Posts Tagged ‘girls’
Broken record time: I find comedy series confounding to write about, because for me writing about TV is calculating how details of setting and shooting and performance add up to something, but with comedy you can’t solve the equation because the need for jokes is an undefinable variable. The joke needs must be king and it trumps all the usual concerns, even on series with heavy narrative serialization and a lot of dramatic moments the inclusion of which used to create “very special episodes” but which are now pretty common across the board. (Scrubs, an overlooked single-camera comedy trailblazer, did this in literally every episode.) Girls is basically a dramedy that has more in common with Mad Men than with Arrested Development, but it still throws those confounding curveballs, exaggerating specific aspects of the characters and milieu for comedic effect. (“Specific” is key here, of course — it’s not flat-out ridiculous — but still.) But just because I don’t write about it very often doesn’t mean I don’t like it an awful lot.
Judging from twitter and Google Reader posts I tried not to read for fear of spoilers, this past week’s episode, “Another Man’s Trash,” was something of a breakout for the show, and having seen it it’s easy to see why. For starters, TV nerds no doubt have to appreciate the humor in borrowing a bottle-episode structure but having half the cast stuck in the bottle be Patrick Wilson.
But its real brilliance is in creating suspense based solely on the show’s established story structure. We’ve all seen Girls before, and we know that anytime something’s going well for Hannah, someone says something that destroys the magic and brings it all crashing down — she’s getting along great with a job interviewer until she makes a date-rape joke about him; she’s having the coked-up time of her life with her gay ex until he tells her he fucked her female best friend, etc. So you spend her entire lost-weekend idyll waiting for the other shoe to drop…
…and it legit seems like it won’t! Hannah and her handsome doctor Joshua keep having sex — lots of it, all over his splendid house, driven by frank and honest statements of arousal and desire that took her months to get to with her ex-boyfriend Adam, if she ever really got to them at all. They lounge, they joke around, they sit quietly reading and eating, they tease each other, they go to sleep and wake up and do it all again. For once she seems able to accept that she and a romantic interest (substitute “friend” or “professional peer” and it’d be the same deal, for her) are on a level playing field.
Why? At one point Joshua tells her she’s beautiful, and when he asks her doesn’t she think so?, she replies something like yes, but that’s not the feedback she’s used to getting. That’s the key here: Joshua’s very existence is the new feedback. Physically stunning, smart, successful, kind, wealthy — Hannah’s holding her own with someone who’s all these things. One of the reasons I love Downton Abbey and Mad Men so much is their emphasis on how the emotional feedback people receive from their friends and colleagues shapes who they are able to be and become; this is the best feedback loop Hannah’s had in ages. If you’ve ever had one of these whirlwind weekends (or whenever) where your every waking and sleeping moment is consumed by someone wonderful you’re in the process of discovering and being discovered by, you know exactly how powerful, arousing, fulfilling, transforming that feedback loop can be. And don’t mistake me—it’s not at all a situation where “oh, someone good likes me, now I feel validated as a person.” It’s more like she’s thrown herself into the deep end and realized she could swim like a motherfucker all along.
That’s her undoing, of course. She believes herself to be totally safe, so after her inhibitions are worn down by getting all light-headed and passing out in the shower, she lets loose with a torrent of pure Hannah solipsism for which Joshua is completely unprepared. It’s heartbreaking to see how Hannah’s emotional awareness works — how she’s initially totally clueless that she’s coming on too strong, that she’s treating Joshua like a journal rather than a person with his own emotions and agency, that she’s being enormously condescending and dismissive to his life; but how the very moment she senses the possibility of rejection, she picks up on those cues and attacks them like a shark that smells blood in the water. She’s clueless unless and until she picks up on someone reacting negatively to that cluelessness, at which point she becomes an emotional Sherlock Holmes.
It was very funny, very sexy, very specific, and very sad. We’re lucky to have the show that gave it to us.
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.
