What would be kind of the opposite to Walter White from Breaking Bad? Well, Amy Jellicoe from HBO’s Enlightened would be a very good guess.

She is what Emily Nussbaum introduces as one of a new television archetype: The Hummingbird. Nussmbaum describes this fairly new character (the ‘Ur-Hummingbird’ being Diane from Cheers) with Sue Heck from “The Middle” as an example:

“With her braces and lank hair, Sue is a geek, but not in a cute way. In science class, she designs an experiment to prove that smiles are contagious. Instead, people shy away from her deranged, over-enthusiastic grin—only when she messes up do they start laughing. She’s rejected, again and again, by the popular kids.

But this doesn’t matter, because Sue possesses a primal optimism that amounts to a superpower; she’s generous and idealistic despite plentiful evidence that the world is cruel. Her locker has a “Believe in Yourself” poster; her password is “I Heart Trying.” Her brother Axl may roll his eyes at her, but her Oprah-esque visions keep Sue going, and “The Middle” is on Sue’s side: someday, the world will appreciate this girl for who she is.” (Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker)

Sue Heck (from “The Middle”), Leslie Knope (from “Parks and Recreation”), Amy Jellicoe (from a brilliant show “Enlightened”) and Carrie Matheson (from “Homeland”) are all Hummingbirds, according to this theory.

What then, exactly, is The Hummingbird? Emily Nussbaum mentions some criteria. It is:

  1. Slightly anxiety provokingly intense.
  2. Idealistic, it keeps hoping. (It hearts trying).
  3. A dreamer with an (often comically) irritant personality.
  4. “Not merely spunky, but downright obsessive”.
  5. A protagonist, not a minor character.
  6. Alienating yet sympathetic.
  7. Possibly only female??

The characters’ most important trait is thus a liberating ambivalence: they are irritating but idealistic, alienating but sympathetic, freakishly intense but in a good way. Emily Nussbaum explains why this is so important: they are not there to be liked. It isn’t important, whether they are likable or not – and yet they are no where near the male anti-heroes like Walter White, Dexter Morgan, Jackson Teller. It is about the cause, the princible. And yes, they are so very flawed and often egoistic – but as opposed to Walter White & co. – they never stop believing, hoping, fighting.

Perhaps there are so many of them now for the same reasons the Walter Whitish anti-heroes are so many-numbered now. The Hummingbird is also an experiment with A Very Flawed Protagonist, someone who just might provoke the viewers and muddle the alliance between viewer and protagonist. Someone who isn’t neccarily particularly likable. (I do like them, but the point is: that’s irrelevant. It’s not about that.)

That is what is liberating about the ambivalence: they are females who are the flawed heroes of their stories, and yet they don’t have to be “cute”, “sweet”, “nice” or even likable. We have long seen male protagonists with that same liberty – often using it for doubious deeds. But the Hummingbirds have a different sort of power – and actual power. They know what they are doing, they are wise and in control – despite all the chaos and flabbery intensity which is also a part of them.

But it’s not about that.

Read the theory

The Hummingbird Theory

Emily Nussbaum's Hummingbird Theory and why we should hope for more Hummingbirds in the future
Read the theory