LIKE ALL GOOD PARENTS, Hannah Horvath’s mother and father are worried about their daughter. What, her father wonders, is she going to do when she realizes that she’s no good at writing? Mom is, as moms tend to be, more optimistic: “She knows how to have fun.”
Here is an echo, perhaps a conscious one, of the lyrics to Cyndi Lauper’s 1983 hit “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” The reference—if it is a reference—is a nice touch, subtle but astute, just the sort of pop cultural allusion one would expect to encounter in a work of top-shelf postmodernism like Lena Dunham’s Girls, which recently finished its second season on HBO. (I used the possessive just now because Dunham writes, directs, produces, stars, and, for all I know, designs the series’ highly attractive title cards.) For Hannah and her friends—aspiring museum curator Marnie (Allison Williams), globetrotting babysitter Jessa (Jemima Kirke), and NYU undergraduate Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet)—really do just want to have fun. How to go about it, then—just having fun, I mean? This is the pivot upon which Dunham’s well-built comic engine turns.
Girls is pitiless and quite funny about a good many things: family, friendship, romance, the workplace, what is commonly called gender politics. In fact, it is probably the funniest thing on television. Whether or not this is an accident, which is to say, whether or not Dunham is a genius, an idiot savant, or just an idiot, is uncertain. But one thing that is clear (and something that speaks, albeit obliquely, in Dunham’s favor) is the fact that ordinary television viewers seem to find Girls baffling, boring, or both. (A mere 632,000 people watched the second season’s finale, down from an unimpressive high of 1 million for the last episode of the previous season.) Television, for good or ill, is now, as fiction once was, the most popular form of narrative entertainment in the English-speaking world. Early cable dramas like The Sopranos bore at least some superficial resemblance to 19th century realist novels, their baggy but ambitious plots replete with close shaves, narrow escapes, cliffhangers, climaxes, anti-climaxes, dei ex machinis, and chock-full of insignificant characters. Girls, by contrast, with its small cast, de-emphasized narrative, and naturalistic dialogue, looks more like a work of Lost Generation modernism.
Perhaps this explains why the show’s ratings are so dismal. It would be an exaggeration to say that after 20 episodes all of Dunham’s characters are exactly where they were at the beginning of the pilot episode, but not a very gross one. After all, Hannah and Marnie are reunited with their boyfriends, Shoshanna is single again, and Jessa is nowhere to be seen. Sure, things have happened. Jessa has married and divorced Thomas (Chris O’Dowd), a good-natured if slightly buffoonish venture capitalist, while Marnie has switched careers multiple times (from art gallery assistant to artist’s mistress) and moved out of her and Hannah’s apartment. Shoshanna has admitted to being a virgin, lost her virginity, smoked crack, and cheated on her first serious boyfriend, the irascible coffee shop manager Ray (Alex Karpovsky), with a doorman. And Hannah has found and lost a handful of jobs, bungled an invitation to read one of her essays at a prestigious venue, and failed to write an e-book for a reputable publisher. Interesting stuff, but not exactly Phil Leotardo (of Sopranos fame, or rather, infamy) getting shot at a gas station with his infant grandson in the backseat, or the zombie hunters, dope peddlers, and advertising executives doing whatever they do in the other A-list shows I don’t have the time to watch. The Common Viewer has scant patience for shows that go nowhere, just as her ancestor, Virginia Woolf’s Common Reader, had little time for plotless experimental novels—including, incidentally, those of Virginia Woolf. Audiences want rises and falls, simple things with complicated names like anagnorisis and peripeteia, narrative goods that Girls has, so far anyway, failed to deliver.