Girls episode four was very funny and very mean, which is great. Lena Dunham really has figured out how to take everyone’s worst characteristics, exaggerate them, and use them to smack around the other characters Punch-and-Judy-style. No, I don’t know anyone who’d be as openly repulsive as the bongo playing guy or Hannah’s boyfriend, or who’d be as acquiescent to sexual harassment as Hannah and her coworkers, or who’d be as vapid and pretentious as the British girl, but a) as Daniel Clowes put it, “Likeable characters are for weak-minded narcissists,” and b) I also don’t know anyone even a little bit like Kramer or George Costanza, or Basil Fawlty, or Blanche Deveraux, or Doctor Steve Brule, and on and on and on. It’s a comedy, and at this point it’s firmly established itself as a comedy of exaggeration which (contra the slapdash, any-weapon-to-hand first couple of episodes) is at least exaggerating recognizable human foibles, so who cares?
But that pretty much eliminates my desire to write about the show anymore, even though I’m absolutely going to keep watching and, hopefully, enjoying it as much as I’ve enjoyed the past couple weeks. I don’t have a whole lot to say about sitcoms, as a critic. So much rides on just being funny, and being funny forces characters into situations and narratives that defy the kind of writing about character and theme that I do. In a comedy, even the details of performance and appearance I like to focus on boil down to whether or not they made a joke better. I look at people who write about Community (a show I enjoy) the way they write about Mad Men (a show I enjoy) and it seems so foreign to me, like hearing your favorite song sung in Esperanto. I’m sure Hannah and company will “grow,” but that’s the thing I’m least interested in discussing, unless the growth is set-up for a punchline.
But it’s a good show, you should watch it.
I almost invariably hate it when TV critics say that Show X was bad until Episode Y, at which point it miraculously transformed into something truly worth watching. It’s a common phenomenon when you’ve read enough TV crit, and when you happen to disagree with the selected turning point and/or the supposed problems that preceded it, it highlights the subjective nature of criticism, and thereby the unreliable nature of critical interlocutors, like pretty much nothing else, because it’s such an all-or-nothing proposition. “The show was basically no good until this happened, and then it became good”: Disagree with any element of that and it all falls apart, and you’re left looking at the computer screen and hollering “What are you talking about? The wigs during Game of Thrones Season One simply were not that distracting!” or whatever. You end up embarrassed for the critic who asserts that something that either didn’t bother you or didn’t wow you is in fact a self-evidently dispositive element of the show.
So I’m going to be as circumspect as possible when I assert that the third episode of Girls is a whole new ballgame. I got to the closing credits and found myself surprised that Lena Dunham was once again the writer-director, so different did it feel to me. I got the hang of the show, is part of it — okay, it’s a parody of these kinds of people, it’s making fun of them from within, very well then, game on — but so did she. The characters are now more consistent in their ridiculousness, more coherent as caricatures, rather than collections of random tics and neuroses stuffed into human-shaped containers. It’s like Dunham figured out exactly what makes each of them awful and pathetic and just kept hitting that soft/sweet spot instead of merely flailing around, careening into the nonsensical in an attempt to make everyone look maximally obnoxious at any given moment. Marnie’s off-putting alpha-femaleness felt cohesive: She was turned on to the point of rubbing one out in the ladies’ room by a guy who ran roughshod over her sense of decorum in much the same way that she shits on her boyfriend’s gestures of goodheartedness. Hannah clicked too, as a sort of human magnet for terrible, arrogant guys who use her as a beta test for establishing their new identities. Whatsername the idiot Brit worked like a Seinfeldian send-up of freespiritedness, insisting on wearing a see-through outfit to a babysitting job like Sue Ellen Mischke walking around wearing a bra with no shirt. And Shoshanna is settling nicely into the nerdy-neighbor role, the Skippy/Urkel/Kimmy Gibler of Girls.
