The internet has rightfully exploded with content over the course of the brilliant new HBO series, "Girls." It's essentially a softball thrown to a generation of children who came out of the womb with a neck tilted 30 degrees downward, all the better to stare at our navels. But when we kink our neck and move our gaze toward our televisions, it doesn't look so good. When a show comes along that turns our television screens into mirrors, we look away. Growing up honestly does not make for a pretty image.
What makes this show great is exactly what feeds its detractors, though they are loathe – or ill-equipped – to admit it. Yes, I just wrote that sentence and took off my Ray-Ban spectacles in my Park Slope (... Gowanus) apartment. And yes, I did have the "local guy reaction" to the season finale when (multi-hyphenate) Lena Dunham's character, Hannah, hopped on the F train at York Street. But those dumb, bullshit superficial reasons aren't why I love the show. And, hate it as much as you want them to be, those aren't the reasons you don't love it, either.
"Girls" is everything except a television program. It is a litmus test for "cringe," a soapbox from which we can discuss femininity in our society and in our media culture, but most importantly, it's been held up as a paragon of all that is wrong about the characters. Hell, James Franco can't even make it to the end of the introduction before he feels the need to hop on a soap box to tell a fictional character that she's not growing up right. Not that anyone comes out unscathed from 18 to 30, we just aren't programmed to see that on the networks.
Our TV sets are not supposed to be a guide to how we live our lives. It's a wish fulfillment machine. By any measure, "Friends" was an eminently influential show, featuring apartments that no one could properly live in (be it for their own incomes or 100 years of general architectural design on the entire city of Manhattan), people who are superhumanly kind and decent to each other, and where half of the character's arcs end with a baby in hand. That's it. They learned enough over eleven seasons to have sex without birth control and take care of a baby (or many).
And that's not a knock on the “Friends”; watch their "fan favorite" collection for ten examples of great sitcom writing, some of the best of all time. What I'm knocking is the culture that bore "Friends," the one that takes these superficial ideas completely in stride because it's convenient to do so. Why wouldn't these people live like this, look like this, act like this? They're on TV! Everything should be fabulous! Over the last entire generation of television watching, network shows have been programmed to enter our hearts and minds being meticulously upbeat and perfect and ideal.
Only recently have we dropped into a world of grey, and almost exclusively on pay-channels like FX, AMC, and HBO, the home of “Girls.” These are shows whose tone and outlook go hand-in-hand with the murky waters their characters inhabit. The shocking bit of "The Sopranos" wasn't that it was dark to the point of bleakness, it's that the cold-hearted murdering mobsters could be funny. "Breaking Bad" features a meth dealer whose story grows ever more relentlessly dark from the first frame of the pilot onward. "Mad Men" just recently finished a storyline that involved soul-deadening, high-end corporate prostitution and our "hero" might have gotten his swerve back, and by that I mean cheating on his wife.
When we embrace these flawed characters, we're embracing them knowing full well that they're in an endlessly dire situation. In some ways, we're picking the bad boys "with the good hearts," the Adams of the world, knowing that, under different circumstances, they'd surely be sitting in Central Perk, sharing the fun and merriment of RACHEL AND HER SHOPPING SPREES with a quick turn of phrase as another coffee cup goes wholly untouched. Our fantasies are fantasies. When reality gets thrown in there, it's just not fantastic enough.
This is what makes the response to "Girls" as unexpected as it is rote. This is a show built for the generation on the internet, the ones who blog and tweet and comment, endlessly and fruitlessly, under any article that allows them to. It's such a widely-talked about show partially because this demographic has curiously not received a lot of love. The only movies I know of on the post-grad growing up mold are Reality Bites (1994), Kicking and Screaming (1995), and Dunham's own film, Tiny Furniture (2010) [which I wrote about here]. The only other notable shows I can think of are CBS's "2 Broke Girls" and MTV's "I Just Want My Pants Back," two vehicles that, while I haven't seen, are on networks who aren't really out for that whole "truth" thing.
That puts a lot of undue pressure on any piece of art (yes, yes, I just called TV art — deal with it), especially with the attitudes of the show's target audience. Because we're accustomed to being catered to, and live in a world that appreciates how quick you post your reaction (FIRST!!) rather than how well you actually articulate it (LAST!!), this show isn't given a chance past the preview commercials. And that's how “Girls” became not a show about growing up, but about four girls of some privilege who live in New York City who think they're pretty fucking important, don't they?
