The satirical new Aussie TV series Why Are You Like This captures our contentious modern times. “People aren’t growing and learning and becoming better people,” says co-creator, actor and comedian Naomi Higgins. “People are set in their ways and they’re awful, and that is very funny to me.”
Set and filmed in Melbourne, Why Are You Like This follows the everyday lives of three 20-somethings who are desperately trying to stand for something, but often failing.
There’s Penny (played by Higgins), a straight, white woman trying her best to be an ally to everyone on the socio-political spectrum. Her best friend, Mia (Olivia Junkeer, also of Neighbours), is a bisexual South Asian Muslim with an “I-can-say-whatever-I-want” attitude. And then there’s Austin (Wil King), Penny’s theatrical yet supportive housemate who’s discovering the world of drag.
They’re all needy, irritating, heartless and absurd – and completely relatable.
The show’s creators – Higgins, Mark Bonanno (of comedy team Aunty Donna) and illustrator, writer and lawyer Humyara Mahbub – developed the series through Fresh Blood, a joint ABC/Screen Australia initiative that supports up-and-coming talent. The team received a grant in 2018 to produce a four-part web series and later got the green light for the TV show. All six episodes are now streaming on ABC iView, and will soon appear on Netflix internationally.
The characters and scenes are based on the writers’ real-life thoughts and experiences. Penny and Mia’s friendship is inspired by Higgins and Mahbub’s, which blossomed at a music festival about five years ago. Higgins approached Mahbub to help write the script, even though Mahbub had no prior writing or comedy experience. “It’s pretty intense, working on a TV show,” says Higgins. “A couple of months ago, Hum [Mahbub] said, ‘I’ve felt the most intense feelings of my life with you’.”
The intensity of that real-life friendship comes through in the series, as they candidly navigate (read: blunder through) issues relating to work, gender, race, privilege, sexual freedom and just about everything involving vaginas. In the first episode, Penny accuses a colleague of being homophobic in a righteous speech about gay pride and visibility, only to find out he’s gay. It’s an exaggerated version of something Higgins once did herself, several years ago.
She admits there’s a possibility some viewers will think they’re ridiculing young people or making a statement about how people are too woke these days. “But we’re really just satirising ourselves,” she says. “The easiest thing to do is just poke fun at yourself because then you can see where your flaws are; you’re not simplifying it or being reductive. We’re just presenting these people as who they really are, and who they are is ridiculous.”
The production process has not been without its challenges. The trio wrote the script in between jobs, snatching time at nights and on weekends – and for several months Bonnano was based in LA, Mahbub in Sydney and Higgins in Melbourne. The final nine days of filming were squeezed in between lockdowns in late 2020, working with a skeleton crew to complete the show in line with Covid restrictions. But the production is exceptionally polished, and the aesthetic and costume design stylish and vibrant. It could be any Australian city, any group of young adults.
It’s esoteric, but not exclusionary. “Even though we talk about all these different topics, we’re never really trying to preach,” Higgins says. “There’s never really a person who was right or wrong, or any lesson that was learned. All we try to do with the show is say, ‘Hey, isn’t this fucked up?’ And that’s why we’re able to have so much fun with it.”
Why Are You Like This is airing on ABC and streaming on ABC iView now.