Girls, premiering on HBO on April 15, is going to be part of a lot of conversations about women in TV and women in modern society. (Frank Bruni’s column on what it has to say about sex is a foretaste of what we’re going to be seeing.) Written, created and mostly directed by Lena Dunham, it fits into the “comedies created by women” theme that everyone has been talking about lately – a theme that gained more relevance when Lee Aronsohn made his infamous “labia saturation” joke. And it touches on a bunch of themes that are ripe for analysis: young people in the modern unfriendly economy; the problems of making a real emotional connection in a digital world; body images.
It’s also very funny, which is the surprising and refreshing thing about it. The first three episodes, all directed by Dunham, have all the trademarks of the indie-film approach that HBO is increasingly starting to embrace for its half-hour shows. You’ve got the static camera, the dead-on angles, the compositions and lighting that make normal places look almost abstract (the ideal composition is two people standing in front of a white wall), the quirky scoring, the naturalistic acting. And like most premium-cable half-hours, including the wonderful Enlightened, the show is a half-hour comedy, definitely not a sitcom. But the difference between Dunham and a lot of the writers of these other shows is that Dunham can and does write funny material. Not just quirky, and not just awkward, but funny lines and juxtapositions. Essentially, it’s a dramedy where people know how to deliver a punchline.
I would quote a few lines, but on paper they might seem no different from any other decent jokes. (“That’s grown-up Brooklyn!” made me laugh in context, and so did many of the other observational jokes in a scene in episode 2; the point of the scene, though, is that it’s a string of pretty good jokes leading up to one horrible tasteless joke that wrecks Dunham’s chances for a job, and instantly turns a friendly person hostile.) But Dunham knows how to make a joke fit into the texture of a scene, and she knows how to get a laugh by cutting out of a scene at the right time (in the third episode, there’s one very dark joke that works because she cuts away from the scene at just the right time, without a reaction shot). So while it’s not a pure comedy, it carries you along with the knowledge that if Dunham wants to make us laugh, she can – it’s not one of those dramedies that creates the feeling that the writer simply can’t write laugh lines.
Another thing that makes the show funny and accessible is that it has refreshingly little obsession with being timely. It is timely, but it doesn’t strain to reflect Dunham’s generation; as many people have noted, her line about being “the voice of my generation” is a joke (her character is high on opium when she says it). A lot of shows lately have been trying painfully hard to keep up with whatever is thought to be current and young and trendy, which is how we get “hipster” jokes and characters on every show. TV writers have never been at their best when they try to be hip, but in today’s fragmented culture, they seem to have no way of knowing for certain what’s “in” except the three H’s: hipsters, hoarders, and Hunger Games. The advantage of Dunham’s youth is that she doesn’t look at people her age as products of a trend; they’re just young people, differentiated from each other by their broad individual character traits instead of the fads they follow. Cell phones and Social Media™ are a natural part of the way the characters live their lives, and economic malaise is almost as much a fact of life as technology. Taking all those things for granted, Dunham is freed up to focus on universal themes (looking for work; horrible relationships) in an effortlessly up-to-date way, and to create characters who would be recognizably realistic types in any era.
There is one thing the show hasn’t yet (I’ve only seen the first three episodes) quite figured out how to deal with, and that’s the economic context of the main character’s life. The pilot is very much about a child of privilege – whose parents support her unpaid internship and dreams of being a professional essayist – being thrown out into something resembling the real world. But the next two episodes would mostly be the same whether or not she had complete parental support. Economic anxiety is very hard to deal with in a comedy, even a dramatic one, though that may yield some story material as the show goes on.
For now, the pilot does have the advantage of setting up the way we look at Dunham and her world; even though her character makes a fool of herself in the pilot, seeing her beg her parents for money may actually make her more relatable in a strange way. Dunham is a child of privilege, and she’s surrounded herself with cast members who are also the children of wealthy and successful people, and Dunham is conscious (in the show and in interviews) of the possibility that she’ll be viewed as another rich white girl complaining about how bad she has it. In Tiny Furniture, part of the joke was that Dunham’s character thought her life was much harder than it actually was – but that joke wouldn’t play as the basis for a TV series. So Girls starts out with a pilot where she does have actual money problems, even if those problems are basically self-imposed. By starting the show with a scene where her parents cut her off, she doesn’t exactly change the nature of the character’s situation (she still has a cushion of parental support) but she makes her character a little bit closer to an identifiable everyperson. It’s sort of like the first episode of The Simpsons, where Homer was genuinely strapped for cash, informed our perceptions of all the many subsequent episodes where he never seemed to have any real trouble finding money.
Update: For an alternate, negative view, Asawin Suebsaeng calls it “inertia disguised as quirkiness, stock narrative masquerading as art, and peskiness paraded as high comedy.” His reaction is not mine, but it does identify the basically sit-commy core underlying the indie approach – a combination that works for me.