Pretentious. Hipster. Nepotistic. Ambitious. Fearless. Genius. What do all of these words have in common? They’ve all been used to describe Lena Dunham and her creative efforts on HBO’s Girls, which concludes its first season this Sunday.
Anyone who watches the show is familiar with Dunham’s autuerian efforts. She’s got a writing credit on every episode. She’s directed half of the first season’s episodes. And she stars as Hannah, the show’s frustrating main character. In an era where the show runner is everything to a television series, Dunham shoulders a boatload of the responsibility in relation to the show’s quality. In all likelihood, one’s opinions of Dunham go hand-in-hand with one’s opinion of Girls, because for all intents and purposes, Lena Dunham is Girls.
The reaction has been a fascinating roller coaster ride. Critics initially hailed the show with positive reviews. Naturally, this created backlash to both the show and Dunham herself. People claimed her success as nepotistic. “The characters are spoiled brats.” “It’s mumblecore garbage.” “The show is racist.” These internet voices came out and made sure their opinions were heard. This, of course, created backlash against the backlash. The supporters came to Dunham’s corner and addressed the Girl’s criticism, claiming that Dunham was creating something real and relatable to the younger generation. The battle has become the modern day Thrilla in Manila across the television blogosphere. The argument of which side is right has gone on for the length of the show’s first season.
The show’s tone changes from week to week, consistently surprising it’s audience. The show’s critics have used this as ammo, being labeled by some as inconsistency. What makes Girls such a riveting experience is it’s refreshing variation in tone. It can go from Welcome to Bushwick a.k.a. The Crackcident and Weirdos Need Girlfriends Too, two episodes that feel like straight comedies, to last week’s Leave Me Alone, an episode that didn’t have a single laugh out loud moment, but was equally as affecting. This changing tone could be potentially disrupting, but it’s completely appropriate within the confines of the show. Dunham has created a tone that’s apropos with her young characters’ ever morphing personalities. These people are finding out who they are right before our eyes. Isn’t it only right that the show does the same?
The formula to the success of Girls is that there is no formula. The show is categorized as a comedy, but throws much convention as to what makes a television comedy work out the window. This past week, Dunham was a guest on the popular podcast, The BS Report with Bill Simmons. On the episode, Simmons told Dunham that he doesn’t necessarily get the frequent comparison made with Sex and the City, but sees the show as more like Louie, Louis CK’s brilliant show on FX. Simmon’s comparison is apt, especially along the vein of their conveyance of humor. The standard operating procedure with television comedy has always been–set up line, set up line, punch line, tag–it’s proven. The multi-cam sitcoms have made their living with this formula. This new brand of comedy gets their laughs in a different way: by putting their characters in specific situations and letting them be themselves. The humor isn’t in the written lines, but the context of the line.
Take Duckling, maybe the most successful episode of Louie. At this point in the show, we know and love Louis CK. We live to see him interact with others and his surroundings. Here, CK’s daughter puts a live duckling in his bag before his trip to Iraq. During a tense, seemingly inescapable argument between cultures that CK is trapped in the middle of, the duckling escapes out of his bag and begins to run away. CK races after the duckling, stumbling around the bleak, rocky terrain while everyone stares at him, in all his sweaty glory. No words are said, nor are they needed. The two arguing sides laugh and bond over Louie’s incompetence. No set up, no punch, no tag. Just an established character in a specific situation. Girls is a much more traditionally structured, but Dunham uses the same technique. The humor is organic. In the afore mentioned Welcome to Bushwick…, Dunham puts all of her characters at an insane Brooklyn rager, and lets them interact with the surroundings. During the party, traditionally naive and innocent Shoshanna accidentally smokes crack and is left in peril. Watching her behave as if she were constantly being chased by Mike Tyson in the prime of his career was perfect. No formulaic dialogue. Just intrinsic, natural humor.
Dunham’s work is reminiscent of older Woody Allen’s films, pre-obsession with European culture. Dunham doesn’t have the mature sense of timing, character, or subtle thematic sensibility that Allen has, but she shouldn’t be expected to. She’s 26. She hasn’t come close to hitting her stride. It’s her knack for creating voice of character that’s comparable to Allen. In the Pilot episode, Dunham’s able to generate individuality between her characters that allowed the audience to quickly establish a rapport with her world, which freed up her characters. Allen has always been a master of this– establish voice of character quickly so we can get to seeing them interact. Certainly easier said than done, because most don’t have the dignified creative voice to do so. Also like Allen, Dunham’s infatuation with New York City is palpable. In a lot of ways, Girls is a love letter to the city. A letter Allen has written many, many times himself. Many set their shows in New York City, but few can make New York City it’s own fleshed out character. Allen was the best at this, and Dunham has done such herself by giving the city it’s own specific traits. She doesn’t try encompass all of New York. It’s too overwhelming. She allows the audience to feel New York City through the lens her characters and the way she does. These specificities create a world that gives dynamic life to the show.
The characters are undeniably selfish. Listening to Hannah and Marnie’s argue about which of them was the better friend induced a dangerously large number of eye-rolls. But you’re not supposed to love everything they do. Hannah, Marnie, and Jessa certainly do things that are frustrating to the audience. You may find yourself screaming, “What the hell is wrong with you people?” at the television. You know, Hannah asking for sex with her boss. Marnie stalking Charlie on the internet. Jessa toying with her ex-lover. In an age where individualized episodes have lost their importance, and season, even series-long character and story arcs are the dominant marks of television, we must remember that they are unfinished products within the world of the show and as characters. That’s doesn’t have to be a negative. They’re real people who make mistakes. Hopefully we’ll be able to see these character’s grow as the series continues. We’ve seen hints of growth from Jessa recently. Now, we’re just waiting for the day where Hannah will finally cater to responsibilities, which, at her rate, could take awhile.
Girls isn’t perfect. Subplots sometimes seem thrown in just because they needed to kill time and don’t progress the narrative of the show. Hannah and Company seem to constantly state exactly how they’re feel feeling. Unrealistic? They’re self-entitled New-Yorkers in their twenties. That’s how it works. At this moment, the direction of the show in the foreseeable future is a little foggy, but what’s wrong with a little fog? We must appreciate that within each episode, and many times entire episodes, there are genuine moments of unadulterated brilliance.
Any way you look at it, the fact that we have a show that has had such a divided, passionate reaction to its creator and content is simply riveting and, whatever side you’re on, watching the drama unfold will be interesting, to say the least.