In Defense of HBO's Girls
It feels like we've had this conversation before. An offbeat comedy about an offbeat girl with mismatched friends debuts and proves instantly divisive, particularly among its target audience of hip tastemakers. But whereas New Girl detractors were proven wrong in a hurry (one season in and it's still one of the most original, esoteric, and affecting sitcoms on network television), history seems to be repeating itself with HBO's similarly titled, but actually very different, Girls. The pilot may not have debuted to blockbuster ratings, but you wouldn't know that from the groundswell of media attention that's accompanied the project since producer Judd Apatow first announced his involvement. And whether it's a badge of honor or an unfair scarlet letter, the resultant backlash has been swift and brutal. So why does a show as demonstrably original (and, in my opinion, terrific) garner negative buzz when something like the massively successful (and hacky) 2 Broke Girls was mostly spared at the outset?
In all the sniping about how entitled its characters are and how hipsters are awful and whether the actresses involved come from privileged backgrounds, people are losing sight of two things: 1. Girls is a comedy. It's observational, it's critical, and it's told from the perspective of a distinctive young woman who has no interest in being like anyone else on TV. 2. Girls is a small show and it wears its influences on its sleeve. In the pilot one character (played by David Mamet's daughter, in case you're into prejudgment) talks about her unabashed love of Sex and the City, and it's assumed that the comparison is meant to be ironic. But that would be a mistake: An entire generation of young women (including, presumably, the ones involved here) were influenced by Sex and the City and it's the character who's never heard of it who comes off worse. In openly acknowledging its forebears, Girls merely refers to the elephant in the room, as if to say, "We will never be as big as that, and that's okay." In other words, the tone is modest and reverential while still poking fun at SATC superfans. Which, come on. We all know at least one.
Girls has also been compared to the '90s work of director Whit Stillman, whose Metropolitan and Last Days of Disco helped invent a subgenre of Manhattan youth stories. So the presence of actor Chris Eigeman (star of many of Stillman's films and guest-star of, yes, Sex and the City) is not a coincidence. It's like writer/director/star Lena Dunham has taken the wind out of armchair critics' comparisons by beating them to it. In her previous work, the indie cult hit Tiny Furniture, a particularly neurotic and nebbishy character actually reads a Woody Allen book on camera. I'm telling you: Nothing looks worse than making fun of a self-deprecator. Dunham isn't trying to impress us with these references, she's admitting where she's coming from before she shows us just where she's going.
Dunham's protagonist Hannah is nowhere near as bright-eyed and naif Zooey Deschanel's Jess, but she similarly views life through a very specific comedic prism, and that's perhaps a reason why people may be fighting an instinctual urge to reject this show: It's comedy from an unusual woman's point of view. Feminist blog Jezebel seemed to find fault with the fact that Girls' realism is too often subverted by its often broad sense of humor, but I think they have it backwards. This is supposed to be a comedy with shades of realism, not the other way around. That Dunham can pack a half-hour with such funny dialogue AND make it spring from the mouths of realistic characters is doubly impressive. In a particularly over-the-top (with awkwardness) sex scene, Hannah can't quite keep herself from laughing at her partner's awful audacity. The joke of what he's doing is as broad as possible, but we're right there with Hannah, feeling mortified and vulnerable, as any normal person would. And the humor is never lost: Girls believes that all our most appalling moments can always be salvaged by a good joke. What's more real than that?
Perhaps the main reason why Girls' detractors haven't learned from the knee-jerk (and I'll say it: slightly misogynist) negative reaction to New Girl is that people urgently want to label an unknown quantity as soon as they possibly can, to relegate it to the over-crowded storage bins of our short-term memories. Anti-New Girl hysteria died down as more episodes proved what early adopters noticed right away: The show was special and only just getting started. The same should prove the case with Girls, whose pilot only hints at the ups and downs to come. For every criticism lobbed at Dunham's show, an answer could very well materialize any time. Maybe Girls agrees with your assessment of entitled youth. Maybe Girls agrees that hipsters are worth taking down a peg. And maybe, just maybe, we should be happy that we live in a world where Girls exists at all. As Gawker's Rich Juzwiak once wrote about the weird backlash to the movie Precious: "I do wonder what would have made these people happy... Not telling this character's story?" Ultimately Dunham is telling a story from her own heart for people who can relate. I may not be the twenty-something female progeny of New York hoi polloi, but I still find Girls incredibly relatable and honest and real. I'm glad it's here.
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