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Girls: “Girls”

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Girls

“Girls”

Season 1, Episode 1

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Girls debuts tonight on HBO at 10:30 p.m. Eastern.

Todd: I’ll be upfront about this, Meredith: Girls is my favorite new comedy of the TV season. Along with Veep, debuting next week, it’s a show where I don’t feel like I need to hedge my praise for it by saying things like, “It has a lot of potential” or “These could be really funny characters given time.” Its comedic point-of-view is immediately nailed down, its characters arrive fully formed, and its direction is non-fussy and to-the-point. In many ways, this feels like HBO’s answer to Louie, and though it’s not as free-form as that show, a lot of the same elements are present: a slightly melancholic tone punctuated by the occasional bit of oddball humor, a strong central voice that seems to guide everything that happens (in this case, creator-writer-director-star Lena Dunham), and a deft focus on what it’s like to live in the big city.

We’ve both seen the first three episodes now, and I’m impressed with how Dunham’s confidence increases with each one. Tonight’s pilot is terrific, and it’s honestly the least of the three, since it takes its time in setting up the world of Hannah (Dunham), a young woman who wants to be a writer but is having a hard time finding gainful employment. The only way she’s able to live is thanks to the generosity of her parents, and as the series begins, they’ve decided to cut her off. (Peter Scolari is particularly perfect as her father.) Her friends include Allison Williams’ Marnie, who’s stuck in a relationship that’s good but increasingly not what she wants; Jemima Kirke’s Jessa, who’s returning from some time away; and Zosia Mamet’s Shoshanna, who’s a little off-kilter in the way only a Mamet character can be.

The thing I like best about Girls is just how level-headed it is about all of these characters. It’s not afraid to suggest that Hannah’s writing might actually be terrible. (The “voice of my generation” moment so prominently featured in HBO’s trailers as an inspirational moment is actually a big laugh-line in the episode—one directed at Hannah’s state of mind and delusions of grandeur.) It’s not afraid to show that Marnie’s being kind of an awful person to her boyfriend. It’s not afraid to suggest that Jessa’s flightiness has its own consequences. Yet the show’s never judgmental either. Dunham has a gift for viewing these characters with the right mixture of skepticism and generosity, something that wasn’t always apparent in her earlier work. It’s deft and mature, even if the period it covers is one laced with immaturity.

If there’s a complaint that will most likely be leveled against the show, it’s probably that it’s not filled with 500 laughs per minute. There are big laughs in every single episode—I love Hannah’s weird love interest Adam (Adam Driver), who might be one of the funniest characters on TV right now—but it’s not a show that’s afraid to spend a whole episode in, say, a Planned Parenthood clinic and explore the variety of emotions that might occur within such a space. This is a show that takes age-old sitcom setups—Hannah finds out the boy she used to date has a big secret—and plays them for both laughs and pathos, making them feel oddly fresh again.

But, of course, I’m watching this as a voyeur, someone who’s never been (or even really known) a 25-year-old woman trying to make her way in Manhattan. I’m from the hedonistic paradise of California, so maybe I don’t really get New York. You, Meredith, have a lot more experience with both the world and characters of Girls. What did you think? Does it get everything wrong?

Meredith: As a rule, when I know I’ll be writing about a show, I try to go in blind, strenuously avoiding other reviews until I’ve had my own chance to see the work in question, but the deafening buzz about Girls has made this all but impossible. For weeks now, I’ve heard murmurings about the greatness of the show, mostly from other TV writers, but also from my closest friend since high school, who also happened to live with me in a dilapidated Williamsburg loft when we were both about Lena Dunham’s age. “It’s going to hit home,” she promised—or perhaps it was meant it as a warning?

Even with such high expectations, I can confidently declare myself a fan of Girls, if not exactly for the reasons you might think. Of course, there’s a kind of narcissistic pleasure in recognizing the bodegas and bars the various girls wander in and out of, but there’s more to it than that. Plenty of the scenarios that play out in the series have a certain wince-inducing familiarity: the thankless unpaid internships; the doomed casual relationship you desperately hope will turn into something more, if for no other reason than some vague need for self-validation; the elaborately justified emotionally reckless behavior; the way that living in New York engenders a totally distorted sense of what it means to be “poor.” And while I have yet to “throw an abortion” for a close friend, I suppose I easily could have at some point.

But what is most familiar and, I think, revelatory about Girls —more than the neighborhoods, the fashions, or the monumentally awkward sex—is the way Dunham’s characters actually talk to one another. That’s why my favorite scene in the pilot is Marnie and Hannah’s conversation about Jessa’s impending return to New York. Hannah suggests it’s really “friend-ish” of them to throw her a coming-home party, but Marnie is dreading the whole ordeal. “I just know she’s going to show up late wearing some fabulous blanket-y dress from a Grecian marketplace and be like, ‘Oh I can’t remember where I got this,’” she says, perfectly affecting both Jessa’s posh British accent and her rich-girl obliviousness. Everything about this moment is so dead-on—from the way Marnie absentmindedly browses the drink offerings, to the imprecise-yet-completely-evocative image of a “blanket-y dress,” to the telling mixture of idolization and resentment in Marnie’s words. It’s an observation that’s as bitingly hilarious and as it is emotionally fraught.