WHAT’S KEEPING THOSE OF US who continue to watch? The jokes, for one thing, many of which come at the expense of poor Hannah’s writerly pretensions. No critic of whom I am aware has drawn attention to the fact that when she says she wants to write “a book of essays,” she is referring not to the exhausting process of pitching, receiving a commission for, writing, publishing, and finally collecting a series of essays, but rather to a blithe fantasy in which she knocks out 80,000 or so words of nonfiction prose and a publisher runs the lot between hardcovers. In the first episode, Jessa encourages Hannah to tell her parents that, without adequate financial support, she will die like Flaubert “in a garret”; despite the fact that (as we learn later) her wireless network is called “madameovaries,” Hannah seems to know almost nothing about the Hermit of Croisset—certainly not enough to tell her friend that the bourgeois gentleman who wrote Madame Bovary died as he lived, which is to say, more or less comfortably in his mother’s house. In the second season, Hannah’s now gay ex-boyfriend Elijah (Andrew Rannells) suggests holding a party with a “Paris salon” theme; she responds by saying that she has always thought that she was good at cutting hair.
Even when there’s no grand gag afoot, the dialogue that Dunham and her co-writers put into the mouths of these twenty-somethings almost always manages a certain low-level hilarity. Lady Violet Powell (wife of Anthony, himself an excellent writer of dialogue) once compiled a volume summarizing the plots of all 20 novels by Ivy Compton-Burnett. Her idea was that, thus relieved from the sometimes dull work of following Dame Ivy’s plots, one could simply enjoy characters’ conversations on their own terms. Similarly, I think a reader with only the faintest idea of what Girls is about—to say nothing of someone who has read all of HBO’s official episode recaps—could probably still find something to chuckle at in the following lines:
“Oh, Hannah. I am so sorry to lose you. I was just going to start you manning our Twitter account.”
“It’s so funny that it’s still light out, but it’s getting dark a lot earlier these days.”
“Is this some of your poetry?”
“I want you to come on my tits.”
“I’m going to make the f—ing continent of Africa on your arm…”
“That was good.”
“You want a Gatorade?”
“No thanks, I’m good.”
“What would turn you on the most right now?”
“What would turn me on the most? What would turn you on the most?”
“To turn you on, that’s what would turn me on the most. Let me do that.”
“Okay, uh. What if you were a stranger?”
“I’m not flattered by sexual harassment.”
“Why not? I love that stuff.”
“Jessa has HPV, like, a couple of different strains of it. She says that all adventurous women do.”
“You are a striking and classic beauty in the vein of Brooke Shields.”
“Forget all the BBC you watch at home with your cats and come back with an appropriate outfit.”
“Go back to Yoga Town, kike,”
“I’m Greek Orthodox!”
“You hate everything. You hate the sound of children playing. You hate all of your living relatives. You hate people who wear sunglasses, even during the day. You hate going to dinner, which you know I love. You hate colors. You hate pillows. You hate ribbons. You hate everything.”
Like the best lines in The Sun Also Rises or Afternoon Men, the idiomatic, throwaway language of Girls has a certain inexplicable charm, a charm that, like everything else we find verbally pleasing, is so intimately bound up with its own especial vocabulary, syntax, and rhythm (free term paper idea: “The Prosody of Girls”) that one either appreciates it instantly or does not. We are not talking about dialogue that is especially profound. Dunham’s characters almost never discuss matters of substance, and when they do, it is always clear that we need not take them seriously. They are not serious people; they are selfish, ignorant, and, as each admits from time to time, confused.
UNFORTUNATELY, MOST IF NOT ALL of what makes Girls a compelling aesthetic experience has gone unremarked upon by critics, and not because they’ve shied away. If anything, the body of criticism that the series has generated is troublingly outsized in comparison with the show’s meager popular following: For all I know, every single one of the half a million-plus people who tuned in for the last episode of season two had or managed to scrounge up media credentials. (You’ll notice that I don’t quote any Girls criticism here: The well is too deep, the bucket too small, and the water-carrier, frankly, not up to the task of sounding.) Almost from the start, Girls had an uncanny ability to elicit tweets, blog posts, web articles, newspaper reviews, glossy magazine write-ups. The series seems now to have lost some of its buzz-generating mojo. (Early on, some of Girls’ loudest would-be fans were, I suspect, simply show-of-the-week enthusiasts who should learn to ration their hosannas more carefully.) Nothing short of its cancellation—low ratings aside, I think this unlikely to happen: HBO’s having Girls is, like HarperCollin’s publishing Philip Roth, a matter of prestige, not profit—is going to quiet down the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, however. Anyway, quality rather than quantity is what matters in appraisals of art; criticism of Girls is lacking in the former more so than in the latter.
