In Defense of HBO's Girls

By Price Peterson

Apr 17, 2012

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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  • koolrebel May 30, 2012

    I love Girls, it's one of the best comedy on cable. I hated Sex & The City, I thought that SEX was unfunny & cruel too men. While Girls is for everyone to enjoy. I highly Recommend GIRLS, try one for yourself.

  • ohnobees Apr 22, 2012

    This show just does nothing for me. I also don't care for New Girl. I was excited because I enjoy Zooey in most of her previous work but it's just a bland premise with 3, to me at least, unlikable male leads.

  • koolrebel May 30, 2012

    You don't know good TV...

  • selbot Apr 19, 2012

    I'd give more creedence to the Jezebel blog entry if the writer knew the meaning of "hunker down". I LOL'd at the image of a rich, cosmopolitan hipster on top of a wobbly table, squatting down on spaghetti 'like there was no tomorrow' and making squishy noises.

  • FlorBlyth Apr 18, 2012

    I've never watched New Girl, somehow never appealed to me the story of a hot smoking girl posing as the droky type living with 3 really good looking guys pretending that everything's cool with each other whilst trying all of them to get it on with her; like I said, I never watched, but that's what the premise of the show says to me. I pass.

    Never watched Sex and the City, I guess I was too young to be into a show with 40 something year old women pretending to be 30 and acting like if they were in their 20's; later on life I learned that it was my destiny NOT to watch it, because, my now husband has an irrational hatred for S J Parker, so I knew that if I was into it, we would have had irrational fights over why he hates her and why I love her, much like the ones we have about Ricky Gervais or Graham Norton, so, thank you life.

    I liked Girls, A LOT, we all have friends like that, is refreshing to tune into a show where everybody looks real, acts real anf feels like real ppl; it made me laugh to think about my friends in college and remember how all of us once felt that we were the voice of our generation, even thoug the only ones that heard us were our friends or family, and then totally forgot about it 30 mins later. I will stick around and give it all the chances it needs before judging, but so far I like the way it's heading.

  • spklvr12 Apr 18, 2012

    My issue is that I liked it, but I didn't think it was funny at all... so as a comedy I guess it sucked, but as a dramedy type thing it works well for me.

  • bmill2 Apr 18, 2012

    I admit I haven't watched Girls yet (I plan on doing so) but here is my take on the show and the reaction to it. The fact that there is a divide in people's opinion probably means its doing something right. The shows with "unilateral" appeal tend to be ones that are built on broad stroke situations and characters (comedy, drama take your pick). They show the world and people in exactly the way that we stereotype or expect the world to be. They are safe, comforting and self-confirming. While that doesn't mean that they can't be engaging and entertaining shows, they fail to challenge the viewer. Shows that receive divided reaction tend to be shows that show a different (extreme or subtle) portrayal of people and the situations they find themselves in. Again, that doesn't mean that they are inherently more funny or engaging. What it does mean is that it is attempting to show a different way to look at the world. And I think that in of itself is worthwhile. So while I may end of not liking the show, I at least can see the merit in allowing this type of show to exist.

  • CiaraGlynn Apr 18, 2012

    I haven't even watched the show and I'm in love with this. This is what I'm ALWAYS saying. If people think a show is based around hipsters, or some other personality-minority, then it's instantly branded 'pretentious'. It's silly for trying to base a show around such silly characters...but why is that? I saw the trailer, I know people like this. What's so wrong about basing a show around this girl? Most of us know this girl. Maybe from a distance, but we do. We've seen her. She's a person. Maybe not the most likeable or charming, but why should TV be based around purely loveable characters? That's not what Breaking Bad is doing and LOOK AT IT. Again, ain't seen the show, only a trailer, so perhaps by opinion counts for nothing, but people need to chill. If you can base a show around a family of aliens, you can base one around a hipster.

  • CiaraGlynn Apr 18, 2012

    Hold up, they're complaining that the actors come from privelaged backgrounds? Now, I haven't read much of this article so far, just the first two paragraphs, and I may be missing something major, and when I continue in a minute I might have to say 'OOOOH, I see, I get it now.' But at this very second it sounds like people are complaining about actors acting. Which is ridiculous.

  • heatherheadache Apr 18, 2012

    my thoughts exactly!

  • TimSpot Apr 18, 2012

    I'm not a fan of the show and even I think that argument is pointless and ridiculous.

