Hulu show doesn't do Emerson (social) justice

by Editorial Board / Beacon Staff • April 22, 2015

At issue: Hulu show Resident Advisors, written by Emerson grads and supported by the college

Our take: It’s offensive—and it’s not even funny

This was going to be Emerson Los Angeles’ time in the spotlight—the first big break for the two-year-old, $85 million building, located quite purposefully in the middle of Hollywood, whose design was inspired by film sets and soundstages. It thus made perfect sense that a TV comedy about undergrads—written by Emerson alumnae, staffed by other graduates and current students, and blessed by Friends producer Kevin Bright—would be filmed at ELA.

And so Resident Advisors, a seven-episode show exclusive to the online distributor Hulu, was filmed there over the summer. It debuted earlier this month. From the very first shot—which highlights ELA’s distinctive undulating metal interior—to its online publicity, the fictional program has been closely linked with the real-life Emerson.

Unfortunately, it’s turned out to be an embarrassing connection.

After the first episode alone, in which resident advisers tactlessly try to pigeonhole one of their residents into a male or female label, it should become quite clear to the Emerson community that the show is not nearly as sensitive to diversity and inclusion as it should be—or as the college and its student body prides itself on being.

Programs like Netflix's Orange Is The New Black and Amazon’s Transparent have proven it’s possible to add gender identity politics to the comedy world—if handled appropriately and, well, humorously. Resident Advisors fails on both counts.

A gag in the pilot involves a pair of RAs unsuccessfully trying to lure a gender-ambiguous student named Morgan into either the boys or girls bathroom. The student instead goes into the unisex bathroom, which flusters the RAs. One of them then suggests sneaking into the unisex bathroom to look at the character’s “soft parts.”

The audience is apparently supposed to find comedy in the RAs’ struggle. Isn’t it just so frustrating, this show seems to ask, that some people aren’t overt with their gender identity and appearance? Any sensitivity or sense of decency toward Morgan’s character flies out the window.

Perhaps if the scene itself was simply funny—instead of amounting to a lazy middle-schooler’s attempt at comedy—it could have worked better. After all, the sitcom genre has found success in mining comedy out of people’s ignorance—just look at the bigoted Archie Bunker from ’70s television classic All In The Family, or more recently, the oblivious Michael Scott from The Office.

But the source of comedy in this Resident Advisors scene is not the RAs’ ignorance. It is how Morgan’s otherness affects and perplexes the main characters.

The show’s second episode also fails at comedy and social observations. The episode centers on the RAs incompetently trying to educate the student body on safe sex. It’s not a bad premise for a college-set show. But the humor lacks any semblance of nuance and is too quick to resort to a joke about condoms being stapled to the safe-sex awareness wall.

This was made all the worse when the show’s official Twitter account posted a thinly veiled shot at Emerson’s own alleged failure at creating a safe environment when it comes to sex.

The tweet, posted on April 19, reads, “At the real life inspiration for Thoreau University, Emerson College, ‘sex season’ is a year round thing.”

It’s a cheap and unfunny dig at the college and its students who do practice safe and consensual sex—not to mention an inexplicably unaware and tone-deaf nod to the students who were allegedly raped on campus.

Beyond its insensitivity, the show’s biggest artistic failure is being unfunny.

The college-based humor is cliche and pandering. It seems to ask: How can we combine the most tired undergrad tropes in the most banal ways? It tries too hard to be funny and makes shows like Comedy Central’s Workaholics, a frat-boy humor favorite among college students, look like the next Arrested Development or 30 Rock.

Many Emerson students hope to move to Los Angeles or New York City in pursuit of a career in the entertainment industry. Resident Advisors is, sadly, a missed opportunity as a source of inspiration and pride.

But perhaps this current generation of Emerson grads will have better luck humorously depicting college life. At the very least, their efforts couldn’t be any less funny or engaging than Resident Advisors.