Is America finally ready to embrace its inner loser? From Benjamin Franklin and Horatio Alger through American Idol and The Apprentice, the rags-to-riches success story has been a central cultural myth.
But now the most daring television heroine is Lisa Kudrow as an actress on a hopeless quest to regain her former stardom, in the new HBO series The Comeback. That show echoes, without quite matching, the tragicomedy of the British series The Office, about an obnoxious middle manager with no place to go but down.
One of last year's surprise cult-movie hits was Napoleon Dynamite, about a high school dolt oblivious to his enduring loser status. And a midlife variation is on screen now in the small film Second Best, with Joe Pantoliano as a man who so revels in his failure that he posts a losers' newsletter on lampposts and online. Along with Kirstie Alley's recent Showtime series, Fat Actress, and the American version of The Office (returning to NBC in the fall), these works have created a moment of loser chic and heroes without a chance of winning.
When loser chic works, as in The Comeback and the original Office, the characters are not pathetic but poignant and likable, endless strivers who earn our respect and even affection. Viewers embrace them for reasons that go beyond Schadenfreude. These heroes offer relief from the oppressive image of perfection that can seem like a media assault on ordinary people.
As Scott A. Sandage points out in his recent book Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (Harvard University Press), the meaning of the word "failure" has evolved from the early 19th century, when it referred only to a business loss. Gradually, being a loser in life came to suggest a failure of character, too, a lack of up-by-the-bootstraps drive that the new loser chic debunks.
Rooting for underdog
Of course, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman pleaded for the Willy Lomans of the world, and the loser achieved comic glory with Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp. But beyond attacking the notion that failures deserve their bad luck, today's loser comedies also seem aimed at the media-driven idea that fame equals success; there is hardly a flop among them who doesn't have some floundering show business ambition.
In The Comeback, Kudrow's resonant character, Valerie Cherish, is reduced from playing one of the hot roommates on a new sitcom to playing the frumpy neighbor, Aunt Sassy, but she still acts like the diva she believes herself to be. In Kudrow's deftly balanced performance, Valerie's stubbornness is not ego run wild but an assertion that she matters at least as much as the next air-headed starlet. Her psychobabbly lament, "I need to know that I'm being heard," is the show's echo of Miller's "Attention must be paid."
The challenge in creating loser-heroes is to keep viewers emotionally invested, and to make the characters' cringe-inducing failures palatable. That's where humor saves or dooms a work. In The Comeback, the idiocy of the sitcom world - trite catch phrases, writers who cower at a new idea - is skewered in devastating detail. In both versions of "The Office," the inanities of the workplace are mordantly captured in the boredom of the workers and their deadpan disbelief at their clueless boss' gung-ho attitude.
The affecting, irresistible loser is best embodied by Bill Murray's recent characters, the has-been actor in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation and the oceanographer and fading star of his own television documentaries in Wes Anderson's satire The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.
The cleverness of the writing, the silliness of Zissou in his red Team Zissou cap and Murray's impeccable balance of sadness and comedy hold the film together. Anything less than such mastery and a loser remains a disagreeable lout.
Not loser in ratings
The shrewdest way to turn a loser character into a box-office or ratings winner is to walk the ultimate tightrope and let viewers have it both ways. Napoleon Dynamite and American Idol have thrived by presenting characters that audiences can either identify with or make fun of. Plenty of viewers are addicted to the early auditions phase of Idol, when the worst of the worst are trotted out; William Hung even parlayed his unmatchable lack of talent into a CD.
The reassuring message is that loserdom can be cool. But there's another message, too. Alley has turned her floundering career around by playing a loser, and whatever happens with The Comeback, Kudrow is flush with the success of Friends. The loser as hero may be a comfort, but let's not forget it's also a fiction.