Thursday, March 7, 2013

Girls Season One

I just watched the 1st season of Girls and decided the show was neither the groundbreaking work of television its fans proclaimed it to be, nor the torpid, entitled version of Sex and the City refracted and warped through the eyes of an upper middle class liberal arts snob that its detractors said it was. Rather, it was a decent, but not particularly exceptional piece of story telling about a group of mostly unlikeable characters doing what many young people do after college - drift aimlessly and without any particular direction. And for that, I am not really sure what all the buzz is about. In the same way movies like Reality Bites and Singles and TV shows like Friends captured the post-collegiate ennui of Generation X, Girls does for Millenials. 

Of course, the show's title is deliberate, the main characters may be women, but their behavior, which is often self-centered, narcissistic and uncaring, reads "mean girls." Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshana are just hard to root for. Hannah has lived off her parents' largesse for 2 years while working on a book she is not close to completing, while roommate Marnie has somehow amassed a Manhattanite's wardrobe on an assistant at an art gallery employee's salary. Jessa is a free spirited Brit who breezes back into town and moves in with distant relative Shoshana, a 22 year old virgin who text-speaks her way through conversation and could deconstruct a coffee order for 5 minutes before making it. 

The men of Girls are no better. They are uniformly boys, be they of the 20something variety, like Marnie's insufferably sensitive boyfriend Charlie or Charlie's snarky sidekick Ray, a coffee barista by day and struggling musician by night. Older men are middle-aged cliches like Hannah's handsy boss Rich, who casually molests his female employees, Jeff, the father of Jessa's babysitting wards, a neutered house husband who makes a clumsy pass at her at a hipster party and Hannah's father Tad, forever seeking to protect his precious "Hannah Banana." Indeed, the only guy offered some depth is Hannah's primary love interest Adam, a dark and odd person, who, to the writers' credit, turns out to be a far more complex character than the shock value sex acts and peccadilloes he engages in that define the show's first few episodes. 

But the show's defining feature is its air of uncertainty. Each character is unsure of their decisions, like people testing the ice on a frozen pond fearing if they plant their feet too firmly they will fall in. Marnie is miserable with Charlie right up until the moment he breaks up with her, at which point she wants him back, until midway (literally) through their make up sex, when, oops, she decides she doesn't want to be with him, until she sees him with another woman, and so on. Hannah claims to be a writer, but does little writing, instead toggling between chasing Adam like a schoolyard crush to misreading him and his intentions when Marnie moves out of their apartment and he offers to move in; all done, naturally, while Hannah artfully dodges full-time employment. 

To be honest, it all amounts to so much navel gazing that I cannot believe anyone who has crossed that particular life rubicon found it interesting, much less worthy of awards. The stakes could not be any lower for Hannah and her friends and not because some of the subject matter is minor, but rather, because of the equivalency, attached to decisions both great and small. Shoshana is set up in a NoLita apartment while attending college and seems to have no greater concern in her life than being deflowered. Jessa, on the other hand, is blasé about getting an abortion, but more than happy to seduce a former boyfriend simply for the sake of being able to prove she can. Curiously, by the end of the season, she has married herself off to a venture capitalist living in a swanky high rise complete with a $10,000 rug not long after admonishing her former employer that she did not need any life advice. What could possibly go wrong? Hannah does not have a steady source of income, but does have HPV, which she comes to terms with in a tweet, so there's that. Of course, Marnie, the only one of the four with a stable job, is portrayed as an uptight control freak incapable of relaxing and is mocked for planning out the next steps in her life. For this crowd, thinking adult thoughts is a bad thing and it is not until Marnie is stuck crashing at Shoshana's apartment and gets bombed at Jessa's surprise wedding that she finally "loosens up" (i.e., lives in the moment, without concern for what tomorrow may bring and <gasp> kisses a chubby nerd).  

The show offers no great insight into life other than the fact that 20somethings smash their emotions like toddlers and are scared shitless of adulthood, which is understandable, considering their role models are, by and large, no better than they are. I do give Dunham credit for her unflinching ability to expose her insecurity and self-loathing. The rawness of scenes that show her as venal and self-absorbed could easily be mocked, but they are written (and performed) in a way where you feel pity, not just for Hannah's cluelessness (giving herself a pep talk before a date back in her hometown while reminding herself that simply because she lives in New York makes her more interesting than people in her hometown) but for her loneliness (telling Marnie she can't say anything that will be more harmful than the fact that she [Hannah] hates herself).  You would offer the poor woman a hug if she wasn't so insanely consumed with her own pettiness and unwillingness to get her act together. 

But self-loathing is one thing when it's played for comedic effect by the Larry Davids of the world; it rings hollow when expressed by someone whose life appears unaffected by anything other than what Twitter calls "first world problems." And here I think the criticism of Girls is most on point. Being in your mid-20s and living off your parents' dime while you figure out what you want to be when you grow up is a quintessential problem of privilege that not only speaks to a very thin slice of the world, but underscores the smallness of what the show traffics in. There are no great struggles to overcome, no hurdles to leap, just an incessant avoidance of learning the ropes of adulthood or, as the tag for Season 2 put it, "kinda, sorta getting it together." For people on the other side of that time of life, or Dunham's contemporaries who are not fortunate to have their parents pay their cell phone bills, who know what the "adult" world looks like, with its disappointments and responsibilities, narrowing of options as you age and uneasy embrace of the decisions made, the tone of Girls wears quickly. Oh to be 24 and have nothing to worry about other than proper text etiquette or nursing a petty grudge. And those problems that seem more consequential to an older viewer - of abortion or marriage or drug use - are handled with the same concern as the small ones, which is to say, none. 

Make no mistake, Dunham's achievement is impressive, she has captured a particular moment in a particular type of person's early adulthood, it just was not, for me at least, a particularly interesting story to watch. To her credit, Dunham is insightful enough to not be too taken in by her own skill - she is, as her character puts it, a voice of a generation - to elevate her any higher would be inaccurate, but also unnecessary, her work speaks for itself. 

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