Rob Michael Hugel's Brooklyn is not the seat of Cool Kid power the New York Times would have you believe it to be. As the setting for I Hate Being Single, the popular web series Hugel created and starred in, Williamsburg is a place populated by pom-pom ski caps, fixed-gear bicycles, and people in no hurry to show up anywhere. The show's dialect of unease suggests the stilted conversations and protracted adolescence of Noah Baumbach's navel-gazing young adults in Kicking and Screaming, and yes, Woody Allen's navel-gazing (though less-young) adults of Manhattan.
"The protagonist is very me. It's a younger and more naive me."
Hugel's comedy series, which debuted last fall, is both a paean to Williamsburg, gray-tinged and a drop morose, and an attempt at reshaping stock tropes, or, as Hugel says, "something that presents the much more dark, mopey side of the neighborhood." Still, his happy thoughts on his neighborhood endure, says Hugel, a regular performer at the Upright Citizen's Brigade, the improvisational comedy theater in New York. "I really love Williamsburg. I'm totally aware that there are a number of people who have a terrible idea of what it's like here through what they've seen on television or in movies."
"We filmed a lot of the exteriors off my [subway] stop, where it's less crowded and there's still a sense of neighborhood," Hugel says. "I wanted it to be Williamsburg in a more muted way than we usually see in videos. It also happens to be the way I typically experience it in my life." And, apparently, the way others experience theirs. Last fall, the series won the 2011 New York Television Festival's Bing Audience Award on the merit of two episodes. A Kickstarter campaign to finance the remainder of the run reached its $5,000 goal in three weeks.Despite its longing title, I Hate Being Single is unsentimental in its treatment of a piece of New York with an oversized image. Which here means that the characters rarely exert themselves. Hugel, a lank and shaggy videographer, casts himself as the protagonista lank and dispossessed videographer named Rob Michael Hugel. He sits outside a cafe, sits inside a cafe taking in brunch, loafs about his apartment, and visits his local bank just for the company. He might contemplate the hipster and its forms, or muddle through a series of first dates of various defeat, but mostly Hugel just allows himself to laze about. It's what happens when you try to fit into what Hugel calls an "overwhelming Brooklyn lifestyle," and short-circuit, spectacularly.
The show also manages to hit upon many of the preoccupations of that supposed lifestyle, the hip Brooklyn that tends to send other zip codes into fits. As Hugel says, "The characters in the show argue about who is a hipster and who isn't because it's something I still encounter often in real life. People have a confusing and weirdly specific idea of what defines a hipster. It totally depends on who you're talking to, but it usually isn't a compliment."
So there is flannel and running jokes about vegansincluding an impressive binge sequence involving boutique meat foodstuffsbut also the pervasive haunt of loneliness. The strokes are broad, but also true. "The place where I wrote from is very specifically a time when I'd lived in Brooklyn only a few months, and was not yet adjusted," says Hugel. "I was broken-up-with, and missed the friends I had in college, where being single meant you just hung out with your buddies and watched movies. I hadn't yet found something comfortable. It was a lonely time, so I wrote it to have that lonely mood."
"The protagonist is very me," Hugel adds. "It's a younger and more naive me. Most things the character does are because it's something I'd thought of but not acted on. Most of his attitude comes from my experience or inexperience with dating in my early 20s. The character is kind of a big kid, which a lot of people relate to." Those liminal spaces are often revisited (and illustrated with cringe-inducing clarity in one scene, which finds Hugel in kid-sized cartoon underwear) as the show engages our now-normal post-college environment of underemployment and compromised expectations.
With all that heady material, I Hate Being Single still manages to come off as less self-serious than Lena Dunham's Girlsthe genre's current pace carin its examination of being young and unmoored for the first time. Closer is perhaps the 2006 Astoria, Queens-based web series We Need Girlfriends. As in I Hate Being Single, that showwhich also contains its synopsis quite serviceably within its titledeploys an observational humor that is rooted as much in the sitcom paradigm as it is in the story of dejection and yearning.
The short run of Hugel's series isn't compelled to provide its Rob with any tidy emotional coda. The best he can hope for, as can any of us, is the realization that partners and friends, like multi-use studio-gallery spaces or locally-sourced root vegetables, are liable to come in and out of our lives at will, and that's OK.
Back on the ground in Williamsburg, Hugel is no longer single. As it goes, life doesn't need to mirror art indefinitely.