Girls might not have the laughs-per-minute ratio of a more mainstream comedy, but to me it’s a funny show because its characters are actually funny people —a rather crucial distinction, if you ask me. Marnie, Hannah, et al. aren’t merely vehicles for delivering punchlines or bad puns, they’re three-dimensional humans who happen to make lots of droll observations and witty allusions. And while other much-hyped women-centric shows this season have tried—and mostly failed—to capture the casual vulgarity of the urban 20something, the rape and vagina jokes on Girls work because they feel organic. They exist to serve a larger storytelling purpose, not merely to shock. To me, this is the most realistic aspect of Girls—that it not just “proves” that women, too, can be funny (as if that’s even necessary), but that it actually captures the way real young (and young-ish) people talk to each other. The Girls are over-educated, snarky, and crass, but there’s also real warmth and affection between them. Who knows if Lena Dunham is, in fact, “the voice of her generation,” but she certainly has a very good ear.

Now that I’ve gushed about the show at length, I will say the only character who’s not really working for me yet is Shoshanna. Although Mamet nails what I like to call the “publicist accent”—basically, the geographically non-specific version of Valley Girl talk—her character seems rather too broad. I suppose she’s there to provide some contrast to the cynicism of the other girls, to be—Oh, God, I can’t help myself—the “Charlotte” of the group, but I’m not sure I totally buy her yet.

So here’s a question for you, Todd. Dunham’s detractors like to hold her privileged Manhattan upbringing against her, which I think is unfair, but there’s no doubt that Girls portrays a very specific, astonishingly white version of New York City. But do you think that matters, or does the comedy transcend the show’s slightly myopic worldview?

Todd: I always find criticisms of artist’s worldviews a little ridiculous to begin with. I mean, yes, if Dunham is still making this same basic story when she’s 55, then it will have gotten beyond old. But it feels a little silly to me to request that Dunham look outside of her own demographic and make a series about an Amish farmer who’s worried about all the stuff his kids might read about on the Internet or something. Down that road lies shallow hackwork.

I think what we need to ask from our artists is that they open up their worlds enough that we can step into them, that we can feel empathy for people who aren’t like us at all. While I’ll agree the show struggles with Shoshanna in that regard sometimes, I do think the series expertly draws its characters so that we’re right there in the midst of their struggles and problems. One of the problems lots of critics had with Dunham’s feature Tiny Furniture was that it had trouble looking beyond the Dunham character’s rather myopic point-of-view. (I thought that was kind of the point, but we’re not here to argue about that.) In that regard, Girls is a quantum leap over her earlier work. Hannah’s our point-of-view character, sure, but we’re ultimately just as invested in the struggles of the other three women or in the lives of their love interests. In this regard, the show’s key difference from Louie—the presence of a small but consistent writing staff—is a help, as the characters feel incredibly fleshed-out and real.

Of course, there have been a lot of stories about upper-class white people in New York City. Girls doesn’t so wildly break from convention that everybody watching it will say, “Oh, I’ve never seen that before,” but it answers the question of why we need another series about this particular milieu fairly succinctly: We need it because the voice of Dunham and her collaborators is unique enough that it pulls along material we’ve seen dozens of times before. I’ve already praised the character development of the series, but I’m also impressed by how it’s not afraid to tackle larger questions of generational malaise and the uncertainty of being in your 20s.

TV producers have been trying since thirtysomething debuted in the 1980s to make a show that was similarly small-scale and perfectly observed about people in their 20s, but all efforts have failed, either getting cancelled quickly or turning into bizarre soap operas. Girls has almost accidentally backed into being thirtysomething for 20somethings by downplaying everything and by taking a firm look at what it’s like to be young and overqualified in a job market where absolutely nobody is hiring the young and overqualified. Hannah’s work experiences inform the pilot, but there’s also the sense that, say, Marnie is ridiculously overqualified for her own job, or that Jessa’s flightiness is driven by external circumstances as much by her own internal compass. At the same time, Dunham has a very dry and sardonic way of pulling back and viewing these characters objectively. Just when you expect her to do some sort of, “Oh, doesn’t Hannah have it rough?” moment, she’ll utterly undercut and humiliate the very character she’s playing. (She discussed her tendency to do this to her own characters at length in this interview I conducted with her back in January. I think it’s the thing that makes her stuff work.)

The specter of Sex And The City looms large over this series. HBO hasn’t really tried a show about four women in the big city since that earlier series, and there have been disparaging comparisons between the shows (especially when Girls was first announced). Indeed, a poster of the women from the earlier show literally looms over one particular set. But I think this series works because it undercuts the fairy-tale fantasies of Sex In The City (where life in the big city was ever-so amazing) with a kind of frank realism that makes the jokes that much funnier.

