In advance of Sunday’s first season finale of ‘Girls’, the HBO comedy staring Lena Dunham which is both my favorite new show of the season (sorry New Girl!) and the subject of an enormous amount of contraversy for a show that has only once recorded over a million viewers. I’m certainly not the first to talk about the show but I wanted to record my thoughts as well, in hopes that maybe even as a drip in a larger pond I might be able to grab a few people’s attention who might at this point be confused at the larger media narrative toward the series.
Let me lead off with the praise, before getting into the criticisms (and their possible merits or lack thereof). ‘Girls’ is big and brash while managing to be specific and nuanced. That’s a heck of a trick to pull. It’s more explicit, realistic and relatable about sex than nearly any show on television. It does cringe humor about as well as anything this side of ‘Louie’ (and in fact seems to share a certain bit of comic DNA with that show). It depicts twenty-something angst in a way that rightfully trivializes it at times and yet takes it profoundly seriously in a way that I can easily and firmly relate to. Finally, importantly – it’s damned funny, every time out.
The main media criticisms coming it’s way (and to be fair, it’s both a lightning rod and a critical darling) seem to be two fold. Both of these criticism seem to come from the place of finding the show to be too insular in it’s viewpoint.
First there is the charge that there are too few minority characters, especially given the show takes place in Brooklyn. It’s hard to know what to say to this, because on the face of it, it seems both to be a reasonable charge and yet a glorification of token-ism. Lena Dunham, the creator, star and main writer (and occasional director) of the series has noted that she both plans to diversify the cast in the second season, to some degree and also claimed that she didn’t include more minorities because she didn’t feel she could accurately represent the viewpoint of them, more than anything. The addition of, among others, Donald Glover of Community fame, to the cast next year should help this but I’m not sure I find it to be a big issue.
One of the main things the show has going for it is it’s specificity. Every character, from Lena’s Hannah down to one time guests (such as a memorable appearance by one of my favorite stand-up comedians, Mike Birbiglia) tend to have very strong and specific character traits. And the re-occuring characters grow and change over time, as well they should. But Lena, in her role as the near be-all end-all of the show didn’t feel she could accurately portray the experience of a minority character with that specificity, at least in the first several episodes, well – it seems like arguing against that is an argument for the show to be everything to everyone, which it isn’t going to be and shouldn’t try to be. If anything I’m made nervous by the idea that the show seems to be boxed in to having to try and add token minority characters.
The other major compliant seems to be that these characters are too entitiled and unlikeable. And this seems to miss the boat entirely. I’m not about to say that everyone making this complaint is doing so from a position of mysogony but it’s hard to deny that the places that cover the show extensively seem to be havens for people to make fun of Lena’s weight and percieved lack of attractiveness as a reason in and of itself to dislike the show.
But getting down to the real core complaint here – again, I think it comes down to specificity and the inability of the show to be everything to everyone. This is a show about mid-20s women coming of age in the big city and it is very much warts and all. The show begins with our main character coming off as an unlikeable ungrateful bitch and plays that card often and with aplomb. This is not a show that is afraid to make you dislike it’s characters, from it’s lead to it’s supporting cast. And that’s OK – as much as you frequently might find yourself disliking these people for individual actions, with few exceptions you are likely to be rooting for them, even in spite of yourself along the way. And that, I think, is the mark of an interesting piece of art. It’s fine to wish it was more accessable, if you find it inaccessable for whatever reason (probably most likely is that many people are inclined to want to out and out like the characters in a show they are going to follow, which is their perogative, most certainly) but I have a hard time hearing from people who have already decided they dislike the show and would wish to push the narrative of it’s lack of quality and having been over-rated on any and everyone who will listen. The world might be a better place if these people moved on and offered their opinion on such things, perhaps only if asked, at least at this point.
Lena’s Hannah is a brat and often worse than that. She’s an aspiring writer (in theory) and a bit of a charity case, from her parents (who cut her off at the beginning of the pilot) to her best friend Marnie who is, for much of the season paying her bills for her. She is engaging in what is, at best, even with recent movement on it’s front, a fraught relationship with a man named Adam who could certainly at most times, especially as the series begins, treat her better. Her aimlessness and mix of being a seeming know-it-all with unaware niaevette, mixed with a pension for pushing things a bit too far are probably her defining characteristics.
