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HBO Girls: Welcome to the bleak house

The new HBO show exec-produced by Apatow deserves kudos for its risk-taking but it misses a crucial element: A reason to care.

GirlsWriter-director-star Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture) makes her television debut in Girls. The HBO series pilot effectively taps into the twentysomething existential crisis zeitgeist (although a bit self-consciously at times). Gen Xers became synonymous with twentysomething angst but apparently Gen Yer’s aren’t immune to the existential crisis either. Dunham purports to be the “voice of my generation” which is a hefty label to apply to yourself. Dunham, succeeds, in large part, with Girls. It’s funny in places, insightful and captures that “quarter-life crisis” of twentysomethings.

Is Girls a comedy?

Comedy often comes from pain, awkwardness or humiliation. When combined — they can be comedy “gold,” a lethal cocktail that will leave you laughing until you cry (for example just watch Girls‘ exec-producer Apatow’s Superbad). Jump a little to the left or wiggle a little to the right and you land somewhere on the slippery slope of “dramedy” which, when done well, is uplifting, illuminating, funny and poignant at the same time, like Sex and the City. Miss the mark and what was meant to be comedy is suddenly drama. Whether Girls is intended to be as dramatic as it came across remains to be seen. There was something so depressing about the series premiere that there’s no way we can laugh out loud at a protagonist so clearly in need of assistance.

Refreshing non-Kardashian-ized TV: Girls gives us “real” women

Giving credit where credit is due: Lena Dunham gives us a daring and “real” look at being a twentysomething in Manhattan. Any woman who’s been a twentysomething in Manhattan (guilty as charged) can relate to all of it. It’s as if the scenes were scripted from your life: The parents cutting you off (no more monthly green handshakes), the quasi-friends who are dealing with their own life issues and don’t always have your best interests at heart, the obnoxious guy who rallies in conservative-speak about the glories of McDonalds, random drug-taking, career chaos and beguiling relationships with what at best can be described as an “awkward hookup” and at worst something we just really didn’t want to witness on TV (Hannah’s couch scene with the beleaguered and forlorn actor friend). Awkwardness as comedy loses its flavor when it’s more just, well, really, really awkward. In short: Girls is intelligent and a breath of fresh air in this Kardashian-ized culture; but Hannah is also just really full of aimless melancholy.

Mumblecore & hipsterism

It tries to be real. It’s Lena Dunham doing “mumblecore” on HBO. That’s the funny thing about TV: We still kinda want story arcs and character arcs. Give us slice of life but we still need to see a protagonist on a trajectory. We want to see relationships in action (vs. just navel-gazing). A mostly reactive, wandering, protagonist doesn’t exactly engage all the time. It is funny, if you “get” it but I suspect this is going to be a take-it-or-leave-it show or a love-it-or-hate-it show.

I really liked it. It should be watched because we’ve now arrived at the place in our culture where beautiful but “real” looking female actors are now considered brave and bold. Girls does have some issues. For starters, unless you are a twentysomething, or were a twentysomething New Yorker, you might not really give a short hair about Hannah and her gaggle of BFF’s problems. There’s that. Then there’s the hipsterism which can be so off-putting. Dunham veers off mumblecore and into hipster territory and this does a disservice to the audience.

The pilot episode synopsis

We open on her character, Hannah, out to dinner with her parents when they pull the rug out and tell her she’s been out of college for two years and they are no longer going to support her. She goes to her internship where she’s worked a year without getting paid to ask to be paid and they hug her goodbye because she doesn’t “know Photoshop.” This is funny but, in a way, only a hipster finds this funny because a hipster thinks they’re above Photoshop and trying to gain skills to actually be effective in the workplace: Hence Hannah’s kind of whining could be ill-perceived by some — especially in this economy. Hannah then crashes with a friend who has relationship issues of her own — she has her boyfriend wrapped around her finger but cringes when he touches her. He’s so nice it “makes” her “mad.” This is funny and Girls is at its best when it gives us the oh-so-accurate female point of view. It’s insightful, funny and refreshing. A series of scenes show Hannah and friends at a dinner party, Hannah pleading with her parents for more money and her mom’s shrill melting down about her own needs and wants (a lake house) over her daughter’s, an “awkward” hook up with a forlorn oddball of an actor boyfriend, and eventually drinking Opium tea, passing out at her parents’ hotel after they are underwhelmed by her writing — only to wake up with them already checked out. All that remains is an envelope for her and one for housekeeping with twenty dollars inside. Hannah takes both.

Apatow is truly gifted, a comedic genius. He deserves some kind of special Hollywood award for helping, encouraging (and employing) talented writers (and writer-directors-actors). He has “discovered” so many. I can honestly say my life would be a little less bright without Apatow. Love him. The thing about Apatow, too, is he “gets” it. One can only imagine the typical Hollywood meeting about a script like Girls, where execs scratch their heads and wonder where the cheerleaders are or the “hot” girl. HBO deserves credit for entering into twentysomething female angst scripted show territory. Many in this generation will totally “get” it too.

Girls vs. Sex and the City

The problem is that Hannah is too cool for the pool. She’s a nerd, and funny and smart, but she’s really a girl who’s afraid of herself: afraid of her heart, of feeling, of trying.

I am reluctant to compare it to SATC but since the show compares itself to it — it’s inevitable. The only similarity is four women friends, it pretty much ends there. Whereas SATC is frothy cappuccino — Girls is vending machine coffee with thick (almost spoilt) cream: We do find that funny in a hipster way but we’re not necessarily going to look forward to drinking it on a weekly basis. It’s hard to escape the underpinning feeling of apathy combined with entitlement of a spoiled generation in Girls.

Hannah’s shtick could get old and its appeal is narrow to its demo and target audience. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but the best comedy and dramedy crosses over to other demographics. We need to get to a deeper layer. The heart of SATC is that they are all friends. These girls aren’t really real friends, not friend “soul mates.” They’re just regular old friends you eventually lose touch with until you catch up on Facebook a few years later.

Hannah’s overwrought hipsterism makes it hard to root for her

This is about Hannah and strikes several serious notes. We are interested in her journey as much as she is… it would be nice to feel a sense of what she wants — right now she’s just a wanderer. We need a sense of her vulnerability. Great drama and iconic comedy always gives us a character’s vulnerability. That’s how we connect as viewers. Cool nerds aren’t good at showing vulnerability but we have to see it as a viewer, it’s what makes us click with a character and a show, the characters become more human than human and we experience ourselves in the character. If the cooler-than-cool nerd is always at arm’s length — at a distance — and is too cool to care, eventually we will stop too. We will enjoy the coffee with cream while we sip it but we won’t be dying for that special brew that we know where to get down at our favorite little cafe that warms us up, inspires and makes us feel and experience life, that life is good (awkwardness and all) — even if just for a moment.

It’s a good start. Now let’s see the real Hannah and where she goes.

Photo: Courtesy of HBO

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