I’d be pleased if the show continued to use new guys as a Lost in Space-style “monster of the week” feature, too, revealing a freshly terrible dimension of maleness with each new episode. Nice to see Jorma Taccone used as a Will Ferrel/Tim & Eric-style avatar of leering sexual overconfidence, for example; that Marnie gets off on it is a joke on her and him both. Hannah’s insufferable ex Elijah works in much the same way, as a swipe at her and himself both: “Beau is my lover” is a ridiculous thing for anyone to say, while the guilty-pleasure insensitivity “That fruity little voice you’ve put on”/”Excuse me?” exchange is paid back by his awesome, successful attempt to get the last word: “It was great to see you, your dad is gay.” Even the tangents the conversation go on are very funny in their weird specificity: Hannah offering “I’m seeing this guy, and sometimes I let him hit me on the side of my body” as proof of her sexual-experimentation bonafides was probably my biggest laugh line from the show so far. I’m sitting here imagining the negotiation process as to the acceptable hitting zones and writing a flashback episode in my head as we speak.
It wasn’t until someone pointed it out to me on twitter that I realized this episode also happened to be the one with the most “heart and soul” — the “Dancing On My Own” sequence at the end is the best example of course, but there were other flashes of it, particularly the brief but surprising and genuinely touching moment in which Hannah’s horrible fuck buddy actually, sincerely consoled her about her HPV diagnosis. (She didn’t expect it any more than I did; I’m glad Dunham stayed away from the easy joke there.) Normally I’d think this sends a mixed message regarding what kind of show this is, because honestly I think my muddled expectations for what I was watching were a big obstacle for enjoying what I got in the first two episodes. So much of the writing about the show treated it like “Finally, this voice is being heard! This world is being represented!” that I couldn’t help but judge it based on those merits, and the judgment rendered was “A) the voice is garbled, and b) yes, but so what? This exists isn’t a TV show, it’s a thinkpiece in TV-show drag.” Toss in the inconsistent characterizations and doughy jokesmanship and the resulting impression was even muddier and less appealing. But in this episode the writing was so much sharper both in terms of character work and basic funniness that you could get away with giving these dopes the happy ending of having a great time dancing like nobody’s watching in their apartment at the end of a long night. The sharpness leavened the warmness and vice versa.
Anyway, that’s where I stand on Girls as of episode three, and as best I can tell I stand alone. The people who like the show seem to have liked it from the start, and that goes double for the people who love it. Meanwhile I don’t think it changed many, or any, detractors’ minds other than my own. So it’s entirely possible I’m seeing something only I can see and embarrassing myself by molding it in no uncertain terms into a verdict on the show as a whole. Best I can do is put it out there and ask: Are you with me on this, or am I just dancing on my own?
* And likely final. When your zeal for making your characters contemptible extends to not bothering to make them interesting to watch, ya blew it.
I understand how exciting it is to see yourself and your peer group represented on a show run by your peer group, and I like to think I can at least see what that would mean in gender terms from where I’m standing as a dude as well, though obviously I’ll never fully feel the impact of the gender disparity in pop culture the way the people on the losing end do. And I’m legit excited about the abortion storyline making it on to TV the way it did. But that’s about all this has going for it, best I can tell.
Lena Dunham aims for warts-and-all and winds up with all-warts, to the point where the characters are incoherent, and not in a Whitmanesque containing-multitudes way. That poor square virgin character, for example, reacts to the news that Hannah’s getting an STD test by saying “Fun!” and meaning it, at least until her friends talk her down. This is something no actual human being would ever say or think, but she does because we’re meant to find her ridiculous, and for Dunham any weapon to hand will do. Ditto whatsername, the one who’s not Hannah and not the British person and not the square virgin — she’s upset that she hasn’t had an unplanned pregnancy? How does that square with wanting her boyfriend to be less of a milquetoast? Or with, you know, being a recognizable human person? Comedy is obviously about exaggeration and distortion — see also the opening sex scene with Hannah’s grotesque fuckbuddy, which stacked the deck horrendously and wasn’t funny but which at least stemmed from familiar human behavior. Hannah’s friends, on the other hand, are just a collection of tics and neuroses and random embarrassing things (moving to New York because of Rent). That in turn made me less forgiving even toward the understandable caricaturing of the bit players.
