Hell on Earth: Zhe Zhe the Comedic Youtube Series Toys with Likeability

The Zhe Zhe cast ditches the city for Dana Hoey’s upstate farm. Fowl followed. From left: Ruby McCollister, Emily Allan Leah Hennessey and E.J. O’Hara.
The Zhe Zhe cast ditches the city for Dana Hoey’s upstate farm. Fowl followed. From left: Ruby McCollister, Emily Allan Leah Hennessey and E.J. O’Hara.

On-screen stories of young women in New York are old as film itself: from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Sex and the City and Girls. These stories about the half-formed, flailing time of early adulthood had wide appeal in their heydays—showing us complicated women who did things like have casual sex and experience bouts of depression. But these narratives left much to be desired. The rise of DIY internet-based series like Broad City and High Maintenance offers something new—a fresh sensibility where we can begin to see ourselves, perhaps for the first time, reflected on the screen.

It was in this brave new internet playscape that the fictional band Zhe Zhe hit the scene. The web series follows the intoxicatingly delusional, celebrity-obsessed bandmates Jean D’Arc and Mona de Liza, played by Leah Hennessey and Ruby McCollister, who are at constant odds with their evil ex- bandmate Chewie Swindleburne, played by Emily Allan. The three Zhes are blinded by their Warholian pursuit of fame for fame’s sake, endlessly pining for musical careers they make zero moves to advance. Offscreen, however, their work ethic is quite the opposite. The Zhe Zhe cast are involved in every aspect of the show’s production—acting, writing songs and imagining the farcical universe of “post-apocalipstick New York” alongside collaborating director E.J. O’Hara and cinematographer Max Lakner.

“With Zhe Zhe, I feel like our minds merged and gave birth to a weirder, deeper and more intelligent mind. It has a will of its own,” Hennessey reflects over a small mountain of Italian cheesecake at the gaudy East Village institution Veniero’s.

It is this collective mind that produces the show’s unapologetically sacrilegious humor (the band members are self-proclaimed gender-benders, yet source lyrics from Judith Butler with no apparent understanding of their meaning) and its prophetic social commentary (greed and corruption in one early episode is epitomized by a room full of suited men in orange wigs years before Trump would be elected president). “People say to us, ‘that’s so Zhe Zhe,’ or ‘everything is getting more Zhe Zhe,’” McCollister jokes. “Oftentimes it feels like we’ve created a hell for ourselves to live in.”

Hell, or maybe a utopian vision of what filmmaking can do even with the most limited of resources. Ripley Soprano, a member of the skate crew and feminist art collective Brujas who has also collaborated on the band’s live performances, credits the Zhe Zhe crew for their commitment to an anti- capitalist project. “The web series is truly DIY. When one of them gets some dough from a grandma or a day job, they pool their resources and funds and pull together a crazy but necessary costume, or some small detail—a poster that hangs in a character’s room, a wig, whatever—that lays out bread crumbs for an upcoming plotline. They are so dedicated to making every single detail of the show memorable and striking.”

When Zhe Zhe launched on YouTube in the fall of 2013, it was one of the first internet sitcoms of its kind—it was only four years earlier that Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson’s webseries-turn-network hit Broad City surfaced on the same platform. Both shows offered a depiction of truth, even within over-the-top comic frameworks. In a 2015 Grantland profile of the comedy duo, Glazer identifies their project as emerging from a desert-like atmosphere of how women really think and behave. “Every girl I know shits and talks about it and fucks and talks about it. And people are like, these women are filthy! And I’m like, not compared to my friends. The show may be a cartoon version of us, but the cartoon sometimes gets closer to reality than anything,” Glazer says.

In its second season, Zhe Zhe has found its sharpest tool of critique so far—using the language of film itself to rewrite its rules and limitations. This unfolds most potently when the crew embarks on a shot-for-shot recreation of the ’70s cinema classic Five Easy Pieces. Never is Jean’s particular brand of vampire narcissism more well employed than when she emulates the brooding Jack Nicholson character, or Mona’s vaudevillian physical comedy more delightfully dithering as Karen Black’s waitress-girlfriend act. We are treated to soliloquies that nail down the thesis of the show, like Jean professing: “I genre hop a lot, not because I’m borrowing motifs from different musical traditions, and synthesizing them to create a unique, subversive sound and political messages—just because I want to be famous.”

“When we started Zhe Zhe, there was all this hype around girls and film,” says Hennessey. Yet the very conceit of ‘girls and film’ lumps together diverse and unpinnable lived experiences. It also makes it a duty to ‘represent’ all ‘girls’ to the point of illegibility. Rather, Zhe Zhe constantly toys with fiction, unlikability and contradiction with their completely self-made project.

Click here for their season three trailer.