Hipsters on TV: A Retrospective from Fonzie to ‘Portlandia’


The oxymoronical has happened: Hipsters have gone mainstream. After two weeks on the air, it’s clear that NBC’s Two Broke Girls and Fox’s New Girl are ratings hits — attracting around 12 million and nine million viewers, respectively. What the sitcoms have in common is young female protagonists who (due to living in Williamsburg, baking cupcakes, and dating musicians or wearing glasses and being portrayed by Zooey Deschanel) could fairly be described as hipsters. And it looks like the trend is only just beginning: 25-year-old micro-budget filmmaker Lena Dunham is currently prepping a show called Girls for HBO, and MTV recently gave viewers a sneak preview of the pilot for the Wavves-scored I Just Want My Pants Back, about 20-something creative types living in Brooklyn. (Don’t worry if you missed out — it may well have been the worst half-hour of television we have ever watched.)

But just because they seem to be having a renaissance in 2011, that doesn’t mean hipsters are new to TV. In honor of an archetype whose roots stretch all the way back to the ’50s, we’ve compiled a retrospective of our favorite hipster television characters, from Happy Days to Portlandia. Since we figure you probably know about some incredibly obscure shows we wouldn’t have heard of, we hope you’ll assume your best elitist voice and tell us who we missed in the comments.

Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli, Happy Days

The Fonz may not have been swigging PBR or discussing the finer points of chillwave, but rest assured that this greaser, created amid the ’70s mania for ’50s nostalgia, was an early hipster nonetheless — especially when you consider the prototype Norman Mailer presented in his 1957 essay “The White Negro.” A former teen gang member with a heart of gold, he is the sole leather-jacketed cool guy in a world of letterman-sporting jocks and geeks with Coke-bottle glasses. Hell, there’s even an xBxRx song named after him.

Johnny “Slash” Ulasewicz, Square Pegs

Johnny Slash, an unnaturally quiet high schooler from the short-lived early-’80s sitcom Square Pegs, wants you to know that he isn’t a punk — he’s a New Waver. It makes a difference. Part of a quartet of teenage misfits that features Sarah Jessica Parker a decade and a half before Sex and the City, he’s constantly wearing headphones and is often entirely oblivious to what’s going on around him. He also looks about five years older than the rest of the cast, but we were never sure whether or not that was intentional.

The Young Ones

Although many of them fit into their own, more specific subcultures, the four roommates who made up the ’80s BBC sitcom The Young Ones share many similarities with the loft dwellers of Bushwick. They’re a punk, a hippie, an anarchist, and a mysterious “cool guy” who attend the (obviously fictional) Scumbag College, live in a crappy North London apartment, make each other’s lives miserable, and host impromptu house shows by the likes of Madness, Motörhead, and The Damned.

Clarissa Darling, Clarissa Explains It All

Kids’ TV is generally full of perky achievers and lovable geeks. But Clarissa Darling, the best character on MTV between 1991 and 1994, was genuinely hip. Not only did she wear Keith Haring T-shirts and match patterns like a champ, but she also studied journalism and designed her own video games. When Clarissa spoke directly to the camera, she might as well have been video blogging. When we imagined what she’d be like as an adult, the results were pretty hipster-friendly. Did we mention that she also had a pretty obscure pet — a caiman named Elvis — going for her?

Angela Chase, My So-Called Life

A few years after Clarissa introduced tweens to the basics of high-school bohemianism, Angela Chase taught the master class. You could argue that Rayanne Graff was My So-Called Life‘s resident hipster, but she always struck us as more of a classic hippie or contemporary Burner — free-spirited and drug-loving, with a style that was somewhat reminiscent of Stevie Nicks. Angela, however, was a budding intellectual (or perhaps pseudo-intellectual). Bright, inquisitive, self-dramatizing, and artistic, she seemed bound to take tons of poetry classes in college and maybe go for her MFA. She also rocked a mean flannel.

Trent Lane, Daria

Sure, the artsy Jane Lane was pretty hip. But she was nothing compared to her deep-voiced, prolifically pierced older brother. Aimless, 20-something, and still living off the generosity of his distant parents, Trent fronted a grunge band called Mystik Spiral. And that, apparently, was all he ever did — besides make Daria’s heart go pitter-patter.

Steven Hyde, That ’70s Show

The ’70s hipster seen through a turn-of-the-millennium lens, Hyde was the resident rebel among the pot-smoking teens who congregated in Eric Forman’s basement. Intelligent but uninterested in school, he loves real rock ‘n’ roll (don’t you dare talk to him about disco), is full of anti-establishment conspiracy theories, and crankily dispenses sage advice to his naïve buddies. Eventually, he is thrilled to discover that his real dad is an African-American guy who owns a chain of record stores — and suddenly, everything makes sense.

Claire Fisher, Six Feet Under

Like many future hipsters, Claire Fisher had a pretty miserable time in high school. There were some scary drug moments, some messed up boyfriends, and the general humiliation of being the girl who drives an old hearse. But she hit her stride in art school, where she finds her creative niche, nearly bears the child of her kinda-gay boyfriend, and goes through her own period of sexual experimentation. Although she’s briefly trapped in a straight job, the end of the series finds Claire moving out to New York to rejoin the art world, where she belongs.

Bravo reality competition contestants

You don’t see that many hipsters on TV. Say what you will about them, but at least they tend to have the self-respect to avoid humiliating themselves on shows like The Real World or The Bachelor. The one great exception is Bravo’s reality competition shows — which makes sense, because most of them are devoted to the creative professions. On Top Chef, you’ve got your seasonal-local-comfort-food innovators (see Kevin Gillespie, above); Project Runway (both before and after it moved to Lifetime) is always good for an avant-garde or Etsy-style DIY designer, like Leanne Marshall; Work of Art introduced us to cerebral minimalist Miles Mendenhall and Peregrine Honig, whose work treads the fine line between cutesy and dark; and there were even a few cliquey hipster types on the first season of Bravo’s songwriting competition, Platinum Hit.

April Ludgate, Parks and Recreation

Perhaps, for the first season or two of Parks and Rec, you could make the argument that April Ludgate wasn’t a hipster so much as a sullen, college-age misery chick. But the signs were always there — the sarcastic, ironic sense of humor, a confusing relationship with a boyfriend who has his own boyfriend. By the time April announced, late last season, that her favorite band was Neutral Milk Hotel, there could be no doubt about her true nature.

Jonathan Ames, Bored to Death

Jason Schwartzman’s writer/private eye character Jonathan Ames was conceived by, and loosely based on, the real-life New York novelist and essayist who is also the creator of Bored to Death. If that weren’t enough cred to qualify the bumbling amateur detective as a hipster of the literary variety, we’ll remind you that he lives in Park Slope, writes for a New York-style magazine, and has a bearded comic-book artist for a best friend.

Everyone on Portlandia

Bike messengers. Indie rockers. Local-food purists. Nineties revivalists. Employees of trendy hotels. Punks. Mayors who sit on yoga balls. DIYers who can’t resist putting a bird on it. Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen’s IFC sketch show Portlandia lampoons a wide range of characters who (almost) all have one thing in common — they’re hipsters.