Girls thoughts: the return

Been thinking about this show some. Mostly because it’s very funny, and I like thinking back on it and going “Haha, that was funny!” But aside from that:

* The AV Club’s Todd Van Der Werff argues that Girls suffers for not falling into the currently acceptable molds for “great television,” i.e. the rapidfire single-camera sitcom mode established by Arrested Development or the alpha-male-dysfunction drama mode established by The Sopranos, with a particular emphasis on how the latter template has hampered the ability of prestige shows based on women to connect with critics or audiences. This seems more or less indisputably true to me.

* And it reminds me that one of the funniest and most subversive things about Girls is how it depicts boyfriends as lunatic aliens, the way most sitcoms depict girlfriends. Between Hannah’s (until recently) gruesomely insensitive Adam and Marnie’s (until slightly less recently) well-meaning but obliviously overattentive Charlie, it’s like a satire of how women in comedies are made the butts of jokes if they’re not goldilocks—not too needy, not too independent, just right.

* What’s more, it’s not done with the usual “am-I-right-ladies” tone of fake-empowered commiseration that you find in shows where the hot, smart woman is married to the fat, dumb man, or in commercials where the husband’s idiocy is remedied by the wife’s shrewd use of Product X. My own wife has always described this dynamic as a bone thrown to women in hopes they won’t notice what a condescending snowjob it is: “Sure, girls, we may only make eighty cents on the dollar, but even though it has no effect on our standing in society whatsoever, we’re secretly the smart ones!” Nope, as hapless as they are, the women of Girls are the alphas of the story in the sense that they’re unambiguously the protagonists, the drivers of the story, and the bad behavior of the guys is something they put up with out of choice, not because that’s the way the world must needs work. The narrative could, and did, find a way for Hannah and Marnie to no longer be long-suffering, something unimaginable in Home Improvement or that Excedrin commercial where the guy destroys his deck furniture with a power washer.

* Girls is also just a very funny, brutal, and gross sex comedy. From Hannah asking a one-night stand if she’s tight like a baby, to her leaving the bathroom to find Adam heedlessly jerking off, to (my favorite) the exquisitely explicit and mortifying scene in which Marnie re-breaks up with Charlie after cajoling him back into a relationship right in the middle of cowgirl, you’d have to turn to an alternative comic from the ’90s to find anything else as intent in delving into sex’s wettest, squishiest, most embarrassing places within a recognizable milieu of unhappy young people. The fact that it has no nasty misogynistic aftertaste just makes it all the better.

* None of this is to say that that material can’t be alarmingly, almost frighteningly powerful, too. Adam’s mortifying, self-lacerating monologue from that two-man show hit awfully close to home, for example — I mean, there is no doubt in my mind that I viewed my success with the opposite sex during my late teens as vindication that I wasn’t the ineffectual loser that bullies and popular kids had made me out to be. (Though in my case the “I’ll show YOU” element was never directed at girls, only the guys with whom I was locked in illusory competition for coolness via sexual proficiency.)

* One Girls criticism I never see anyone (except Douglas Sherwood) make but for which it’s wide open: Lena Dunham seems never to have struggled like Hannah. They’re the same age—Hannah’s unemploy[ed/able], Dunham’s on HBO. You could argue she and the rest of the show’s quite successful young writers and actors are condescending to their characters. I wouldn’t buy it, necessarily, but it’s better than “HBO hired her because her mom’s Laurie Simmons.”

* I’ve never had a problem with the way the show inserts genuine pathos into the cringe comedy and social satire. For one thing, that never seems to bother anyone when NBC’s Thursday night line-up does it, so why should it rankle here? As long as both aspects are finely observed and portrayed — as long as it’s not the sitcom equivalent of The Host — tonally shift all you want.

* That said, the big argument between Hannah and Marnie in the most recent episode was the first time I felt like however proficient they are with the comedic material, they might not quite be up to the big drama moments. Admittedly it suffered from apples-to-apples comparisons with some of the all-time greatest scenes in history, though: Don vs. Peggy, Tony vs. Carmela, Walt vs. Jesse. It’s almost unfair.

* My one quibble with Van Der Werff’s post is when, in a passage on how the show’s detractors come up with new reasons why it’s not any good every week depending on what’s the softest target, he says “One week, it’s the idea that the show’s ‘not funny enough,’ whatever that means.” I think it’s really easy to understand what that means: I laughed five times total during the first two episodes, and that’s not funny enough for a comedy. But it got much funnier, and now I laugh at it as hard and as often as I do anything else on televison.

2 Responses to Girls thoughts: the return

  1. Davey Oil says:

    I am so not with you on the portayal of cringe-worthy emotional displys in the Host . I rewatched it the other day and while I agree that the scene with all the sobbing and the freaking starts as raw and real and devolves into slapstick, that totally works for me. I guess I find my own strong feelings, especially grief and terror and shame as kinda funny/ embarrassing and Host’s mocking of it’s protagonist family’s intensity was a rare co-mingling of pathos and parody that just clicked with me.
    The monster design was shockingly bad, especially considering how solid the execution of the creature effects was. Like a great musician playing a dumb song.
    The Agent Yellow plot device was really busted. This kinda spoils the climax.
    I still like the Host and gonna write you and tell you, but than you brought it up here.

    Okay, go back to discussing the disappointing show you were right the first time about.

  2. Karl Ruben Weseth says:

    I understand where VanDerWerff’s coming from with the “whatever that means” quip; using your own laughs as a measurement for how successful a show is, is just about the most subjective criticism you could level at something. I’ve never felt that subjectivity is a hindrance to good criticism – more and more I feel it’s a prerequisite – but whether or not you laugh at something doesn’t seem to be a reflection of the quality of the comedy, it’s more a reflection of whether it’s the sort of thing that makes you laugh or not. A statement like that shuts down critical discussion, instead of opening it up to responses. I don’t know if it’s a relevant example or not, but I think I laughed more at the first couple of episodes of Girls than I’ve done at the rest of them combined – and I still agree with all the other things you said in your piece.

    Which, incidentally, was amazing, and a perfect follow-up to the VanDerWerff article. I think I actually said “oof” out loud a couple of times there, the second graph was particularly incisive.