One of the most heavily hyped HBO shows in ages premiered last Sunday night. Written and directed by, and starring the 25-year old Lena Dunham, “Girls” is an obvious bid to reap the kind of fortunes generated by the network’s highly successful “Sex and the City” by appealing to a certain demographic: urban, well-educated, female and white. The main difference is that this show is about struggling young people living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn whereas the female protagonists of “Sex and the City” were rich and living in the fabulous Upper East Side. It is the difference between the Cosmopolitan cocktail that the women in “Sex and the City” favored and a $1.99 bottle of Charles Shaw wine from Trader Joe’s.
If I had known nothing in advance about Lena Dunham, I would have looked forward to it with great anticipation. But having seen her “Tiny Furniture” and knowing what to expect (the HBO show is obviously based on the mumblecore feature), I watched it warily, all the more so since it was produced by the execrable Jude Apatow.
In a bid to build the buzz around the show, HBO took the fairly unprecedented step of putting the premiere episode on Youtube that is worth watching, at least as a cultural biopsy:
Dunham plays Hannah, the daughter of college professors, who learns in the opening scene that they will no longer be providing financial support. Since Hannah works as an intern at a small publishing house, this means that she will have to find a paying job. When she tells her boss that she needs a salary, he replies that he will be sorry to see her leave. Obviously Dunham is informed enough to know that the exploitation of interns is a major problem facing recent college graduates like her. She might have even had a look at Ross Perlin’s new book from Verso titled “Intern Nation” that decries the unpaid jobs that so many are forced to take during the ongoing financial collapse. Or at least a book review—undoubtedly not in the sort of newspaper that has been giving the show rave reviews.
But “Girls” is not really about economics, politics or society. By her own admission, Dunham has very little inkling about such matters:
I am woefully unread in the areas of history and politics and have a grand plan to read “A People’s History of the United States,” “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York” and some other books that might hack away at my ignorance.
It is much more about sex but in the spirit of a depressed economy handled in a rather depressing fashion. After leaving the publisher’s office, she stops off at a boy friend’s apartment to give him the news. Within five minutes of her arrival, they decide to have sex on his sofa which involves him mounting her from behind. Neither one of them seem to be enjoying themselves particularly. By contrast, the hedonistic approach to sex in “Sex in the City” was what made the show work. The character Samantha, played by Kim Cattrall, was a female Lothario who bedded any man she had the hots for, including plumbers and delivery boys.
Now if Lena Dunham had considered trying to convey the joie de vivre of Samantha and her pals in a situation shaped by dire economic circumstances, “Girls” might have worked. After all, Puccini’s La bohème is a delight to watch, even as the main character dies from poverty-related illness in the third act. But Dunham’s mumblecore aesthetic precludes such an approach.
Rule number one of mumblecore is that the characters must be undramatic, which is a contradiction in terms. If one of the chief dictates of theater, including screenplays, is the creation of memorable characters with larger than life personalities, then mumblecore fails right from the starting line. That possibility never occurred to the men and women who work in this genre. Their primary goal is rather narcissistic, namely to show anybody who’s interested how they and their pals live. Personally I don’t find the prospects of sitting through a 2 hour movie or a half-hour TV show featuring a bunch of 23 year olds talking about nothing that inviting. Of course, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld arguably were up the same thing but they knew how to write jokes.
This leads me to the next problem with “Girls”. It is not funny at all. For Dunham, a typical attempt at humor is fat jokes taken at her own expense. One does not know how long it will take for this sort of thing to become tiresome but for this viewer it was just 10 minutes after the show started.
Teaming up with Judd Apatow must have seemed a no-brainer to the suits at HBO since this producer’s films, often starring the talentless Seth Rogen, have generated mega-millions based on sophomoric plots, dialogue and performances. In a dinner party hosted by Hannah’s friends in the premiere episode, they are discussing getting high. When cocaine is mentioned, one of her girlfriends says that she never touches the stuff. When asked why, she replies because it makes her shit in her pants. This is pure Judd Apatow, but mercifully we are spared the spectacle of one of the character’s mishaps through flashback. The essence of an Apatow or a Dunham comedy is the character being degraded. Why this is so typical of contemporary comedy is a question that I have explored in the past, but will only state at this point that it reflects a decline of humanism in Hollywood. Charlie Chaplin’s movies embodied humanistic values to the highest degree while Apatow serves as their nadir.
In a half-hour filled with such cringe-inducing elements, you might be surprised to learn that all the leading characters come from privileged backgrounds and likely shared none of their character’s misfortunes—starting with Lena Dunham. In my review of “Tiny Furniture”, I noted:
Laurie Simmons [Lena Dunham's mother] is married to Carroll Dunham, a painter whose work is in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. Would their daughter’s movie, the first she ever made, have gotten the financing and attention it has if she was not born into this family? The answer is obvious.
A story about “Girls” appearing in Gentleman’s Quarterly lets us know that the other actors were also born with silver spoons in their mouths:
Lena Dunham’s new HBO show, Girls, is centered on—you guessed it— four girls. Each is trying to find herself and, more pressingly, gainful employment, in New York. The comedy was created by Lena Dunham, who stars in it along with Zosia Mamet, Allison Williams, and real-life friend Jemima Kirke, all daughters of famous New Yorkers. (Dunham’s parents are artists; Kirke’s dad was the drummer for Bad Company; Zosia’s dad is playwright David Mamet; Allison’s father is NBC’s Brian Williams). As one friend put it, the cast is like “a graduating class of Yale.”
