Miranda Sings’ signature look is clown-red lipstick and eyebrows tweezed to pained, trying-too-hard cartoon arcs. Her hair is parted down the middle and held back with bobby pins, and she dresses like a third-grader from 1995. The effect is atrocious, which is the point. Miranda Sings, a socially maladjusted, abrasive teen with delusions about her own talent, is the alter ego of YouTube whiz Colleen Ballinger, who created Miranda eight years ago and, along the way, hit a nerve. Ballinger has 7 million YouTube subscribers and views of her videos number in the billions; she is the first YouTube personality to jump from internet fame to scripted television.
Unfortunately, “Haters Back Off!” doesn’t have the same organic appeal as Ballinger’s bizarre, pastiche-y videos. The short format and context-less medium of YouTube serves Miranda’s larger-than-life personality well; in an ocean of amateur, self-absorbed content, Ballinger’s Miranda schtick has welcome teeth. But in half-hour scripted episodes, Miranda chews and chews and chews the scenery, making it difficult to either believe in or laugh at a story about her.
With its staunchly middle-America aesthetics and bludgeoning awful personalities, the Netflix comedy feels like a pale imitation of 2004’s “Napoleon Dynamite.” The difference is that Miranda, unlike Napoleon, hasn’t found anything that doesn’t make her immediately think exclusively about herself. As a result, “Haters Back Off!” starts out almost unwatchably awkward. Miranda’s an egomaniac who can’t sing — who dabbles in casual racism and steamrolls over her long-suffering family members — but by the end of the first episode, the audience is supposed to feel for her, albeit just a tiny bit.
It’s hard to make an unlikeable character compulsively watchable, and in “Haters Back Off!,” Miranda lacks some of the innocent naivete that makes her character work on YouTube. In the context of a scripted series where at least a few people in the cast are relatively normal, Miranda is by contrast not just another self-obsessed YouTube star but apparently mentally ill. The soothing care with which her sister Emily (Francesca Reale) and mother (Angela Kinsey) handle her tantrums suggest that Miranda has had to be managed for a very long time.
There is something interesting to be said, in Miranda’s world, about desperate longing for Internet fame in a blip of a town where wieners on toothpicks are the height of sophistication. YouTube is a fascinating medium because of how intimate it can be; the viewer is brought right into the star’s bedroom to share in flights of fancy or upfront confessional. “Haters Back Off!” offers traces of that fascinating landscape, including moments where Miranda’s kooky, sullen frustration is completely understandable. But the show is too caught up in the foreground of attempting to be brutally funny with material that was fresh 12 years ago.
But who knows? Miranda’s not for everyone, but has a devoted following all the same, and that could be the case for “Haters Back Off!,” too. For a certain demographic, Miranda’s behavior during a church choir rehearsal could be raucously hilarious, an example of theater-geek self-obsession run amok. For me, anyway, Miranda’s obsessions and absorptions, which come at the expense of her sister’s happiness, her mother’s peace of mind, her uncle’s financial stability, and the lives of several goldfish, prove to be more tragic than hilarious.