That line of thinking has little to do with entitlement or "chicks" or hipsters (and I'm loathe to find 70% of people who know who that title is ascribed to), and has everything to do with the kind of people we are. The problem with "Girls" is that we're JUST like them, every single one of us. But we just don't want to admit it. And no, not necessarily in the actions (no one should have sex as awkward and off-putting as that depicted on the show), but in the feelings and emotions that support every act (sex in your 20s feels just as off-putting and awkward as that depicted on the show). This is a show that demands honesty, the kind of divulging of embarrassing facts and truths that some people wouldn't even share with their good friends, let alone with a national TV audience. This show is brave, and expects you to be as well.
My good buddy Ryan Lambert, late of The IN, recently asked me how these disparate girls are all friends. At their core, they're all quite similar: scared shitless. Jessa is insecure and acts out, chasing any distraction that doesn't invariably turn inward to see how she's staving off the hard questions that maturity brings to our doorstep. Marnie tries to act more mature (in style, dress, and attitude) to give herself the idea of control of her situation, like calling yourself a slob before someone else can. Hannah acts like a freak because that's what she assumes the world sees her as. She takes on the role that she believes society has gifted her: slovenly, needy, freakish. Which is not to say that she isn't these things. Rather she spends a needless amount of time and energy worrying about everything she knows she isn't rather than figuring on what she is. And then there's Shosanna, who is so self-aware that every step is a crippling, terrifying opportunity for someone to tell her just how off she knows she is. She walks on more egg shells than the proprietors of Pickman's chicken farm. It's the reason they relate to each other, the same as how they relate to the audience. They're trying desperately to take a lifetime of regimented schooling and somehow weave that into adulthood, and do so terribly. And, therefore, honestly.
That is what I identify with as a 26-year-old male. No, I don't know what it's like to be get HPV (or innocuously have it), but I understand what such a threat to your genitals over the long term can feel like. I've never had a boyfriend dote on me to the point where he's essentially a creepy uncle, but I have definitely dated someone who is into me more than I'm in to them. I've never had to give “the virgin talk,” but I've been on the receiving end of it, and I know exactly how sad and desperate and lonely it is. I've never been groped by my boss, but I ... well I don't have anything to directly relate with that outside of "I've also felt put-upon" but that's not really it. Regardless, this is a show that paints in an emotional palette that I wish I didn't know, but I'm acutely aware just how many shades of blue exist.
"Girls" is in the mold of "Louie," Louis CK's beyond brilliant series, and thank god for that. “Louie” takes universally-shared fears of being less than adequate, feeling divorced from the world you are supposed to be a participant in, and the constant push and pull of selfish desires against general empathy, and projects them onto outlandish situations, all in the name of comedy. You're not supposed to "know what it's like" to discuss the pros of masturbation on Fox News against a gorgeous, evangelical right-wing conservative woman who eventually invites you up to her room only to spurn your base sexual desires, leading to you masturbating in the bathroom of her hotel room.
But Louis expects you to understand our stupid carnal desires, our sense of hope, and our sense of shame. That's what makes his show brilliant. Dunham, one of his disciples, has taken that form and imbued in it her own feelings, desires, and fears with a heightened worldview that points at her problems with a magnifying glass, asking you to come laugh along with her, not hold her up as some self-serving paragon of all things virtuous. But we're not used to a program to not be self-aggrandizing, so the pilot reads like an asshole's version of a “How To” book, misconstruing the general warning that Dunham is putting out there.
However, we're too busy smelling our own farts to accept a show that makes fun of people smelling their own farts. It's quite the bit of irony – we can't see ourselves in a program that's about ourselves, so we reject it, folding our arms and walking away because we don't like the image that's reflected. And maybe that's a good thing. Maybe a generation of film-makers and television heads will seek out studios to tell their version of the truth, and maybe they'll make “Girls” pale in comparison, as that is the best criticism, after all.
But until then, I'll happily watch Dunham end the show's first season sitting on the beach off Coney Island, having her cake and eating it, too. She deserves it. And you know she does.
Image courtesy of HBO