Gossip Girl, the prescient CW soap based on the best-selling YA novels, which documented the lives of wealthy high-schoolers on the Upper East Side and the anonymous paparazzo who publicized their every scandalous move, was perhaps the first show to reckon with the then-blossoming social media age. But where that series came closer to capturing the potential power of Facebook or Twitter, Alone Together, a half-hour comedy currently airing on Freeform, is much more reflective of the Instagram era: the virtual personas we perfect and present to others, in the hopes that they’ll like us.
The show centers on the friendship between Benji and Esther (played by Benji Aflalo and Esther Povitsky, who also created the series), two clueless, insecure twentysomething adults living in Los Angeles. Benji and Esther have seemingly little desire to better themselves or achieve anything. It’s more accurate to say that they want to be different people who are better than themselves, and simply have achievements. Benji lives in a beautiful house his rich parents helped buy for him and his hot older brother, who is a successful real estate agent; he has no job prospects to speak of. Esther, when she’s not crashing at Benji’s, has her own studio apartment, and is vaguely attempting to be a stand-up comic. Theirs is a world consonant with Insta-famous models, influencers and ex-reality TV stars, people famous for nothing but being “liked."
Though both are straight, the show makes it clear Benji and Esther are not sleeping with each other. The mere implication, by an observant neighbor/psychologist in episode six, is dismissed less because it’s offensive or untrue, and more because it’s just so predictable: “Suggesting we have sex is the most hack thing to say to us, right after ‘you’re co-dependant,’” Benji scoffs. These are characters who, having grown up on a steady drip of TV, are aware of the plot devices contriving to get them together.
Perhaps, eventually, the force will be too strong for them to resist, and the two will hook up. I, for one, hope that does not come to pass. The conceit of the show, and the source of much of its brilliance, is that the two are sort of disgusted by the prospect of hooking up with each other. Unlike their millennial counterparts in the New York of TBS’s excellent Search Party and Freeform’s breakout hit, The Bold Type, both of which feature characters looking for an outsized sense of fulfillment in a world that, due to various factors facing the recent college grad, may inhibit them from finding it, Benji and Esther clamor for fulfillment of the most superficial kind. They aspire simply to be beautiful-looking, date beautiful-looking people and receive attention for it; they idolize the glamorous, if not ultimately vapid, people that populate L.A., or, more likely, the version of L.A. drawn from their Instagram feeds. In one episode, Esther finds a beauty queen to donate her eggs to, and ends up trying to be her daughter instead; in another, she denigrates herself as part of a plan to help Benji’s brother ditch his crazy ex, simply because it allows her to be photographed with him on social media; in yet another, she and Benji appeal to an attractive, cool-seeming lesbian couple in Esther’s apartment building, with the idea that they’ll take one of them on as a “mentee.” Their lives look perfect—how, they seem to wonder, might theirs look perfect, too?
What’s most interesting about Alone Together is the subtle disdain Benji and Esther, both creators and characters, reveal for these objectives. The series’ witty one-liners are some of the best on TV; they’re wildly specific, and precisely tailored to its target audience: “Hey...do you guys like Zendaya?” Esther asks a group of teens she’s trying to ingratiate herself with; “I like your accent,” Benji tells the Australian beauty on his brother’s arm. “Did you guys meet in a youth hostel?”; “I’ve been day grinding about money and Boko Haram,” Esther confesses to Benji, as she puts in her night guard.
The strangely flat delivery of these jokes, however, gives one the impression that the actors are judging the words coming out of their characters’ mouths. Benji the actor, in particular, reads his lines with such ambivalence that it’s hard to discern whether Benji the character really buys what he’s saying. It’s a non-acting acting that succeeds in hollowing out its protagonists of any actual substance, and filling them instead with smart one-liners, emotions and motives conceived by someone similar. The two may as well be Instagrams of themselves.
The same might be said of Larry David’s daughter, Cazzie David, in her perceptive web series, Eighty-Sixed. Like Esther, David’s character, Remi, is a Jewish, fair-skinned, sometimes-bespectacled, ambition-less, image-obsessed Southern Californinan with a deadpan delivery.
“As David Sr. mines the humorous tension between propriety and brutal honesty,” Anna Diamond writes for The Atlantic, comparing Cazzie’s show to her father's, Curb Your Enthusiasm, “the entertaining tension in Remi’s character comes from her caring what people think of her online but not caring what they think of her in real life when, perhaps—as Larry repeatedly finds out—that might be a good idea.”
In the opening scene of the first episode, “Promise I’ll Win,” Remi googles whether Demi Moore called Ashton Kutcher after their break-up. When she learns that a friend has tagged her in an inspirational post-break-up Facebook post, and that her ex can see it, she visits said friend and implores her to take it down.
“I care because I’m trying to curate an image of not caring,” Remi explains, in what may as well be a thesis for the series. Future episodes, like “Texting,” which revolves around when and what to text to a guy you like, also play on this belabored state of uncaring. The series is the first I can think of that seems to take place as much on the characters’ phones as it does in their real lives. For this reason, Remi’s de facto uniform of sweats, and her desire to stay home, often in bed, is telling; in an exaggerated sense, she’s so concerned about potentially hurting her virtual persona that she’s willing to sacrifice aspects of her real-world self.
To be fair, Los Angeles has always existed as much in dreams as in reality, and its most prominent denizens have always put forward a certain image of themselves. But there is something uniquely generational about these new shows, and the moment in which they reside. For them, self-actualization, the “atmospheric condition” with which every millennial is afflicted, seems to take on a different meaning than it does in analogous TV renderings of New York. It is a self-actualization that has much less to do with one's actual self.