Last Sunday, "Girls," HBO's much-talked-about comedy, debuted its second season. I should qualify that "much-talked-about" description, since "Girls" is really only a major discussion point among young liberal urbanites around the country. It's in matters like "the debate about 'Girls'" that one can speak of latte-sipping liberals and the coastal elite.
As a latte-sipping liberal in good standing but a coastal elite in training, I caught up on the show a year late and spent the past week watching the show's first season while most of my peers were enjoying the start of its second. The loss was mine. "Girls" isn't just a show with something to say to the hipsters of the world, but to the entire country.
The show's creator, Lena Dunham, plays protagonist Hannah Horvath. Hannah, along with three other female friends, spends much of the series negotiating the exotica of New York and the exotica of the opposite sex. The first season of "Girls" is better than the first seasons of other HBO comedies like "Entourage" and "Sex and the City," and possibly better than any season of either show.
"Girls" takes New York as its backdrop but it is only slightly interested in convincing you of the city's awesomeness. It's much more concerned with telling you a story. I'm something of a minimalist, so the modesty of that task appeals to me.
But what makes the show revolutionary is the willingness to depict its protagonist nude and in sex scenes typically reserved for those who appear to be natives of Mount Olympus. Including a sex scene with Hannah's parents (regrettably played for comedy), what you have is one of the most democratic -- and everyhuman -- depictions of sex to ever exist in pop culture. The more I thought about this, the more important it became to me.
We should not deceive ourselves: We enjoy sex scenes because we enjoy seeing people whom some critical mass would like to have sex with, have sex with each other. And this is not an egalitarian phenomenon -- a pairing such as Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry is much more common than that of an attractive young man and an older woman. (I'm talking exclusively gender here, not race, which is another conversation.) Occasionally a sex scene advances narrative, but mostly it's there for us -- and mainly for us dudes.
What "Girls" says is, "Later for the male gaze." Lena Dunham isn't really performing for you. She's saying, "People like me -- which is most of you -- like to have sex." And in a real narrative of real life, the people having sex don't actually look like Victoria's Secret models. Your expectations for what sex should look like are irrelevant; here is how it looks like to the narrator. I kind of love that. In this (perhaps limited) sense, I can understand the "for us, by us" acclaim that greeted the show last year. The show's disregard for male notions of sex is pretty profound. And it achieves this while still giving us a fairly interesting cast of male characters.
I wonder how Ms. Dunham will continue as an artist. I think the best thing you can say about a comedic actor is that they are really, really funny. This is not faint praise. It's the job, and it's one Ms. Dunham delivers on. And yet "Girls" was never allowed to be just a comedy. Instead, it was dubbed "the voice of a generation." When the PR people roll out a show, they're generally trying to get as much bang as they can. But as an artist, I doubt that this is the sort of weight you want.
Subjectively speaking, it seems like "Girls" got much more initial attention than, say, "Louie," Mad Men," "The Wire" or even "Sex and the City." The result was that each of those shows was allowed to blossom in the first few episodes away from the critical din -- a benefit "Girls" never enjoyed. I don't know how much should be made of that. Again, this sort of impact is exactly what the PR people at HBO want. This is why I was happy to watch the show after the discussion had passed. "Girls" deserves to be seen just as a show.
"Girls" isn't perfect. It was initially criticized as being too white. But I find that oddly appealing. Even in a diverse city like New York, there still is a good degree of social segregation. More jarring were the occasional elements of black culture that seeped in, usually as signifiers of the lameness of white people. I could have done without it. The world of "Girls" is narrow-cast, but deep. It's one that a lot of men would do well to grapple with.
Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up in Baltimore and is a writer and senior editor for The Atlantic and its website. His blog can be found at www.theatlantic.com/ta-nehisi-coates.