If there’s one downside to the multitude of journalists and bloggers that saturate the cultural landscape, it’s the torrential downpour of declarations about new television shows that have barely gotten off the ground. Television, unlike film, can take its time, creating long and winding arcs for its characters that span seasons. But that doesn’t stop anyone from making sweeping statements about a new show after the first three episodes or even just the pilot. I present for you an abridged version of critics’ responses (and those who love posting in the comments section) about HBO’s “Girls”: “Its portrayal of sex is revolutionary!” “Who cares? It’s racist!” “It only portrays the privileged upper class.” “I know! It’s so true to my life.”
And it’s following this wave of praise and criticism that I deem this moment a good time to weigh in. While “Girls” aims to speak contemplatively about the self-searching of twenty-somethings, the show is first and foremost a comedy, one in which audiences will feel closer to the characters by laughing at them than by empathizing. I don’t think the show needs to assert how REAL it is. Those glimpses of real experience will peek through the comedic moments of Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna, and Jessa who are naïve, entitled, clueless, and self-absorbed respectively. To the extent that we’ve been there, or if you’re twenty-four, maybe you ARE there, there’s the camaraderie of shared experience in the realm of guys, friends, and work. But the truisms portrayed in each episode only work if they don’t take themselves too dramatically. They only work if we know that Lena Dunham is laughing at the girls, and herself, along with us.
The show does have some great writing, and in the best scenes so far Dunham displays her knack for comedic rhythm. Taken from the scene where her character Hannah has an uncomfortable reunion with ex-boyfriend Elijah:
“I’m not going to let you have the last word.” “Nice to see you, your dad’s gay.”
As well as her penchant for witty observations like Marnie’s response to Hannah’s goth-like sexy outfit. “Is it some kind of solstice?”
But just as much – and particularly in Episode 5 this week – Dunham showcases raw dialogue and awkward guy/girl interactions that typify less scripted, less funny shows. When “Girls” comes across as trying to illuminate the experience of young women, it starts to blend in with any other show about girls making it in New York. But to be hilarious and incisive, it needs to be well crafted and deliberately funny, especially when we’ve seen Dunham do it so well.
Emily Nussbaum wrote a great piece in New York magazine that praised “Girls” as revolutionary, but it’s hard to think of it as such when the set up is so recognizable: a woman searches to find herself and love in the process in the city of New York. What feels actually revolutionary to me is Dunham herself. That she is the comedian who is willing to make herself the punch line. That she doesn’t fit most men’s and women’s perception of beautiful, but that’s no reason for her to play the comical best friend to the pretty star, like Rosie O’ Donnell to Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle. No, Dunham is the star with a pretty best friend, and, she has every reason to believe that she deserves a great sex life and a purposeful career, even if she tends to embarrass herself in pursuit of both. Self-deprecation is, after all, a tenet of the comedian’s playbook. As Dunham says in a commentary segment on HBO’s site, Hannah has “a mix of complete self-confidence and no self worth: the trademark of most twenty-four year-old girls and most Jewish comedians.”
What I find refreshing about the creation of “Girls” – where Dunham is the writer, director, and star – is the conviction that women can make it happen, on their own, at whatever age, with whatever God-given talents they have. Like Tina Fey before her, Dunham has the smarts, self-awareness, and confidence to write and play a character so misguided. Yet unlike Fey, or Liz Lemon specifically, Dunham’s Hannah expects that a guy will want her sexually and wants it just as much herself.
Every week, I await the next episode, but I always hope to laugh more than to contemplate. Maybe that’s simply because I’m looking at twenty-four in retrospect. But I think more so because a well-tread genre needs to feel new.