HBO’s Girls wrapped up its first season about a week and a half ago and an overwhelming majority of people agree that the second season can’t come soon enough. The show was initially marketed and packaged as the next great HBO show and, as seems to be the case with any new television show in the age of Twitter, was originally met with backlash, which of course was met with a backlash to the backlash and so on went the battle of the backlashes. It seems you can’t start any television critique these days without mentioning the words “backlash” and “backlash to the backlash.” Objective accomplished (x2).
There are two major criticisms that dominate any starter conversation about the show. The first is whether Girl’s creator Lena Dunham is the beneficiary of a unique brand of artsy nepotism (Dunham’s parents are well-known within the New York art scene). The second, and more worthy criticism, is whether the show can really be taken seriously given the painful lack of diversity in the first season (the New York City of Dunham’s main character Hannah is occupied solely by privileged, young college graduates who are all white). We’ll get to these eventually.
The first thing that needs to be mentioned about the show is that to understand it at all, the viewer must have a basic grasp of the worldview of the members of Generation Y. More specifically, viewers need to be aware of the way in which social media has altered the way in which millennials experience the world. Explaining this in full is worthy of an essay all by itself. A short version is that Generation Y has grown up in a world where technology aims to make each individual user feel like the center of the universe. It should come as no surprise then that many of these individuals’ perspectives on life place them at the center of said universe. It is then often shocking to many millennials to find out that in actuality, they are not the center of the universe. And it is that theme which dominates the first season of Girls and provides for all of its best moments, both comedic and emotional.
The viewer first meets main character Hannah (played by show creator Dunham) as she is being cut off financially by her parents. Hannah is a recent college graduate trying to make it as a writer in New York City by working an unpaid internship which she hopes leads to…actually she doesn’t know what it will lead to. She lives with her best friend Marnie in exactly the kind of apartment one would expect two young, delusional twenty-something females to occupy.
Marnie is cast as a very structure-oriented creature that seems to have every aspect of the next fifty years of her life mapped out hour-by-hour in her planner. She’s the perfect foil to the very aloof Hannah who struggles to show up on time for a simple dinner date, much less figure out where her life is going. The show introduces both of their love interests as well. Marnie is dating a painfully nice young guy by the name of Charlie while Hannah sneaks off in the middle of days and nights to see and mostly just sleep with a young man named Adam. Adam at first comes off as a brutish pig but morphs into the most fascinating character on the show over the course of ten episodes. He’s strongly opinionated, passionate, spontaneous, and mostly unpredictable. Good luck trying to explain him as a whole, it’s only the biggest debate of the first season.
The show then presents the other half of the quartet that makes up Girls’ main cast. Shoshanna initially seems stereotyped into a girl whose entire life has been defined by her semi-paranoid manner, almost certainly learned through years of reading Cosmo and reciting Sex And The City quotes. She seems to be living in the innocent New York City bubble the Friends cast occupied. It is then somewhat remarkable that she morphs into one of the two most likable characters on the show by the end of the season despite letting her existence be defined by the fact that she is a virgin. The final member of the crew is Shoshanna’s English-accented cousin Jessa. Jessa is attractive and confident and gives off a sort of neo-hippie vibe. She seems to find satisfaction only by consistently proving to herself that she has power over the opposite sex.
But enough about the cast and the plot. It would be too easy to bore you to death with details about both and that’s not really the point of this piece. Suffice it to say that the show examines various dilemmas, fights, and controversies that develop as a result of each of these characters trying to have healthy relationships with each other while practicing their own unique brands of extreme narcissism.
Many would make the obvious comparison that Girls seems to be a sort of post-modern version of Sex And The City (SATC), being that is infinitely less sexy and glamorous. While it certainly owes a certain debt to SATC, the real predecessors that Girls traces its roots to are FX’s Louie and NBC’s Seinfeld. The main theme that they all share is that they examine the awkwardness of real life. It allows the audience to relate to television in a way most show’s don’t allow.
As an example, consider that Dunham gets nude for several sex scenes throughout the first season, many of which turn into awkward encounters that show sex for how it actually exists in real life rather than the unrealistic act usually depicted by the industry. As you can imagine, a lot of humor and emotion ensues and it makes for one of the most honest and refreshing representations in all of television.
