Talking about HBO's 'Girls' - A dazzling debut for a stunningly smart comedy
Lena Dunham just might have created a landmark sitcom
Lena Dunham (April 15, 2012)
In 30 years of writing about television, I cannot remember five other TV comedies that have blown me away the way this one did. I am sure I am only about the 50th reviewer to compare it to "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."
But I watched that one as a twentysomething baby boomer feeling for the first time that prime-time TV was speaking to and for my generation in a meaningful way. I am guessing "Girls" will have that same kind of electricity and cultural thunder for people who are in their 20s today.
I am avoiding use of the term "sitcom" to describe this HBO series, because such network series as "2 Broke Girls" have so cheapened the term as to render it meaningless when talking about a production as intelligent and culturally resonant as "Girls."
I have seen the first three episodes, but will only talk about the one that aired Sunday night so as not to spoil anyone's enjoyment of this latest "must see" from HBO.
What a fast and clean way to open the pilot and launch the protagonist, Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham), on her journey -- a dinner at which Horvath's parents, a couple of somewhat self-centered professors, tell her that after supporting her for two years after her graduation from a liberal arts college, they are cutting her off. She is on her own, they tell her during a visit to New York, no more $1,100 a month from them to support her Brooklyn lifestyle and less-than-meteoric writing career.
Dunham -- who created, produced and directs the series -- gets to really flex her acting muscles in the opening scenes of this ensemble series as she reacts to the news. She quickly moves from defiance and rejection of her parents at the restaurant to awkward sex with a self-absorbed and stupid guy she hooks up with but can't really consider a boyfrind. The circle completes itself when she returns to her parents' Manhattan hotel room later that night and melts down right before their eyes at the prospect of having to be a self-supporting adult.
The pilot's last scene with her leaving the hotel on her own the morning after eloquently evokes memories of Mary Richards throwing that beret in the morning air of Minneapolis a couple of generations ago.
But there is nothing as optimistic here as that Mary moment -- and that is also part of the genius of this series in that it captures how much innocence, optimism and promise have been lost for young adults in American life the last 40 years.
I absolutely adore the way this series captures some of the economic and generational truths of today -- particularly the ones connected to people in their 20s not being able to live on their own without major help from parents and grandparents.
The stupid guy Hannah hooks up with boasts about not being "anyone's slave" in terms of the workplace. But in the next breath, he acknowledges getting $800 a month from his grandmother for living expenses. He does not seem to see the contradiction or have any sense of the history of previous American generations. The Greatest Generation was expected to be self-sufficient in many cases by 18. Baby boomers got a shot at college, but after graduation at 22 or 23, they were expected to be totally on their own.
Because Dunham is such a keen observer and seemingly honest writer, she acknowledges the ambiguities of character and American life -- she doesn't write from within the constraints of her age group. Emotionally, she and her friends do seem willing to extend their adolescence into forever if parents will let them. And yes, they do seem like a bunch of babies in some ways.
But, yes, it's also true that their parents and grandparents have failed them in some ways, too, with the America they have created through their consumption, selfishness, greed and lack of core values. This is a diminished country with an economy that doesn't have much of a place for most liberal arts graduates like Hannah and her friends.
I am not going line-by-line through this pilot, but I do have to say something about the friends -- and the ensemble nature of the show.
Allison Williams is terrific as Marnie Michaels, the one member of the group who seems to be somewhat gainfully employed as a receptionist at an art gallery. She is the "pretty one," but the relationship she has with a needy young guy who seems to adore her sucks both emotionally and sexually. She is Hannah's best friend, and that relationship is where Marnie finds her emotional center.
I'm not so taken with Jemima Kirke as Jessa Johansson, the adventurous one, who globetrots and seems to have lots of sex. But she is a heroine to Soshanna Shapiro (Zosia Mamet), a timid cousin whose richest emotional connection seems to be with TV, particularly "Sex and the City," another landmark comedy from HBO.
That's the quartet at the heart of this series.¿
The references to "Sex and the City" are obvious, and the worship of it in "Girls" is probably warranted in a cultural sense. And maybe I am the wrong gender to truly appreciate it.
But, in the end, I could never get past the odious messages of consumerism and consumption that "Sex and the City" pushed. (For example, if you are sad, go buy an incredibly expensive pair of shows that you do not need. I hated that.)
Based on the three episodes I saw, I think "Girls" is every bit as engaging and exciting as "Sex," without the baggage of preaching excessive consumption. I think it has a real shot to be to this decade what "Seinfeld" and "Friends" were to the 1990s.