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In Defense of the Annoying TV Kid

Sure, it’s fun to dunk on the Bobby Drapers and Paiges, but we have we considered the fact that they’re just, well, kids?

Netflix/HBO/Ringer illustration

I come to you today in defense of children—not my own children, who are midsummer stir-crazy and sleeping poorly and won’t talk to me about anything other than Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. No, I mean those TV children whose hapless exploits I enjoy, truly, in those precious few late-evening hours during which my own contemptible brood aren’t tearing up the house. Leave them (fictional) kids alone.

(Yes, including Paige from The Americans, who did her best given that her parents were sexy Russian spies on a show that nobody—except me, time permitting—watched. If you walked in on your parents 69-ing, you’d seek comfort in God, too.)

This week, The Ringer unveiled its Annoying TV Kid Bracket, a barrage of savage burns visited upon the likewise undeserving likes of Stephanie from Full House (“How rude” is a fine catchphrase, or is, in any event, far preferable to “You got it, dude”) to Walt from Lost (Walt’s father shouting Walt’s name ad infinitum is way more irritating than anything Walt ever did) to Mad Men’s various Bobby Drapers. (Give the Bobbys a break, and Sally too for that matter; their father was a deadbeat and a drunk and a doofus.) How rude, indeed.

(All right, I just watched the clip of Carl from The Walking Dead eating pudding, and OK, sure, he seems like a pain in the ass.)

This bracket has triggered a significant amount of internal angst at this website, in that Joffrey Lannister has dominated, and his world-historical homicidal awfulness would seem to strain the definition of “annoying.” The relatively serene Sally Draper upsetting Zoey “Don’t ‘oh, please’ me!” Bartlet in the first round is baffling. Rickon Stark probably should’ve not-zig-zagged into the Final Four, at least. And so on. Much like parents everywhere, all the time, we have brought something wayward into the world but have lost the power to control it.

(As for 24’s Kim and the mountain lion, as silly as that was, the fact that the mountain lion actually bit Elisha Cuthbert on set leads me to the conclusion that maybe we should give her a break, also.)

But I’m having trouble performing irritation with anybody in this bracket, really. Even A.J. Soprano, your very much deserving “winner,” has his relatable moments, or at least the one time he railed against “asshole Robert Frost” while listening to Slipknot. What I remember most about A.J. now is his suicide attempt, which was a pitch-perfect mixture of harrowing and hapless, and which leaves me both grossed out and profoundly sympathetic in the sense that I don’t care to think about him, or it, at all anymore.

(Counterpoint/disclosure: This guy is my editor.)

As with A.J. and Walt and the Bobbys, get annoyed at the parents, maybe. Abigail from Big Little Lies, who ostensibly inspired this bracket, did indeed threaten to sell her virginity on the internet in Season 1 and accidentally revealed her mother’s infidelity to her dumbstruck stepfather in Season 2. But maybe blame the open-floor plan, first of all, and furthermore, she is only channeling her mother Madeline’s proprietary blend of clumsy, hostile, charismatic narcissism. What makes Big Little Lies both engrossing and very hard to watch, in fact, is the way all the precocious kids are brutal echoes of the demons and perversions of their parents: Celeste’s dreamy and brooding boys with their sudden fits of volcanic rage, Renata’s daughter Amabella and her global-warming-based panic attacks, and even Madeline’s younger daughter Chloe, the extra-precocious DJ whose Season 2 screen time has been cut so dramatically I can only assume she’s following the Avett Brothers around on tour or something.

(“Amabella,” by the way, is the best-named TV character of the last five years, evoking the just-so quirky princess of her overcompensating parents’ deluded disco-party-for-a-grade-schooler fantasies. Put it this way: Every single child at that scandal-wracked fancy Brooklyn Heights preschool The Cut just wrote about might as well be named Amabella.)

Annoying TV kids, at their worst and/or best, function as walking, talking, leering, pratfalling manifestations of their parents’ failures, stealing scenes from any given prestige-TV show’s asshole main characters, but helpfully underscoring their parents’ assholery. Grace, the eccentric teenage daughter from The Good Wife, going missing only to turn up in church getting baptized or falling under the spell of a kooky interpretive dancer qualifies as a cry for help. Harrison from Dexter wiping out on a treadmill qualifies as a cry for help. Every last line uttered by Gabrielle, the hyper-precocious 11-year-old who terrorizes Idris Elba in the minor Netflix series Turn Up Charlie, qualifies as a cry for help.

(Gabrielle would’ve won this whole tournament walking away if anyone besides me had watched Turn Up Charlie.)

As subplots, these characters are, indeed, maddening; as cautionary tales, they are nonetheless essential. Their parents have victimized them, and now they, quite reasonably, will victimize you. Maybe pay attention to your own kids so they don’t turn out like this, is the gist. My favorite recent TV depiction of parenthood is, in fact, Catastrophe, in which the kids aren’t really characters at all, but mere obstacles for their parents, Rob and Sharon, to gracelessly overcome in the process of being hilariously terrible people yelling hilariously terrible things at one another. All I know about their daughter, Muireann, is that even her own father struggles to pronounce her name. That’s all her parents seem to know about her, too.

(Sofia on Deadwood likewise got a great deal of screen time despite not actually ever doing or even saying anything, serving mostly as a prim impediment to her adoptive mother’s dalliances with ill-advised love affairs and laudanum addiction. But it was relaxing, kind of, to have at least one character who wasn’t speaking in 12-page gonzo monologues. And it’s legitimately impressive that a grown-up Sofia stuck to her guns by not doing or saying anything in the Deadwood reunion movie, either.)

It occurs to me to be concerned that I identify with the Catastrophe parents and their stylized, endearingly hostile brand of neglect. For the past week, in our precious few late-evening hours, my wife and I have been working through Season 3 of Stranger Things, which indeed has done an excellent job tracking its stars discomfiting pivot from child stardom to teenage stardom: the hormonal bursts, the simple misunderstandings injected with Shakespearean pathos, the variable speeds at which the boys are inclined to leave Dungeons & Dragons behind. Perhaps I should be mentally preparing myself for my own kids to make that pivot, or better yet, mentally preparing them. If they turn out annoying IRL, after all, you all know who to blame.

(On the other hand, many of you voters seem quite annoyed at Julie Taylor on Friday Night Lights, so maybe I should work through just one more show first. The kids might call, but as always, duty calls louder.)