BY GREGG LOPEZ /
A look back at the groundbreaking HBO programme.
Girls tells the story of four friends in their early twenties as they move into the adult world of dinner parties, careers and, [in season two], breakdowns. The show was created by Lena Dunham, a liberal arts graduate who writes, executive produces directs and plays lead character Hannah. Dunham has divided critics and viewers alike by portraying the harsh realities that the girls encounter within relationships, friendships and the workplace without candy- coating it in TV sheen, in effect entwining elements of frank, tough situations into comedy fiction. We asked Rhiannon Parkinson, who matches the characters’ generational demographic, and self-confessed fan Gregg Lopez, to share their thoughts.
Girls and Me
Girls has been criticized for not being representative, but, while I don’t claim to be the voice of any generation, the show often hits far too close to home. I’m also a 20-something, middle-class, semi-employed, semi- employable, recent university graduate living in a big city and sick of working for free. What’s more, I don’t have a single friend that doesn’t see chunks of themselves, their situations and (most worryingly) their flaws in this show. I share enough generational characteristics with many of the characters in Girls to recognise aspects of myself in almost every episode and in Hannah and her friends (Marnie [Allison Williams], the uptight one, Jessa [Jemima Kirke], the free-spirited one, and Shoshanna [Zosia Mamet], the virgin).
Hannah’s confused self-belief is perhaps an escalated version of what many in my generation have experienced. Her supportive parents and academic experiences have given her the consistent message that with hard work and a little creativity we can be anything we want to be. Anything. But then the recession came, and the recession didn’t care about our generation’s sense of entitlement and promise of reward.
I started university the week the Icelandic banks lost everyone’s savings. I naively assumed (or at least hoped) that the whole recession thing would have blown over by the time I graduated three years later. I was wrong. One of the knock-on effects of this has been the expectation to work in unpaid internships in order to get more or less anywhere. Hannah’s dream of realising her role as the “voice of a generation” falls away with her parents’ declaration that they will no longer support her “groovy lifestyle” as she works unpaid.
Despite Hannah’s mother’s mild resentment of her lifestyle, “groovy” may not be the right term. From hirings, rings, pregnancy scares and STIs, to accidentally smoking crack, Hannah and her friends do not have it easy, despite the relative freedom their circumstances provide.
One aspect of the show that is often criticised is the flawed nature of the main characters. Hannah, Marnie and Jessa in particular make terrible decisions and hurt the people around them on a weekly basis. It is unusual in the mainstream media to see a range of characters all so painfully imperfect, so selfish, so clueless, so self-involved and self-righteous, and yet not villainous or evil. Instead these are the ones we’re rooting for, and the ones we identify with in their haze of early twenties confusion. It’s the one time when we realise that the only way to move forward is to be self-serving.
After watching for two seasons on HBO, I’ve decided I love the show Girls. It takes me back to my 20-something days in New York, drinking beer on the stoop and watching my dreams run down the sewer like warm hobo piss. Actually it goes back further than that.
My family got HBO (Home Box Office) in the ’70s, illegally. Back then you’d climb up the telephone pole in your front yard, fiddle with a box of wires connected by coaxial into the house to a bootleg converter that sat on top of the old television set and bam, the TV broadcasted curses!
“She borrows her quick (but not cutting) wit from Woody Allen as much as Dorothy Parker and Fran Lebowitz.”
But cursing was only an appetizer. Something else slithered through that cable: female nudity. HBO beamed sex comedies with topless ladies on spring break into my pre-pube eye-brain matrix. A wet t-shirt contest here, high school pranksters peeping through a hole in the girls’ shower there. America’s puritan ethics shot through a beer funnel of late ’70s excess.
In the ’80s, HBO ventured into original scripted fare with of-their- time fodder like Arli$$ and First and Ten – shows as unfunny as they were chauvinistic and sexist. Things changed in the ’90s with The Larry Sanders Show, then Mr. Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Suddenly you had to have HBO. Subscribers flocked to the original programming, not the stale second-run flicks it presented on repeat. Eventually, the other cable networks jumped on the adult-themed original bandwagon, notably AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad. It was an American TV renaissance. A new HBO show can be a beacon of interest for series-starved punters.
When Judd Apatow, producer of American hit comedies like The 40-Year- Old Virgin, had a development deal with HBO, New York Times columnist David Carr hipped him to a micro-budget digital feature called Tiny Furniture – written, directed and starring a smart, funny and adorable 24-year-old butterball named Lena Dunham. The partially autobiographical film had won Best Narrative Feature at SXSW. Tiny Furniture is a character study that eschews a classic story arc, instead meandering along at its own, naturalistic pace. There’s no climax or happy ending – a perfect structure for a subsequent series. For Apatow, it was development love at first sight.
Girls is about girls and boys in equal measure. Unlike Apatow’s popcorn laffers and the aforementioned ’80s ‘romps’ that inspired him – where static female characters serve as foils for the male leads – every guy in Girls has a full inner life and story arc of their own.
Yet Girls was derided even before it debuted. A mock poster, changing the title to ‘Nepotism’, popped up on a blog (in reference to the fact that a few of the actors came from somewhat privileged backgrounds, as if that’s an anomaly in the biz called show). Then, the line was that Lena Dunham’s was an ‘exhibitionist’, more gallingly with a body that did not resemble the Malibu Beach babes of Crown International.
So, in 2013, nudity on HBO is finally controversial, especially amongst frustrated writers with laptops brimming over with unreadable spec scripts, whose sole recourse for not having a NEA-granted photographer mom is the comments section of various TV blogs.
Dunham not only treats her audience to a healthy portion of epidermis, but presents her emotional vulnerability, her personality flaws and every mental imperfection like a psychological peep show. She borrows her quick (but not cutting) wit from Woody Allen as much as Dorothy Parker and Fran Lebowitz. With Louis CK or Larry David, she shares the ability to dive into awkward and potentially scarring situations with both observational and situational humour.
In the opening scene of the pilot episode, Hannah (Dunham) is introduced as a needy, immature NYC brat, begging her parents for more trust funds to help her be a writer. Here she invites your scorn. The journey from her arrogance and entitlement in that first scene to the broken, gutted and OCD- riddled mess at the end of Season Two is what establishes Girls as a brave, funny and compelling study of the human condition.
But to some critics, having a main character who is a struggling wannabe writer is too ‘insular’ (while somehow being a relationship columnist on Sex and the City is seen as globally relatable). Then there’s the self-indulgence charge, chastising the narrative freedom that allows her to divert from the story line with stand-alone episodes like the one where she spends the day banging a hot doctor or the one where she manages to make the awful British girl somewhat sympathetic.
Maybe Girls fans and I are the only ones who spent their twenties (and thirties) floundering through sucky jobs, bad or no sex, depression, insanity, backstabbing friends and, yes, that sense of entitlement that made it all harder to swallow. The truth was never pretty and mostly not at all funny. But every day we stand naked in front of the mirror and nd a way to accept our bloated, dent-riddled selves.
It’s easy to picture Dunham, had she not made Tiny Furniture and without the fandom of Judd Apatow, in the same position today as Hannah. Not so easy to see Hannah show-running and starring in an acclaimed HBO series.