Midsummer Chaos had the makings of a successful US teen TV show — an attractive male lead with a mysterious backstory, dramatic parties, and troubled romantic relationships. So why did that formula not work for Pakistani audiences?
When web-series Midsummer Chaos aired, it instantly became the centre of memes and tweets poking fun at it. Even after the release of the second episode, users tweeted about watching the series just to keep up with the jokes. But in the midst of all the spins on Sameer’s aggressive dialogues and recent speculations about the unusual relationship between Haris and an unnamed character played by Meher Bano, there is something telling — a cry for coming-of-age stories that are relatable and moving for the average Pakistani.
The group of teenagers in the web-series are in their summer before college and so far each have their own set of challenges. Sameer has an absent father, Kaira has moved to Pakistan from Canada after her parents got divorced, Alynah is grappling with her identity and Haris has a turbulent romantic relationship with Alynah.
But at the end of the day, they still belong to the Islamabadi elite with money and a well-connected social circle to fall back on. Although such circumstances are not uncommon in Pakistan, the privilege they are surrounded by makes it difficult to empathise with their problems or connect to their characters.
While there are episodes yet to go, how do we empathise with Sameer’s troubles and not view his character as toxic when his first impression was angrily entering his car, lashing out at Harris twice, once over ‘girlfriend problems’ and later for intervening in his scuffle at a party?
Coming-of-age shows like Gossip Girl have soared to fame with similar formulas and so many of us have even intently completed BuzzFeed quizzes to find out whether we are scheming social butterfly Blair or good-girl-gone-bad Serena. But the show and characters are still closely based on social contexts and activities that are common in the US.
How are local audiences supposed to connect to Pakistani teenagers whose biggest trouble on the way to a party is picking up two friends, not being subjected to a round of questioning from parents or skipping from one friend's house to another's car to get there? While obstacles like that may seem minor, such nuances may help tailor characters to local contexts, even if the storyline is based on an American model.
But aside from that, even though shows like Gossip Girl and Riverdale may have successfully delivered the dramatic rich kid trope in their shows, they are not the holy grail of coming-of-age TV shows, especially not for Pakistanis. Gossip Girl has been called out a lot lately for romanticising Chuck Bass’ character despite his predatory nature. Riverdale is frequently made fun of for its overly dramatic storyline and dialogues.
If anything, many of us from the Pakistani Gen Z have more frequently watched and connected to American teen shows such as Gilmore Girls or Friends where everyday interactions or financial circumstances add certain challenges and humour to the story. Of all shows, are young Pakistanis really ready for or interested in their very own Riverdale?
Probably not. They crave depth.
Young Pakistanis, however lively and outgoing, do not seem to be interested in stories that are just about partying and teenage drama. They want shows and movies that do not shy away from class disparities, hyper-conservative social norms or pressures of living up to familial expectations and responsibilities.
They want shows where young people make money from unconventional careers or navigate double lives to hide from their families or movies where they grapple with the version of Islam they are taught at home and the one they see weaponised in the news.
The difference between coming of age in Midsummer Chaos and real life for most Pakistanis can perhaps be best demonstrated by tweets in early May where people shared their coming-of-age experiences. One thread was particularly popular with other users expressing how much they related to one aspect or another.
Coming of age for these young Pakistanis included the parties, the relationships and the drama but there was also a lot more that led up to it — wardrobe changes at a friend’s place from long shirts to short ones, the risk and distress of being snitched on for private social media photos and male friends, hiding text messages and sneaking off to debate tournaments and protests. These challenges are not distinct to Pakistan but are widespread and often impact women more than men. Some of these challenges solely impact women.
What about the women?
So far, Midsummer Chaos has not accounted for how coming-of-age or even everyday experiences can be different for the male and female characters in the show.
Outfit choices are perhaps the most prominent example of a coming-of-age (and honestly, lifelong) experience that impacts women the most. Yet, in Midsummer Chaos, we see Alynah casually walk into a busy café in Islamabad wearing a short dress.
“I wish that could happen, but you can’t walk into a public space wearing those kinds of clothes without facing a problem,” said Monazza Asif Farooqi, a 20-year-old student from Islamabad. Most Islamabadi women, even from the upper class, have much more limited mobility compared to men, she said, adding that such disparities are important to convey in any Pakistani show.