Girls is also very much like Louie and Seinfeld in that many of the episodes and storylines are based on actual events in the life of the show’s creator. Stories abound on the internet of Dunham showing up on set with an idea for a show based on an experience from the night before. This is a very Larry David thing to do, except imagine those Seinfeld kind of scenarios for awkward people scraping out a living in their mid twenties. It’s a unique, unexamined topic in television thus far and HBO deserves credit for having faith that viewers actually would want to watch this in the first place.
Now to address the criticisms. First, let’s not even waste time mentioning the charges of nepotism. It’s highly unlikely you’ve ever heard of either of Dunham’s parents unless you’re plugged into the New York City art scene. Do the names Laurie Simmons or Carroll Dunham ring a bell? I didn’t think so. While Dunham’s upbringing surely influenced her ability to get a show more than the rest of us, let’s all agree that no one can control who their parents are and move on to the more pressing issue.
Girls doesn’t feature any minority characters. At all. Like zero total.
To anyone who’s ever spent five minutes there, this is obviously a painfully inaccurate representation of the greatest city in the world. It’s hard to imagine that any human being living there could possibly sustain that long of a time period without meeting and interacting with a person of color, or at least someone without a WASPy background. It’s almost insulting to the viewer how white Girls’ depiction of New York City comes off in the first season.
With all that said, it’s worth offering a brief defense. One of the points of the show is to depict the narcissism and delusion of its characters in a Seinfeld-ian way that is so extreme, so insulting that it can only possibly be perceived as being humorous. With that thought in mind, it’s not that hard to imagine characters like Hannah and Marnie believing themselves to be true New Yorkers while interacting only with the white people they knew from college. It’s actually a rather clever device of humor.
Furthermore, another point of the show is the way in which the characters are forced to reconcile their obscure worldviews with real life. It’s accurate to say this is how the majority of the world learns to “grow up” and become adults. Thus, a first season without a minority can survive, assuming the show makes it right in further seasons (which the creators have vowed to do on several occasions in the wake of the criticism). In fact it’s very likely to provide for many more awkward and humorous situations. On this front, Girls gets a pass, for now.
Look, I’m not going to beg you to watch it, but here’s my small pitch on why viewers can’t afford to miss out on this show. Girls is important. It’s important in the way Seinfeld was 15 years ago, only it’s not limited in the content it can explore because it airs on HBO. It’s important because of its honesty. It’s important because it is so damn hilarious. In addition to being maybe the first show to accurately depict this new generation of adults only now entering the work force, it’s really, really, really funny. Have you ever wanted to absolutely rip the people who fill your Facebook and Twitter feeds with a picture of the drink they just consumed at happy hour? Girls does all that, and quite well I might add.
I’ll finish with a story on why I like it so much. I don’t know how many of you saw The Truman Show, but I was about ten when it first came out in theaters. The movie depicts Jim Carey playing a man whose entire life has been made into the ultimate reality television show. The twist is that everyone is privy to the show’s concept except for Carey’s character Truman. He honestly believes that he is living a real life. Unbeknownst to him, an entire artificial world has been constructed filled with cameras that let viewers see every minute of his existence.
After seeing this movie I somehow convinced myself that I was the real-life version of Truman and that my life was being filmed for world’s viewing pleasure. I became extremely suspicious of my surroundings, spent inordinate amounts of time searching my house for cameras, and took care to never do anything embarrassing in public, lest the whole world be able to share a collective chuckle at my expense.
Obviously this idea is insane. It’s impossible. It’s unrealistic. But I’m being completely honest when I tell you that it took me two to three years to get this obnoxious idea out of my head. Most of all it’s narcissistic though, narcissistic in a way that I believe exists in some small manner in the back of every individual’s mind. I don’t believe that it’s completely normal for all humans to believe at some point that they are the star of the world’s most popular reality show, but in some way or another we all want to believe that we are the center of the universe.
Girls gets this and it’s why I totally relate to a show named for the opposite sex despite being male. It understands that every one of us is secretly a shockingly selfish creature that thinks about themselves entirely too much. It lampoons and destroys this idea in a way that can be extremely beneficial in a world that is moving ever closer towards removing face-to-face interactions entirely. It’s a helpful reminder that despite what Facebook and Google and personalization lead each of us to believe, no one is any more special than anyone else.
And that is a good thing.