Review: Girls

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.

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True Crime: From Comics to Cable

I’ve been reading collections of an old comic called Crime Does Not Pay. Started during WWII (as evidenced by the many ads for war bonds) with issue 22 — renaming existing series was a common trick to avoid postal registration fees — the series presaged the post-war rise of noir and horror. Nominally reinforcing morality by demonstrating the folly of crime, the stories rely on the morbid attractions of blood and violence.

Being a big fan of noir and horror, this appeals to me on a visceral level.

On a seemingly unrelated note, I’ve used much of this year’s sick day coverage already. This adds up to several days spent sleeping, eating soup, and watching TV. Daytime TV is a close approximation of living death, but I didn’t always have the energy to get up and find another movie to pop in.

Fortunately we have Netflix streaming, so all manner of entertainments are available to me from the remote comfort of my couch. Alas, illness makes me astonishingly forgetful. I wound up leaving the TV on ID, Discovery’s crime channel.

Watching, and napping through, umpteen hours of shows about real murders and rapes made it inevitable that a few dots would connect in my dulled brain. This has undoubtedly been mentioned long ago by those far more clever than I, but true crime shows are the modern incarnation of crime and suspense anthology comics.

Now, crime has always been a staple of TV, and it’s hard to remember a time when you couldn’t find an episode of “Law & Order: What-Have-You” on one of a handful of channels at any time of the day. I’m not talking about cop shows, or lawyer shows, or even outlaw shows. Reality shows that follow investigations aren’t it either. I’m specifically talking about the shows that present real cases in as sleazy and lurid a manner as possible. Shows with names that scream panic and prurience: “Nightmare Next Door”, “Deadly Sins”, and “Pretty Bad Girls” to name but three.

All of these go beyond their stated objectives of imparting facts. They insinuate, they tantalize, and they exult in tragedy. “Nightmare Next Door”, which happens to be on while I write this, has a narrator that puns and mocks his way through each story. He might as well be Mr. Crime, the evil spirit that began serving as a narrator in Crime Does Not Pay with issue 24. Sultry music cues are not uncommon in these shows, and many re-enactment shots play up the sexual attributes of “bad girls”. “Scorned: Love Kills” plays up the prurient interest with lots of re-enacted sex, complete with overdubbed moans and sighs.

They aren’t concerned with telling a good story or presenting a detailed account. They want to grab your attention, tie it to a chair, and hold it as ransom to get ad revenue. They’re cynical crap, serving up a world of constant crime and inevitable punishment to keep us excited.

I could only love them more if they were comics.