Why Our Generation Is Hooked on 'Failure TV'
narcissism

Why Our Generation Is Hooked on ‘Failure TV’

In the first two episodes of Euphoria, Zendaya’s character, a 17-year-old addict named Rue, gets out of rehab and promptly relapses. Tortured and two-faced, she swings from being a loving big sister and sex-positive feminist to screaming at her supportive best friend and tussling with her widowed mom. It’s hard to tear your eyes away even when the show gets dark because, beyond her drug-addled dysfunction, Rue is deeply human and relatable.

In many ways, young audiences have a love-hate relationship with authenticity. We religiously follow the sparkly, selective social media feeds of celebrities and influencers, yet we’re also instinctively drawn to vulnerability and straight-up failure, whether in a confessional Instagram caption or the spectacular screw-ups of a character like Rue. On screen, millennial and Generation Z consumers increasingly prefer stories that reflect our real-life experiences, including navigating relationships, identity, and mental health in a tricky political climate; coping with post-recession money and career struggles; and a general malaise about the future.

Some of the most buzzed-about shows and movies in the last few years have tapped into these generational challenges, turning them into addictive entertainment spanning across genres: See films like Booksmart, Someone Great, Lady Bird, The Big Sick, Ingrid Goes West and Obvious Child. Countless streamable series hit on these themes in titles such as Trinkets, Shrill, Ramy, Insecure, Broad City, Easy, The Bold Type, 13 Reasons Why, Master of None, Grown-ish, and Girls.

“Millennials and Generation Z might particularly relish this kind of ‘failure TV,’” Dr. Elizabeth Cohen, a media psychology researcher and associate professor of communication studies at West Virginia University tells Teen Vogue. “[For a demographic that] seems to be continually told — unfairly, I think — that they are lazy, entitled, and narcissistic, it may serve as a nice reminder that nobody’s perfect.”

Photo: United Artists Releasing/Booksmart

Even if that reminder applies to all ages, younger audiences are likely hungrier for the message because of our experiences.

Growing up in the shadow of the Great Recession has plagued young Americans — those born after the 1980s — with financial obstacles like delayed homeownership, stunted savings, towering debt, and parental reliance. Our career and money attitudes are changing, as younger people prioritize following their passions, making a positive impact, and experiences over things. As a result, TV and movie plotlines that reflect these evolving values are most resonant: We can envision impulsively quitting an uninspiring job and side-hustling as a Lyft driver, as Issa Rae does in her HBO show, Insecure; or seeking a new “calling [that] actually helps people” after being laid off from a failed startup, as Ramy Youssef does on his eponymous Hulu show about navigating religion, race, and dating as a millennial Muslim.

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