A stretch of sick days, coinciding with my having finally gotten HBO GO running on my iPad, found me watching the first season of “Girls”. The show was created by and stars Lena Dunham, who has been criticized online for everything from not being progressive enough to not being thin enough. Having heard zero about the actual content of the show, I looked it up in the HBO app and pressed play.
I have to say, I hadn’t expected to like it as much as I do. Not to say it’s without problems, but I enjoyed it and will likely catch up with season two.
The premise is simple; four young women in New York are struggling with the transition into adulthood. Dunham’s character, Hannah, has just been financially cut off by her parents. Nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, as has been pointed out extensively, we’ve seen plenty of privileged white youth supposedly struggling in the big city.
While I join the chorus of voices pleading for more diversity, this isn’t the show to complain about. Not that it isn’t absurdly pale for a show set in a major metropolitan area. The show can and should do better at reflecting the richness and variety of culture that surrounds its main characters. I just don’t think it’s a valid example of business-as-usual television.
Although most episodes of the 10 episode season are half an hour in length, it is not a sit-com. It’s often funny, but there are no catch-phrases, the situations change, and everything doesn’t get resolved. In a sit-com the discovery of a diary leads to hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and finally heartfelt apologies. In “Girls” relationships are strained and destroyed. It’s a subversion of story cliché of the sort that the show tends to do well.
There are exceptions. Shoshanna (played by Zosia Mamet) is treated poorly in this season. She is the least defined of the four friends, and she tends to surface only to serve as butt of jokes. In her longest appearance, she manages to accidentally smoke crack and leads her guardian on a chase through oddly empty streets. This is a time where the show descends back into formulas, and while amusing moments like this feel like a let-down.
The movie “Pleasantville” deconstructed the world of mid-century sit-coms by allowing disruptive change. This kind of change can introduce advancements while at the same time undermining business models or established ways. In one memorable scene the family patriarch returns to an empty house. No one is there to greet him or ask about his day. Suddenly his world has been overturned, his privilege stripped away, and not everything about him any longer. There is nothing he can do but wander through the dark rooms asking the emptiness where his dinner is.
At it’s best “Girls” reminds me of that moment, where someone who doesn’t even understand his or her own privilege is confronted by its absence. These characters have had the rug pulled out from under them, and they have to decide whether to regain their balance or behave as though they never lost it. It remains to be seen which way they’ll go.