Most of what passes for criticism of Girls is so much political stone slinging. Critics in right-of-center periodicals (TAS’ own James Bowman, who wrote incisively about Girls in June 2012, is an honorable exception to this generalization) somehow cannot get it out of their heads that the series is not a distillation of Democratic National Committee talking points—that it is not, in fact, political. It is not a show about abortion, race, or the nature of rights. Its characters never discuss politics, an arrangement I find very pleasing, not to say refreshing. Hannah does, of course, break up with Sandy (Donald Glover) in the second episode of season two on the grounds that he is a Republican (“Your rights happened and your rights happened,” she tells Elijah and Marnie), but it is clear to both the audience and her friends that this a pretense. What Sandy has actually done wrong is criticize one of her essays, albeit honestly and generously. To miss or ignore this is not only to tune out one of Girls’ best jokes, but also to risk turning criticism into a partisan matter, a state of affairs that is only possible or desirable when all art is reduced to the level of propaganda.
It’s also worth pointing out that most of the attacks on Girls in the right-wing press were really attacks on Dunham, who, these critics assume, is a typical bedwetting New York liberal. Last November, she appeared in a commercial imploring young (presumably female) voters to ensure that their “first time” (wink-wink) “is with someone special,” namely, President Obama. One wonders, however, whether her much-publicized appearance on behalf of the president was not actually on behalf of Lena Dunham, or rather her television show and upcoming book (advance reportedly $3.7 million). Besides, I am inclined to think that, like Hannah, whose knowledge of the subject is limited to a few clichés about “how crazy the economy is right now,” Dunham is not very interested in politics. And even if I am wrong about Dunham, what boots it? We are forced to admire many artists—the young Wordsworth, Beethoven, Tolstoy, Auden, Barbra Streisand—in spite of their politics. Conservatives’ ire, while easy to account for, is hard to defend.
To give credit where it is due, left-wing critics of Girls have, if only by accident, generally been somewhat more insightful than their coevals on the right. (Here is something that is happening far too often these days: Conservatives, paralyzed in the face of a culture that they did nothing to help create, whose emergence, in fact, many of them fought very hard to prevent, find themselves unable to separate the artistic grain from the chaff and wind up dismissing good art as “liberal” and praising well-intentioned rubbish as “wholesome.” A real pity.) This is because progressives have what one might call the critical home field advantage; by virtue of their not being automatically hostile toward everything that they imagine Hannah and her friends represent, they are able to approach the series with something like the appropriate amount of critical distance. They rightly see Girls as a reflection—sometimes positive, sometimes disturbing, almost always accurate—of The Way We Live Now. Their mistake is in thinking that the series is good simply because its characters are ready-made synecdoches for a lifestyle that they would like to see lionized—and is, therefore, an endorsement of such a lifestyle—rather than for the somewhat more complicated reason that it depicts these characters with detachment, wit, and a hemoglobin-boosting dose of irony.
POLITICS ASIDE, Girls’ frankness about sex or, as Marnie insists, “f—[ing],” is enough to make even the most disinterested critic squeamish. Tasked with reviewing Censorship in Denmark, a documentary about Nordic pornography, John Simon wrote in the New Leader, “I admire its ingenuity more than its achievement, though it does bring to our screen for the first time an ejaculating penis. May it not prove seminal!” So much for Simon’s wishful thinking. Forty-some years later, such spermatic displays are old hat. In Girls, young women are ejaculated and urinated on, sodomized, choked, bent over against their will, roughly handled in closets and bathrooms even while menstruating, called “whore.” Dunham herself appears nude onscreen with such frequency that one is tempted to label her an exhibitionist. The term suggests itself not only because Dunham shows up naked in half of the show’s 20 episodes, but because her nudity is not restricted to sex scenes, which need not, anyway, contain nudity, as any viewer of Mike Nichols’ Closer knows. In one episode, she pulls down her exercise pants and squats beside railroad tracks to relieve herself, exposing her fundament to, as my grandmother says, God and everyone. Later, during a not-quite-convincingly scripted anxiety attack, she inspects a pimple in the same region. But there is something gleefully childlike in her heedlessness about being in the buff that makes “exhibitionist” seem like the wrong word here. Perhaps she has other motivations. A friend of mine has argued Dunham’s frequent appearances in the state of nature are a form of subversive cultural commentary: By making gratuitous nudity banal, she hopes to lessen its appeal. Long odds, to be sure, but who knows?
