Wednesday, April 18, 2012

HBO's Girls is a victim of its own hype

Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham and Allison Williams in Girls, the HBO series created by Dunham.

Given the hype that preceded Sunday's premiere of HBO's Girls, it was probably inevitable that the show itself was a bit of a let-down. After all, the series - which was created by Lena Dunham and counts Judd Apatow among its producers - was lauded by New York magazine, The New Yorker and The New York Times (I'm sensing a trend here) way back in March. The Daily Beast called it "the best new show of 2012," and Salon applauded the show's portrayal of female friendship. The acclaim was so immense that the inevitable backlash began a week and half before the pilot episode even aired. (And it just keeps going; as Alexandra Petri put it, "Now I think we're in the backlash to the backlash - or possible the backlash to the backlash to the backlash.")There was no way that any TV show was going to completely deliver on that kind of hype.

The fact is, everyone who tuned in to Girls on Sunday had probably already made up their mind about the series. Which, really, is quite unfair to Dunham, because it puts her show in the awkward position of being judged not on its own merit, but on its ability to perfectly, subtly, realistically portray an entire generation.

Girls doesn't manage to do that. Despite my status as a member of the series' target audience (young, urban, female, recent graduate of a liberal-arts college), I didn't feel that the series was an accurate reflection of me or my life. I certainly didn't identify particularly with any of the women at the center of the narrative; not with Hannah (Dunham), who throws a tantrum in a restaurant when her parents refuse to keep supporting her; not with Jessa (Jemima Kirke), a European free-spirit who romanticizes dying of tuberculosis in a garrett, like Flaubert, and whose sexual liberation has no place for birth control; not with the barely-glimpsed Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), whose character is, at least in the pilot episode, reduced to a flurry of breathless femininity and a love of Sex and the City.

The only girl who I really liked was Marnie (Allison Williams). Hannah's best friend, Marnie is stable, responsible, and employed. She offers practical advice to Hannah, telling her to get a job and (rightfully, in my opinion) rejecting Jessa' suggestion that she should aspire for a starving-artist lifestyle. She likes it when people are on time, and dislikes the presence of drugs in her apartment. Her issue is, I think, supposed to be that she doesn't care about her devoted, loving boyfriend Charlie (Christopher Abbott), but the character is written as such a clingy punching bag that I'm forced to agree with her.

The problem of my non-identification, however, (I don't even identify that much with Marnie, mostly because if I had a friend like Hannah I would slap her across the face instead of trying to help her; I just find Marnie the most likable of the central foursome), isn't necessarily the show's problem, but an issue that instead springs from the ceaseless buzz surrounding it. There's nothing wrong with a show that creates four characters (well, three really, since Shoshanna is in no way a real character, at least not yet) that are distinct and specific enough to make identifying with them quite difficult.

The problem, at least for me, is the insistence of many critics and commentators that I, as a "millenial" (I think that's what people are calling us now) should identify with it. That I should feel, like Hannah, that my parents raised me to be special and unique and are betraying me by refusing to support me. That I shouldn't judge her when she says that McDonald's is not an employment option, because I think the same thing. Or that I should, like Jessa, understand the impulse to have unprotected sex because of the post-feminist environment in which I grew up.

I don't agree with any of these behaviors, but that doesn't mean I didn't like Girls. There were certainly things that I disliked about the show, particularly its weirdly conservative view of sex and relationships, which come through particularly in the barely-sketched characters of overly sensitive Charlie and self-centered asshole Adam (Adam Driver), but that doesn't have a lot to do with problems of identification. If Girls were any other TV show, no one would be worrying about these issues - very few reviews of Game of Thrones or Mad Men start by talking about whether or not the characters are "relatable," because why should they? But because the show has been hyped as a realistic portrait not of a group of flawed women, but of an antire generation, it is judged not by its success as a TV show, but as a generation-defining work of art.

Does Girls succeed as "the voice of a generation"? No, it doesn't. (And I suspect that Dunham knows that, since she mocks Hannah's aspirations to that very title.) But, although the first episode was somewhat uneven, it has the potential to succeed as a TV show. Or at least it would, if critics, pundits and audiences would let go of the hype and let Girls be just that: a TV show.

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