Churails is another Pakistani web-series that seemed to be geared more towards younger audiences. Pakistanis excitedly binged the drama that portrayed strong women getting back at unfaithful husbands and escaping abusive relationships. But despite the appreciation for such content, people were also quick to point out certain dynamics being glossed over too easily such as elite women working side by side with working class ones.
But young Pakistanis are not all a hyper-woke set of people for whom depth can only be measured by the inclusion of social issues or serious situations. Audiences want emotions from characters and a relationship with them for the show to have depth, even if it’s about light-hearted situations or elites. The characters need to be multi-dimensional and have both good and bad qualities without being an exaggeration of a stereotype, according to Shabee ul Hassan, a director and playwright from Lahore.
“If the profile of the character is built on certain stereotypes, it will end up looking like a caricature instead of a person,” explained Hassan, who has been doing theatre professionally for the past 10 years.
Pakistanis want characters and emotions that account for the complexities of our lives. The equal parts humiliating and amusing nature of parents calling us out, the wariness around extended relatives and friends of friends and the ups-and-downs of cousins who are our closest confidants and greatest enemies all at once.
We do not aspire to be Pakistani Blair Waldorfs, or influencers turned models, we aspire to live the lives of the Pakistani character who becomes a musician fulfilled by their career despite the opposition on grounds of religion and what people will think, the woman who works her way up to getting a job outside the prying eyes of the country.
But even in the absence of relatable stories and characters — since they cannot be relatable for everyone — how can audiences still be made to connect to characters, especially given the emotional rollercoaster of a coming-of-age story?
It is not just dialogue or acting that creates the right blend of emotions, it is also subtle cues such as lighting and sound and colours that set the mood and subtly convey a message, according to Hassan. “If everything is too direct, it might come off as spoon-feeding,” he said. "Everyone that is involved in the creation...should trust in the intellect of their target audience."
In Pakistani productions specifically, language may also be one of the greatest keys to connection.
Despite the stereotype that the middle and upper-class Pakistani youth is 'burger,’ several tweets have expressed discomfort over the exaggerated American accents and the awkward Urdu dialogue in Midsummer Chaos. Meher Bano’s scenes that are heavier with Urdu dialogue entirely change the tone of the show. That does not mean, however, that Pakistanis want just anything in Urdu that sounds poetic or profound. Viewers have expressed that the dialogue in the series needed more work and did not entirely make sense.
While the stereotype of Islamabad is that the young residents there only speak English, it is not necessarily because of an aversion to Urdu, according to Farooqui, which makes the exaggerated accents misleading by missing out on certain characteristics of the city's diverse population.
“Islamabadis don't speak in one accent, even if they're rich, and the reason for that is they all come from different backgrounds,” Farooqui said, adding that their native language is usually not Urdu, therefore they don't always speak it very well.
But even if a show chooses to stick with stereotypes and focus on elites, characters need enough development for audiences to connect with them despite their privilege. “The vulnerability of the character should be emphasised, which should diminish the notion of invincibility that comes with privilege,” Hassan said.
It took effort and confidence for the Midsummer Chaos cast and crew to bring it to life. Although viewers seem to want the cinematography and editing of Western TV shows replicated before other aspects, the web-series is not backed by a big production house nor does it have a massive budget.
There are other Pakistani web-series that are more targeted towards the youth and produced well with interesting characters. Middle Se Ooper shows how the Mujahid family adapts to their new lifestyle after shifting into an exclusive property in DHA. The Roomeos uses a humorous approach to show how three friends with different views on life strive to fulfil their dreams. Superheroes, released in 2020, revolves around the everyday lives of four Pakistani women navigating circumstances from work and personal ambitions to family life and their place in society. However, all these web-series have also been backed by big companies or production houses, such as Kenwood, BVC Media and Teeli.
It is a good sign that young people are taking charge of filmmaking but what is more crucial right now is a calculated portrayal of their stories and emotions. Coming-of-age experiences are particularly unique in Pakistan and we need that represented in our films.