  • drlowdon Apr 18, 2012

    Just how long did it take New Girl fans to get into the show? I stuck with it for 7 or 8 episodes and, aside from the odd humurous moment, found it rather dull and predictable. Does it get better after I stopped watching? Should I give it another try?

  • chas031 Apr 18, 2012

    Some say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

  • CiaraGlynn Apr 18, 2012

    On the same page. I stopped earlier, although less because I found it unenjoyable - I thought it was a perfectly charming, funny show, very few flaws considering how new it was - but I guess I thought 'Where could this go?' A lot of sitcoms do that to me. Community proved it could literally go anywhere. Happy Endings proved it might not go very far, but it would sure as hell make you believe, without a doubt, that it had been to the moon and back. I was still waiting for New Girl to prove it could go beyond 'sitcom' standards, four or five or six people and their romantic entanglements and friendships and be fair, I gave up in or around episode four, so I didn't give it a whole lot of time to prove it could do more than that, or that it could at least do it in a new, interesting and fun way.

    So I too want to know if it's worth catching up on.

  • drlowdon Apr 18, 2012

    I didn't completely dislike it is just that I didn't feel like I was watching anything I hadn't seen before on many other sitcoms.

  • jtrolio Apr 18, 2012

    I personally think New Girl is worth catching up on...though I guess I'd have to go back a bit to decide when it really began to gel for me. I didn't hate it at the beginning, but I also didn't immediately love it. Now I watch most episodes multiple times.

    The show is definitely more traditional than Community and Happy Endings with regard to sitcom tropes. It doesn't really do the meta thing or the breaking-the-fourth-wall thing or the movie spoof thing or the rapid-fire cultural references thing. But it DOES have relatable characters who make me laugh as they experience relatable situations. The guys have evolved, Cece's role on the show has evolved, Jess is adorkable or whatever but she still seems like real person. Yeah, everything's "heightened" for TV. But all told, I feel like I'm watching a group of real friends who support each other and who also give each other plenty of sh*t. They make me laugh, and I totally repeat lines from the show later on...which for me puts New Girl ahead of a lot of other comedies on TV right now.

    And for the record, I love both Community and Happy Endings. It's perfectly acceptable to enjoy those shows and also like New don't have to pledge allegiance to one camp or the other. Give New Girl another shot, if for no other reason than to watch last week's episode, "Normal." It was so good, I think I'm going to go watch it again right now...

  • CiaraGlynn Apr 18, 2012

    Haha, I didn't necessarily expect New Girl to do a zombie episode. What makes Community special is it's ability to be both unrealistic and realistic at the same time. Somehow, it bridges that gap. Whereas Happy Endings - and I haven't watched it as religiously, so maybe I'm wrong - seems more of a 'we'll base it all in one place but make our characters unrealistic'...each show has different charms. So I guess what I wanted from New Girl wasn't for it to be like Community or Happy Endings, more for it to become a little something more than 'This week Jess is a adorable as she...', you know? Still really liked it, episodes played out very well...I just needed to know that it elevated beyond focusing on Jess, and I think you just gave me my answer, even though I didn't pose the question in the right way at thanks haha :-)

  • CiaraGlynn Apr 18, 2012

    Thank you! :-)

  • jtrolio Apr 18, 2012

    haha happy to be of service! New Girl obviously has its ups and downs just like any other show, but it has definitely moved beyond Jess and her Adorkable Problem of the Week. Very excited that you will reconsider it!

  • spklvr12 Apr 18, 2012

    No. It's still pretty boring. I only watch because... I got nothing better to watch.

  • BarryDalton Apr 17, 2012

    Excellent essay, Price. (but essays don't usually save shows like this ...)

    i feel like these characters could be from any generation, not just hipsters. I think the backlash comes from the fact that nobody likes to think their generation has this level of superficiality and naivete...when we are young we point fingers at others, not ourselves, that's why it takes a decade before you realize how lame your own generation was in many ways..usually the clothes and the haircuts but often more than that. One connects every generation is that 20 somethings are not self-reflective, they feel superior to previous generations, and they are extremely naive and superficial about both the present and future.

    I found the first episode to be borderline genius in how it was able to simultaneously take the characters seriously while exposing their naivete and superficiality.

    Not sure the show--any show--could do this successfully for 13 episodes. But I will tune in to find out. The series will either be great or impossible to watch--look forward to your 4 episode review.

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