Colleen Ballinger’s brilliant creation, Miranda Sings is an astute critique on our culture’s hungry desire for fame. The character is an enormous ball of unfiltered ID, whose self-regard borders on lunacy. She’s a grotesque with little-to-no talent, yet feels as if she’s God’s musical gift to mankind. In the four or five-minute videos on YouTube, Miranda’s obnoxious and deluded personality is played solely for laughs. Ballinger creates a work of social critique by mocking the wannabe superstars who display no talent and even less drive.
But taking the character out of the confined setting of YouTube and expanding it to a more expanded world allows for more depth. The thing about Miranda is that her childlike myopia is funny, but there’s something always simmering underneath the surface that’s off – in much the same way that Paul Reubens’ man-child Pee-Wee Herman displays that uneasy balance of childish wonder and taboo-busting anarchy.
For Haters Back Off, Ballinger tells a creation story of sorts: how did Miranda come to be. In doing that, she creates context for her character’s appalling behavior. Miranda’s personal life is a dour shitshow. She’s raised by a sad and lonely mother, Bethany (a thoughtful and lovely Angela Kinsey, The Office), and an enabling uncle, Jim (Steve Little, Eastbound and Down), who’s as hopelessly deluded as she is. Rounding out this sad little family unit is little sister Emily (Francesca Reale, full of promose), the stable voice of reason who is a hapless victim of Miranda’s ambitions and her mom’s resigned indulgence. Because Miranda is home-schooled and has no friends, the Internet is her way to score validation. And her home life is sad, always fraught with instability due to the family’s near-poverty, which gives further poignancy to Miranda’s dreams of fame and stardom.
In expanding Miranda’s world, Ballinger brings out all sorts of shading to the character that is less evident in the YouTube videos. Miranda’s grasping is hilarious when she smugly (and obliviously) gives singing lessons to pros like Tori Kelly or the singers from Pentatonix; when she condescends to a choir of singers on the show, it’s equally funny, but knowing just how awful Miranda’s life really is, offers viewers a kinder look at why and how Miranda operates.
Much of the character’s comedy comes from her thwarted and warped view of sexuality. She’s famously pined for many fellow male YouTubers (most of them queer), but on Haters Back Off, her romantic endeavors are treated far more sympathetically. She’s still a joke – after all, her look which includes a terrible slash of red lipstick, and a permanent dissatisfied scow – but because we know more about Miranda and where she’s coming from we feel sorrier for her.
Miranda fans may be shocked at just how low Ballinger lets her creation get. Though Miranda Sings is a commentary on facile fame-grabbing, she’s also become an icon of sorts of resiliency. The title of the show comes from Miranda’s catch phrase with which she duly flicks off the cruel, abusive, and misogynistic slurs from online trolls. Because the Miranda we see in the television show isn’t the famous Miranda Sings, yet, she hasn’t developed that thick skin. As a result, the tone of the show tips more toward dramedy than strictly sitcom (though each episode, regardless of how sad or depressing sports lots of laugh outloud moments).
The last half of the show – and the ending, crescendo into important real life consequences for Miranda’s highly anti-social and inappropriate actions and behaviors. In these moments when Miranda has to confront life and death, Ballinger does some beautiful work. Never once betraying the character of Miranda, she still manages to flesh her out, making her an object of pity instead of mirth. It’s a risky choice, given that the large bulk of her fans are tweens who enjoy Miranda’s raucous and broad comedy.
There’s something exhilarating about watching Haters Back Off in that we see the culmination of a true auteur. If nothing else, it proves that the Internet is a fruitful source of entertainment and talent. It also shows that if given the opportunity, Ballinger is more than capable of creating some great comedy and some great art.