the lovable cynic is nearly always a guy, because the notions of masculinity and its subversions are closely intertwined with his character. Californication solidified the trend 10 years ago with David Duchovny’s portrayal of Hank Moody, the alcoholic, sharp-tongued, and aloof author of God Hates Us All.
Moody is a serial womanizer, adulterer, and statutory rapist, sleeping with a girl he later discovers is 16. Among his best known quotes is, “I probably won’t go down in history, but I will go down on your sister.”
Yet for all of the accusations of misogyny leveled against Moody by fictional and real-life activists alike, what draws people to his character are the moments in which he displays genuine care for women. It may be his loathing of self and all else that make him interesting, but it’s his love for his daughter, Becca, and ex-wife, Karen, that redeem him.
Rick of the animated series Rick and Morty also embodies the concept of growing out of one’s cynicism. The show varies between portraying Rick’s love for Morty and complete disinterest. Another alcoholic egotist, Rick is careful never to show much positivity or emotion, even for what may be the only thing he actually cares about: his stuttering grandson.
The best evidence we have that Rick feels anything for Morty is in the episode “Close Encounters of the Rick Kind,” in which Rick is about to die and cries watching videos of himself and Morty. But scenes like this are often counterbalanced with claims that his true motivation throughout the series is his quest for Szechuan sauce, or his drunk confession that a minor character named Noob Noob is the only one person he truly values.
Discerning which is the true Rick is part of the fun. We love Rick’s cynicism and existentialist attitude, but we also love not knowing if that’s really who he is.
The arc of Community’s Jeff Winger, another Dan Harmon creation along with Rick and Morty, follows this format too. A disbarred lawyer, Jeff enrolls at Greendale Community College so that he can graduate quickly and return to the legal profession — I’m not certain that Harmon understands how the bar works.
Jeff begins the series as a manipulative, selfish narcissist, creating a fake study group in an attempt to sleep with a girl. He proclaims in the pilot, “If I talk long enough, I can make anything wrong or right. So either I’m God or truth is relative.”
But for a god, Jeff becomes incredibly benevolent as the series progresses. He befriends the study group, saving them many times over from rivals and from one another. The tension of Jeff’s character development hinges on straddling the line between benign leader and selfish asshole. The less savoury aspects of his character keep us on our toes, making his moments of kindness seem all the more special.
So yes, nice guys finish last in television, and yes, we are guilty of falling in love with characters that hate the world around them. But it’s not a coincidence that bad people make great characters. What these shows have in common is their anger, but also their message of underlying humanity. Though the anger scratches an itch, the humanity makes everything a little more bearable.