As my catalogue above suggests, not all the nudity in Girls is charming or innocent. The series’ second episode begins with her loutish boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver) asking Hannah to imagine that she is “a junkie and you’re only 11 and you had your f—ing Cabbage Patch lunchbox and you’re a dirty little whore and I’m going to send you home to your parents covered in come.” Dapper fellow, isn’t he? All this brutality speaks ill of Dunham’s male characters, but I don’t think that feminist critics who argue that Dunham is simply drawing attention to the plight of postmodern twenty-something females have much of a case. These things are never so simple. Marnie’s boyfriend, Charlie (Christopher Abbott), who is fond of saying things like “big kisses” and whose bedroom conduct is the polar opposite of Adam’s, amuses Hannah (and viewers) but annoys Marnie with his affected sensitivity and cloying language. In the second episode of season one, Marnie tries to tell Charlie that he is being insufferable: “You should just be able to go about your business, piss me off, and not give a f—. That’s what men do.” When Booth (Jorma Taccone), a deranged conceptual artist, becomes Marnie’s lover in season two, she mistakes his aggressive sadismfor healthy masculinity. That Dunham makes sex such a central, miserable activity in the lives of most of her female characters is merely a concession to reality; her determination to make all this depravity grimly humorous (as it almost always is) stands as a testament either to a rare callousness or an even rarer talent.
Dunham refuses to make all the men, or rather boys, in Girls ogres. Her young ladies have their faults too, of both judgment and character. Hannah knows that Adam, despite a few shirtless rescue antics in the final episode of season two, is a creep. And Marnie needs to acknowledge that her rediscovered feelings for Charlie have at least something to do with the fact that he is now a software millionaire. (How she ought to proceed once she admits this to herself is less than clear. After all, Charlie’s recent success suggests that he is not the lightweight she had imagined him to be after all.) As for Jessa, who earns points (with me anyway) for being the least illusioned, most self-consciously depraved of the lot, the best that can be hoped is that one day she will write her memoirs and that, much to Hannah’s chagrin, they will prove a critical and commercial success. In common with, I imagine, most viewers, I like Shoshanna, whose name I shall never get the hang of spelling, most out of the quartet. She is very cute and very annoying. When she learns how to distinguish between misanthropy and misogyny, she will see that Ray is a fundamentally decent man who cares for her very much and tell him the truth about the doorman.
IF IT SOUNDS LIKE I’M BEING TOO HARD on the girls of Girls, I apologize. I’m really not meaning to be. (Goodness knows they’re rough enough with each other.) Really I like them all, each girl in her own way, never more so than when they are being kind to one another. Moments of sweetness are rare in Girls, and when they do come (I am thinking especially of when Hannah and Jessa bathe together after the latter’s divorce), we are already braced for the bitterness that we know is sure to follow. “A friendship between college girls is grander and more dramatic than any romance,” writes Hannah in the last episode of season two; this sentence is the only progress she makes toward her e-book and, probably, the only thing she has ever written that is not vapid or facetious or both. While there is no way of knowing in what direction Girls will head in its recently announced third season, what we have seen of the series so far should prepare us for the worst. I have no illusions about Adam’s newly discovered sense of chivalry or Charlie’s business acumen, and I do not expect Jessa suddenly to develop a conscience or Hannah a fondness for serious literature. The only thing I’m praying is that HBO doesn’t pull the plug on Girls. There are some very cute babies in this bathwater.
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