Hannah often comes off poorly and this seems, at once, realistic and as a reaction to Lena Dunham, perhaps, overcompinsating for what she is asking the rest of the cast to do by taking the majority of the comedy on the nose. She’s been naked (and mocked for it), cruel, stupid and hurtful at times. She’s also oddly charming. You can see, if you look close enough, a worthwhile person who just hasn’t quite gotten themselves together as best they could and on many ways there is an underdog quality to the narrative that is quite effective. That Hannah is often an underdog because on inherent schmuckiness is actually very true to the character of many twenty-something talented but aimless creative types.
The other titular girls include Marnie, Hannah’s roommate and best friend. She’s perhaps, even more than Hannah, the worst person of the group and probably the hardest to sympathize with, even as things happen around her that would seemingly lead one to do so. As the series begins she’s stuck in a relationship with boy, Charlie, who is both in love with her and doting but also, in her mind deeply boring which may have come with the fact that their relationship is several years old and probably a few past it’s natural expiration.
Also there is Jessa, a Brit with both a lazie faire cool to her and some serious issues. She seems to get effortlessly into and out of trouble in a way that some people actually do. She seems on some level to be floating through both the show and life, finding no real pathos in spite of pregnancy scares, random drug use and seeming globe hopping. As the show goes on it seems she’s more and more on verge of hitting a wall but of all the main characters she’s the one who seems to have the easiest time in the world. She’s also often very unlikeable, perhaps for that reason above all but also because she doesn’t tend to give much of a shit about most things or people. But it’s also hard for me to argue the voracity of her character. She seems very nearly fully realized. She has flaws running deep but they don’t seem to trip her up much and most people she meets don’t even seem to notice them, entranced as they can be in her effortless cool.
Certainly entranced is her cousin and roommate Shoshana, who might, on any other show be a clear breakout character. She has broken out in the sense that she wasn’t planned initially to be a series regular until actress Zosia Mamet nailed the part in the pilot. If the show can be compared to the other HBO series about women in New York, (Sex in the City, of course), she’d be the show’s Charlotte, although she’d like to prefer to call herself a Carrie/Charlotte/Miranda mix, as she notes in her first scene, technicolor Sex in the City movie poster in the foreground, to a thoroughly confused Jessa.
Shoshana is the comedy relief, on some level, to a show that already has plenty of humor. There has been talk that she seems like a character from another, broader comedy but I think she both rings true in her exhuberant uncool naievete and is a clear scene stealer. She’s given less to do than anyone else but she rarely not a highlight of the show.
The men in the cast are largely excellent and flawed as well. The main male cast member is Adam, Hannah’s would be boyfriend and as we begin the season seemingly regular friend with benefits. Although it’s not entirely clear they are even quite friends. They engage in small talk and then get to, often graphic and embarrasing (especially for Hannah) sex. Adam’s portrayal over the course of the first season is the most radically changed episode to episode – taken at face value in the first few episodes he could be taken somewhat monsterously. And yet, as time goes on he is discovered to have some unexpected layers (while never really shedding the earlier characterization even if he moves you past initial revulsion – for the most part)
I may well come back to this, to write a follow up but I just wanted to put this out there to encourage anyone who might be on the fence to give Girls a fair shake. In a lot of ways, having watched this and the previously reviewed ‘Mary Tyler Moore Show’ at the same time they seem like both pure products of their time in an oddly linked fashion – they are show made largely with a female touch about a female protagonist trying to find her way in a world she doesn’t quite know and understand quite yet. MTM stands as a light, 70s look at the way being a 30something career woman could work and I think Girls, in many respects stands as a far cruder, more realistic look at today’s 20something women and trouble that even what might appear to be among the more privledged have to go through to make it through the world.
Girls season finale airs at both 10 and 10:30 PM EST on HBO but I recommend that you check out the pilot episode and make a judgment for yourself – I think it’s maybe one of the finest comedy pilots I’ve ever seen, honestly.