Nasim Pedrad’s Chad brings an inspiring complexity to the comic gaps of adolescent awkwardness. By Sarah Krasnostein.
“A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke,” wrote the artist Vincent van Gogh – described by his biographer as one of the world’s loneliest souls – to his brother Theo in 1880. In a certain light, this quality of tortured isolation also captures the weighty gestalt of Chad, the 14-year-old Persian–American boy played by the 39-year-old actress, comedian and showrunner Nasim Pedrad in the eponymous sitcom currently streaming on SBS On Demand.
“I think they were assuming that I would write … my version of a show about a woman in her 30s dating in a big city, or at least something familiar like that,” Pedrad (Saturday Night Live, New Girl, People of Earth, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) told Vanity Fair earlier this year about the development deal that led five years later to Chad. Instead, she created the highly specific – and, at times, tenderly universal – social world precariously inhabited by Ferydoon “Chad” Amani as he runs the gauntlet of his first year of high school, determined to make it with the cool kids.
Chad lives with his single mother, Naz (Saba Homayoon), his uncle Hamid (Paul Chadidi) and his sage younger sister, Niki (Ella Mika). We never meet his father, who remains in Iran. Chad is at that liminal age where he is yet to become an adequately functioning teenager, and the little boy frequently bursts through in ways that range from the hilarious to the heartbreaking.
Whether it is in the contents of his lunchbox, the way that he speaks or his ill-timed shows of affection, Chad is perpetually reminded that he is a cultural other. He is less popularity obsessed than starving for a particular type of social belonging. This gets him repeatedly into trouble despite the best efforts of his supportive family and the good counsel of Peter, his best friend and single source of narcissistic supply. Peter is played by the talented Jack Ryan with the same delicious self-containment that director Mike Nichols loved about Dustin Hoffman’s performance in The Graduate, which he described as that “deal where you do nothing and it turns out you were doing everything”.
The nature of the trouble that Chad gets into is frequently funny, always awkward – at times, almost unbearably so – and occasionally deeply moving. In its range, Chad mirrors that other single-camera emotional rollercoaster: the alternately baffling and brutal hunt for identity and connection that we refer to as adolescence.
Perhaps no one is less welcome at a party (remember those?) than a sociologist and nothing is more uncool than an academic investigation into cool as a cultural category. But in their systematic excavation of the concept, Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude, Dick Pountain and David Robins traced how cool began as a rebelliously detached posture adopted by minority groups and mutated over 50 years into a mainstream preoccupation with consumption for reasons, to paraphrase Nora Ephron, that are obscure to everyone except the Marxists. In young Chad’s overriding obsession with being accepted by a group of jock bros – or in instantaneously adopting his mother’s casual boyfriend, Ikrimah (Phillip Mullings Jr), as a father figure or his zealous enthusiasm for the world of K-pop – he is the opposite of rebelliously detached. But he would happily exchange his money for units of status, if only he could confidently discern what they were.
A similar abyss lies between his longing for acceptance and the reactions that come his way. The anguishing languishing that takes place in that gap is what the author Adam Kotsko referred to in a 2010 essay as “everyday awkwardness”. Awkwardness, he explained, is deceptive because while it appears to radiate from an individual’s incapacity to gracefully navigate the unspoken laws of a particular environment, it is actually an interactive phenomenon more rightfully located in its social context.
The nature of awkwardness, everyday or otherwise, is that you don’t need direct experience to know the grasping desperation to belong in environments you are unable to read. And that’s not exactly because we’ve all felt it in some form; it’s because awkwardness is mobile. As Kotsko writes, it moves through social channels: it spreads. You can’t observe an awkward situation without being drawn in.
This characteristic makes for great comedy or tragedy, depending how you turn it. The gaps between people can potentially function as a social adhesive; it’s the things we cannot gracefully finesse, our moments of deep isolation, that connect us all in the end. That is, if we can sit with the squirming and cringing until we are able to find the human heart of it. If we refuse that offer, it’s just another stop on the long dark road to shame – that too familiar bias towards self-blame in a society that suffers from a poverty of connection.
Chad is not above making a poo joke, and I am not above laughing at one. But it is also true that the show does some very significant things while doing many extremely silly things. First, it centres the entirely relatable daily lives of people who have predominately been represented – or, more accurately, erased – on our screens as terrorists and villains. In creating roles for Middle Eastern characters that were non-existent when she was starting out in television, Pedrad emphasises the arbitrary nature of who’s in and who’s out.
Second, the show delivers a surprising and rare amount of complexity. Even without the conceit of its child protagonist being played by an adult, this would be a serviceably compelling sitcom. Add in the metatheatricality of Pedrad’s radiant, brutally ironic performance and you have a subversive running commentary on how we normalise the distressed bewilderment of our young people – especially those from marginalised communities – as they make their way in a consumerist, monocultural world where the initiation into adulthood has been outsourced to the unmediated, undifferentiated messages of pseudo-worlds online. If Pedrad is at times ungentle with the interior lives of young men, it’s also a comment on toxic masculinity and a testament to how fully she’s brought her character to life.
Chad gives all the visceral viewer discomfort of the British version of The Office, and – in glimpses – the tenderness of the American production. The show has been compared to PEN15 – another new comedy in which 30-something comedians play characters based on their adolescent selves – but it has a sensibility that sits more squarely with Nick Kroll’s Big Mouth, Portlandia, Freaks & Geeks, the superlative stoner comedy classic Superbad, and – in the unwavering commitment with which Pedrad inhabits the micro-world of another exquisitely vulnerable narcissistic little man who utterly lacks integrity while always being only himself – I’m Alan Partridge.
I believe the season could have satisfyingly, even beautifully, ended with episode six (“Hamid”), in which Chad seems to have found what he has been desperately longing for much closer to home. However, perhaps that would’ve been too graceful for a show that thrives on the squirm factor. So perhaps the cliffhanger with which the finale ends is truer to form, and to the experience of high school. And it’s also truer to Kotsko’s suggestion that instead of “trying to come up with some permanent way of overcoming awkwardness, one should go with it”. In other words, by sitting with our squirm we might create a new sort of social spaciousness where there had previously been an arbitrary normativity – a place where we are all only ever our graceless selves and everyone is welcome.
If that’s too much to ask for from this particular comedy, don’t worry: “opportunities to enjoy the community of awkwardness are always there, always available, always ready to erupt, because awkwardness is undefeatable”. Much, it seems, like the shaggy-haired, polo-wearing, K-pop-adoring small man himself.
Chad is streaming on SBS On Demand.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 2, 2021 as "Discomfort viewing".
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