"Oh. Yeah," I said, I like that show. My roommate looked at me in that way I knew demanded more context, more explanation, a sort of impromptu lit crit discussion by the kitchen sink. He said, encouraging me, "I've watched it too. It's very popular, the show. That's why I watch it."
|Lena Dunham in Girls|
Yes, the characters on the show are the obverse of Sex and the City - but that show is not an origin story. Girls is about a certain kind of young twenty-something who move to New York and bring along with them their passive aggression as well as their inchoate brilliance. Girls presumes to greatness prematurely. No one likes an upstart (which explains the vitriol cast at the show and its allure). The show hinges on the premise that Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham's alter ego in the show) cannot pay the rent, et cetera. That's where I was sucked into the show. I watched the first episode or two. I liked the scene where her professor parents cut her off and tell her she needs to get a job. I liked that scene. Without flinching, Hannah steals the tip her parents had left the hotel cleaning staff. The show likes to displays transgressions of moral boundaries. The characters fuck up. It's in the details. The fucked-upness. Season One ends with this kind of detail: Hannah gets into a fight with Adam, somehow ends up on the F train to Coney Island and eats cake on the beach in a mixture of uncertainty and hangover that I found charming. But I am skipping ahead.
The show introduces us to Hannah - a character who does not come across as a likable character to viewers. But I don’t think we’re supposed to like Hannah that much in the same way we do not like any of Jonathan Franzen’s characters or in the way A.M. Homes write characters that are not so likable but their human foibles somehow, eventually, endear ourselves to them. Hannah is a spoiled brat. She gets on our collective Protestant work ethic nerves. Fuck her, we think. I'm working three jobs so who cares if your parents cut you off. No. More Money. Her mom says (I actually wish Becky Ann Baker had more screen time. She is the best television mom - Freaks and Geeks anyone?)
I get the show. Yes, most people who struggle in New York City are not residents of a nice tree lined street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn with awesome magnetic poetry on their fridge doors and snarky comments to boot). The show is not Tremé or anything that David Simon has created. The show is about first world problems. At least that is how it comes off. It is a show about a certain kind of class in America. And yes it makes sense to be envious of Lena Dunham's rise to celebrity status. It is not that hard, however, to notice the actor/writer/director has talent. Her feature-length film Tiny Furniture is a film student miracle. If you have Netflix watch it. I think it is on instant streaming. Dunham is good.
It seems to me Lena Dunham takes to heart the creative writing MFA mantra to heart: write what you know. It is in this vein I respect her work. She speaks from a certain place: cultured, artistic NYC set. I get that. I'd rather watch Girls than Mad Men. No, I never feel Hannah in the show will ever be evicted from her apartment. There is no sense that she will really really reach rock bottom. She has too much of a support structure. She will eventually become the real Lena Dunham. Yes. I get that. This is not a show about lack. It is a show about a certain kind of survival, a survival that is laced with a tinge of privilege, enough privilege - not JP Morgan Chase privilege or the kind of privilege that never sees the inside of a New York City Transit local, but enough privilege that insinuates exclusion, a kind of sophisticated artistic vision that says my story is very important because I can tell it in a deeply moving way. Yes, we live lives of quiet desperation, to quote Emerson, but do our lives merit an HBO cable dramedy? I can't help but think all of American Letters is about a certain kind of privilege. It is the dirty secret of American Literature. We are so stuck on ourselves that we cannot write ourselves into a show that sees America how the rest of the world sees America.
The show resembles, if not spot on, some kind of life that any of us who left our hometown to come live in the big city would understand. Especially those who move to big metropolitan areas to find themselves. Anyone who moves to New York City can relate to when Hannah in Season One (“The Return”) goes home to visit her parents - that was probably one of my favorite episodes, because it recapitulates the feelings of returning to a place you lived a long time but have moved away from but everyone there you know is still there. Hannah arrives with a plastic bag of clothes which rip at some point. There are a couple of touching scenes. I like the scene where she is in her pajamas, in her old room, and Adam, her boyfriend, calls her (or does she call him?). There is this moment of vulnerability - and I think the show does this well, brings you very close to identifying with a character then pulling back and reconsidering itself. The show is very intimate (which is partly due to its reliance on lots and lots of close-ups).
Lena Dunham works not because she comes from some kind of privilege
that is a smack in the face to us "real suffragants." Girls is successful in the same way gilded dramas of the 1930s and 40s were successful: in a depression, we can fantasize we are struggling to one day have success of some kind. It's a fucked up form of catharsis. In tough economic times, we do not read John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. We watch upbeat television. In Girls, Lena Dunham is like Irene Dunne and Greta Garbo, those stars of yesteryear we watched to make us feel better. Life lacks
that something-that-cannot-be-named so we turn to the silver screen (or in this case the tiny screen) to make ourselves feel better.
On an aesthetic scale, I give Girls a nine. On a scale of identification, I give it a six. I don't really like any of the characters. Really. The characters on Girls are denizens of a New York City I avoid in real life. I watch it as a form of schadenfreude - in a weird way I feel superior when I watch the show. Shit. I've been in worse financial straits than Hannah. Fuck. She has better sex than anyone probably in real life. And I think people resent her for displaying her body in a way that is supposedly reserved for a certain waistline. I really do not understand this complaint about the show. What I think makes the show good is its unapologetic way it tells a story. I am interested in what happens next for Girls. By the way, as a side note, I really liked last week’s short story episode “One Man’s Trash” where Hannah spends 48 hours with Patrick Wilson.