In other words, the show is a kind of exercise in going “slumming”. In the 1920s, rich white people used to go to Harlem to see how the other half lived. For Dunham and company, this show offers a chance for them to pretend that they are like most college graduates nowadays– forced to live at home, take jobs as interns, or eat at McDonald’s to make ends meet. In the dinner party, one of the male characters riffs about how wonderful McDonald’s is. Anywhere you go in the world, the food tastes uniformly great—as if any of these people ever stepped foot in a restaurant that was not rated at least 2 stars in the NY Times.
There’s been a backlash brewing against “Girls” brewing, especially from the Black community. An unnamed contributor to the Womanist Musings blog (as might be expected, the blogosphere has bought into the show’s hype much less than the bourgeois media) has this to say:
I missed the Sex & The City phenomenon and so I decided to tune into HBO’s Girls. It was not high on my priority list, so I didn’t actually watch it until yesterday. It can best be described as 35 minutes of my life that I will never get back. As a thirty something, Black, disabled mother of two, I am not the target audience for Girls, but if I were to wait from something to actually appear on television to be marketed specifically to me, I wouldn’t need to own a television. Being marginalized means having to deal with dominant bodies being universalized as typifying the human experience, no matter how ridiculous the roles they take on are.
As she leaves the hotel you finally see the first Black person. A homeless Black man in New York after just being inundated with thirty-five minutes of the most navel gazing, spoiled nonsense I have seen in a long time. According to Huffpo, in an HBO live chat, Dunham has the nerve to claim that “the racially homogenous cast was a “complete accident.” Is anyone buying that? Ooops, they did it again. It’s yet another all White show, but because they didn’t mean for that to happen it’s okay. Why am I even complaining, when they did after all find a Black man to act as a homeless person in New York City, one of the most diverse cities on the planet? I suppose I should feel thankful that they managed to scare up a Black man ’cause they most certainly didn’t find a single GLBT person.
Frances Latour, an African-American reporter who blogs at the Boston Globe, had an identical reaction:
With Girls, Dunham has been catapulted from indie-film darling to Hollywood It-girl, heralded by culture critics as a fearless visionary capturing the zeitgeist of young cosmopolitan womanhood in a post-Carrie-Bradshaw age. But the problem I have with Dunham is that the vision of New York City she’s offering us in 2012 — like Sex and the City in 1998 and for that matter Friends in 1994 — is almost entirely devoid of the people who make up the large majority of New Yorkers, and have for some time now: Latinos, Asians and blacks.
It’s a zeitgeist so glaring and grounded in statistical reality that Hollywood has to will itself not to see it: America is transforming into a majority-minority nation faster than experts could have predicted, yet the most racially and ethnically diverse metropolis in America is delivered to us again and again on the small screen as a virtual sea of white. The census may tell us that blacks, Latinos and Asians together make up 64.4 percent of New York City’s population. But if you watch CSI: NY on a regular basis, you’d think the only person of color you’re likely to meet in Manhattan is a forensic scientist who works in a high-tech basement. (God bless you, Harper Hill).
Much of Girls is actually set in Brooklyn, a borough where just one-third of the population is white. Yet as Dunham’s character, 24-year-old unemployed writer Hannah Horvath, and her friends fumble through life with cutting wit and low self-esteem, they do it in a virtually all-white bubble.
Now none of this would matter so much if the show was even slightly entertaining. After all, I used to enjoy an occasional Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger movie from time to time even if it embodied a xenophobic machismo ethic.
The biggest problem with “Girls” is that is dull. But that’s what happens when you live a life of privilege. You really can’t absorb what it means to be the classic underdog, who knows best how to make other people laugh in the spirit of tears of a clown. From the wiki on Charlie Chaplin:
Chaplin’s childhood was beleaguered by poverty and hardship, prompting biographer David Robinson to describe his eventual trajectory as “the most dramatic of all the rags to riches stories ever told.” His early years were spent with his mother and brother in the London district of Kennington; Hannah had no means of income, other than occasional nursing and dressmaking, and Chaplin Sr. provided no support for his sons. Because of this poverty, Chaplin was sent to a workhouse at seven years old. The council housed him at the Central London District School for paupers, which Chaplin remembered as “a forlorn existence”. He was briefly reunited with his mother at nine years old, before Hannah was forced to readmit her family to the workhouse in July 1898. The boys were promptly sent to Norwood Schools, another charity institution.
In September 1898, Hannah Chaplin was committed to Cane Hill mental asylum—she had developed a psychosis seemingly brought on by malnutrition and an infection of syphilis. Chaplin recalled his anguish at the news: “Why had she done this? Mother, so light-hearted and gay, how could she go insane?” For the two months she was there, Chaplin and his brother were sent to live with their father, whom the young boy scarcely knew. Charles Chaplin Sr. was by then a severe alcoholic, and life with the man was bad enough to provoke a visit from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. He died two years later, at 37 years old, from cirrhosis of the liver. Hannah Chaplin entered a period of remission, but in May 1903 became ill again. Chaplin, then 14, had the task of taking his mother to the infirmary. He lived alone for several days, searching for food and occasionally sleeping rough, until his brother Sydney returned from the navy. Hannah Chaplin was released from the asylum eight months later, but in March 1905 her madness returned, this time permanently. “There was nothing we could do but accept poor mother’s fate”, Chaplin later wrote, and she remained in care until her death in 1928.