Editor's Note: TJ Keeley is a new writer here at Spectavius. He'll be covering movies, television, and whatever else he darn well pleases. When he isn't writing or studying, TJ spends his nights fighting crime on the mean streets of St. Louis, proving once and for all that while the pen may be mightier than the sword, both bow to the awesome power of the taser. As always, scroll over content underlined in red for additional commentary.
While traipsing the festival circuit last winter with Bridesmaids, producer Judd Apatow spread a message loud and clear: “women can be funny.” He was responding to an opposing claim from comedian Jerry Lewis as well as criticism of his own work, which often features funny, fun-loving men, and over-bearing, cranky women. With Girls, as with Bridesmaids, Apatow has teamed up with up-and-coming comediennes in search of a new kind of feminist comedy.
I am no fan of Apatow. His directorial efforts are great, but, like Quentin Tarantino and Jonathan Franzen, I wish the guy would just shut up. Lucky for me, Girls is less Apatow and more, much more, of its creator Lena Dunham.
Dunham burst onto the indie comedy scene with her 2010 feature film debut Tiny Furniture. The semi-autobiographical film, written, directed and starring Dunham, scored with critics, won Dunham an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay, and will soon enjoy a handsome DVD release through the Criterion Collection.
Girls is sister to Tiny Furniture. Dunham plays a screen incarnation of herself, and both works spring from a mind which has learned to write and produce on a .Girls has an incredible ear for conversations and how the nuances of language can slowly reveal characters. The show follows four young women trying to make it in New York. Dunham plays Hannah, and aspiring writer who is struggling to make ends meet after her parents cut her off financially. Allison Williams is Marnie, Hannah’s BFF and roomie. Jemima Kirke is Jessa, a British free spirit. Her cousin Shoshanna, a bubbly and innocent girl, is played by Zosia Mamet.
Half-way through the first season of the new HBO comedy, I find Girls to be refreshing, honest and very, very, funny, often painfully so. HBO, a trailblazer for the hour-long drama, has continually struggled to program original comedy. Aside from Curb Your Enthusiasm, the only memorable comedies the cable network has aired are imports – New Zealand’s Flight of the Conchords and Britain’s The Office and Extras. Eastbound and Down is intolerable and well below the standards of the otherwise excellent network.
Girls is a direct descendent of another HBO success, Sex and the City. The show recognizes this through its referential dialogue and a poster of the ladies in Shoshanna’s bedroom. But Girls is more of a corrective version of Sex and the City than an homage; it’s like a young adult who rebels against her parents, but knows she cannot escape their shadow.
Sex and the City was often criticized for erecting uncompromising portraits of women as rich, successful and beautiful. Rather than holding up a mirror to New York City, it created a mythology. Girls attempts to be more honest and dissecting, and mostly succeeds. While her counterparts are NYC attractive, Dunham frequently shoots herself in unflattering appearances and references her slight portliness in dialogue. Even though the girls are struggling financially and existentially, they are all smart and witty, and you get the sense that there is no real threat looming. Like when Hannah fears she has an STD, the audience is never really asked to fear for her. Instead, we laugh at her neuroticism. Everything is going to be just fine.
Girls is most criticized for its concern with affluent problems and monochromatic cast. Dunham has acknowledged the lack of diversity on the show and says it will be addressed in Season 2. But the affluent accusation misses the point of the show. First, it imagines a show as many critics would like it to be, not as it is. Second, Girls is fully aware and anticipates this criticism. A recurring joke involves Hannah’s inability to finish her autobiographical short stories. “I think I might be the voice of my generation…or a voice of a generation.” Because Dunham plays Hannah, this plot point takes on a meta-theatrical significance. Dunham has perspective on her characters, knowing what it means when their biggest problems are not getting published. But she also succeeds where her detractors dare not trod. What Dunham knows is that no problem is too small for drama if it is done just right. This knowledge makes her an invaluable voice in modern comedy. She affords her characters both empathy and sympathy. The critics who cannot stomach a show about affluent white girls are only displaying their own inability to emotionally connect with certain people. There are women in New York City like Hannah and Shoshanna and Jessa and Marnie. So why can’t they have their own show?
Dunham’s New York is fascinating to watch as it unfolds. It is uniquely her own. Her vision of New York City as well as her comedic timing and self-deprecating humor make her the grand-daughter of Woody Allen more than the daughter of Carrie Bradshaw. Girls, a comedy about Hannah’s attempts to make sense of and narrate her own life, is Dunham’s successful attempt to narrative her own life. She’s laughing at her own insufficiencies, and we enjoy every step of her triumphs. Girls is a smart show, a brave show, a raw show. And, if Dunham may not be the voice of her generation, she certainly is a voice of a generation.
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