Most fundamentally, though, once again I found myself sitting through a half-hour comedy during which I could count the laugh-out-loud moments on one hand with fingers to spare (for the record again: “What if I want to feel like I have udders? This woman doesn’t speak for me.” and “When they pull out, it’s fucking mayhem.”) Whatever else they’ve got going for them, whatever else they bring to the pop-culture table, horror is supposed to be scary, smut is supposed to be sexy, and comedy’s supposed to be funny. So, pass.
The amount of demimonde-establishment crammed into virtually every line of dialogue in the premiere episode of Girls makes Game of Thrones‘s worldbuilding look dashed off and noncommittal. Perhaps it’s the shock of recognition talking here, the fact that I instantly grokked nearly every deployment of descriptive specificity because these lives are, if not my own life per se, at the very least visible from the one I’m living. But holy jeez, from “He was in Prague that semester” to “Will you get me a Luna bar and a SmartWater and a Vitamin Water?” (did they steal my wife’s shopping list?), I suddenly understood everyone who complained about actors being made to cough up Baratheons and Winterfells and Khal Drogos every time they spoke to one another. Writer/director/producer/star Lena Dunham could literally have animated comic-book word balloons reading “NEW YORK CITY, PRESENT DAY” emerging everyone’s mouths and it wouldn’t have been more utilitarian than what we actually got.
But Girls‘s pilot is hardly the first to creak under the weight of its own need to serve the purpose of communicating What This Show Will Be About. Mad Men‘s period references were never clunkier than in its first ep — I remember the very smart writer Zak Smith/Sabbath wondering aloud on twitter if every episode was going to be characters shouting “IT’S THE SIXTIES!” — while both The Sopranos and Breaking Bad played as broad black comedy the blend of irony and violence they’d later refine into something far more vicious and terrifying and unpredictable. Girls‘s avalanche of detail may have been suffocating, but there were flashes of Interesting twinkling throughout that vast Brooklyn-twentysomething landslide.
The casting, for one thing, in which everyone felt…achievable, if that’s the right word for it. Jemima Kirke played the superhumanly worldly “British cousin” Jessa like a dressed-down version of Gossip Girl‘s Serena Van Der Woodsen, her bohemian-branded effortless perfection tempered/complicated/enriched/take-yer-pick by a less superhuman physique, and cast-off clothing the knowingly awkward fit of which was still, y’know, awkward. (Plus peeing, plus pregnancy, plus shitting her pants on coke.) Adam Driver, playing Hannah’s crush/fuckbuddy Adam (the inevitability of Adams being another pointedly true Brooklyn touch), combined what could be charitably termed as “unconventional” looks with a gym-honed physique, an obvious overcompensation that I wish the show had left uncommented-on rather than trotting out the high-school fat-kid origin story. Meanwhile, I live on Long Island and and married to someone who studied and teaches voice, so seeing Zosia Mamet (Peggy’s delightful lesbian friend on Mad Men) show up in a pink tracksuit and speak in the vocal fry register for sentence after sentence gave me the thrill of seeing two of my long-standing pet peeves embodied and ridiculed in a single scene.
These are the kinds of things I wish the show had taken more time with, rather than never letting 15 seconds pass without another LOL BROOKLYN. The nervous, cramped editing and framing didn’t help — I understand it was a deliberate choice, but that doesn’t make it a good one. And I could count on one hand the times I laughed out loud, (for reference: Peter Scolari’s earring; “Will you get a condom?” “I’lllll consider it!”; “Let’s play the quiet game”; Hannah spitting her opium tea back out a la Alvy Singer sneezing into the cocaine), so in the future it’d be nice if the ostensible purpose of a situation comedy weren’t crowded out of said situation comedy. But Girls is nothing if not self-aware — “All my friends get help from their parents,” Hannah says in the very first scene, telegraphing her own hugely sheltered and unrealistic experience of the world in terms so blunt I’m almost surprised that half the Internet missed it anyway — and my hope is that that self-awareness will extend, eventually, to making something less self-conscious.