You’ve already mentioned Charlotte, Meredith. What debt do you think this series owes to that one, if any debt? And, also, how do you think the series works with the fact that the people in Dunham’s demographic do almost all of their communication over computers and cell phones, something that’s fairly uncinematic?

Meredith: Although the shows are tremendously different in many respects, Girls certainly owes a huge debt to Sex And The City, and as you’ve suggested, Dunham is fully aware of this. There’s the poster, of course, but there’s also the sex itself. Because Sex And The City became so much more crassly materialistic in its later seasons—and in its two big-screen adaptations—it’s easy to forget that what got people talking, at least initially, was the show’s graphic and frequently very awkward portrayal of sex. I think this is probably the biggest point of connection between Sex And The City and Girls. As provocative as it might be to hear Adam fantasize about sending Hannah home “covered in cum,” let’s not forget that, until he played Roger Sterling on Mad Men, John Slattery was best known to most women in the United States as The Guy Who Wanted To Pee On Carrie Bradshaw.” Yes, Sex And The City could be terribly cartoonish, especially anytime Samantha was getting it on, but it undoubtedly paved the way for the excruciatingly funny, if sometimes hard to watch, sex in Girls.

You’re also right to point out that Girls undercuts the fantasy and aggressive superficiality of Sex And The City. Its mood as well as its setting—Brooklyn! The horror!—seem more in line with the current economic and cultural climate. What I think is so interesting, though, is that Girls is more than just a post-crash corrective to the glossy fairy tale of Sex And The City. Sure, the various references to that show function as a self-conscious nod to Girls’ obvious forbearer, but they also point to the wider cultural influence of the series well beyond the confines of cable television: Like it or not, we live in a post-Sex And The City world. In the pilot, Shoshanna launches into a monologue about which character she most identifies with—she’s a Carrie with some latent Samantha tendencies, or so she claims. But later, when Shoshanna recommends an obviously lame dating advice book, she outs herself as a kind of romantic rube. Her uncritical consumption of Sex And The City and all things “pink and cheesy” makes Shoshanna hopelessly uncool, yet Hannah also reluctantly admits the book in question contains some “very real wisdom.” Girls gets that plenty of women—even smart, urbane ones—both love and hate the show and everything it stands for; it acknowledges the potent allure of the Sex And The City fantasy, while also pointing to its severe limitations.

As for the question of technology, I’m not sure I even agree that texting and Facebook are all that uncinematic—after all, they’re both visual formats, and in that sense a text is a more efficient way to convey someone’s thoughts than a clumsy, over-written voiceover. But having said that, I think Girls is wise to use technology as a prompt for good, old-fashioned conversation. Rather than watching Hannah fuss endlessly with a text or tinkering with her Facebook profile, for instance, we listen as she and Marnie minutely analyze the romantic implications of various modes of communication. Later, in a moment of crisis, Hannah complains about another girl’s passive-aggressive “like”-ing of her Facebook status. (Meanwhile, Jessa is thought to be impossibly cool because she doesn’t even have a Facebook account.) While I’m nowhere near old enough to feel alienated by iPhones, I’d say the show takes a very relatable approach to technology: While it clearly influences the way the characters act, and probably contributes to their youthful ennui, it never takes over the narrative or becomes a subject unto itself. Their angst is nothing new, even if the medium for it is.   

Todd: I think you make a good point. Lots of shows have struggled with depicting the Internet and how it’s used in our day-to-day lives because they try too hard to make it cinematic. It’s not all that interesting to watch someone sit there and type, so directors will often toss in all sorts of crazy visual flourishes and talk about how we’re “more connected than ever” or what have you. Girls starts with the idea that, yeah, we’re more connected than ever, but so what? We still have the same problems with communication we’ve always had; they just seem larger than ever because we’ve got so many other windows to type them into. The show also smartly uses those windows to function the way a voiceover (as you mention) or a song in a musical might: to let us know what our heroine is really thinking about things. It’s both simple and smart. We watch Hannah attempt to type a tweet about a humiliating experience, but as she revises it, we get a window not only into her ever-shifting feelings about things, but also into her own creative process. Dunham essentially kills two birds with one stone there, since if we’re to believe Hannah’s a writer, then we need to see how her process works. Watching her compose a tweet about something she’s just suffered through is far more interesting than watching her slave over an essay (and shorter too).

Obviously, we could probably go on about this show (and each episode) in minute detail, but that seems like as good a place as any to leave things. Needless to say, I think we’d both highly recommend Girls. Regardless of any potential viewer’s skepticism about Dunham or yet another show about white people in New York City or the show’s lack of premise, it’s a show that needs to be seen before jumping to conclusions. (For one thing, it’s almost impossible to boil down into a trailer or ad, which is why HBO’s campaign for it seems a little inept.) There are a lot of shows about young people trying to make it in the big city; Girls stands out both for its humor and heart, but also for its occasionally brutal honesty.

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