Sunday, April 29, 2012

When I'm 24: HBO’s Girls Brings A Smart New Voice To Comedy

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on April 29, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.  

Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham and Zosia Mamet star in Girls on HBO

I recently sat down and watched the first two episodes of HBO’s much-publicized new comedy series Girls. Since I had been studiously avoiding most of the press, all I knew going in was that people were excited by it. I didn’t really know why, and I honestly did not know what to expect. Earlier this year, HBO cleared the way for Girls and for Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Veep by letting go of How to Make It in America and Bored to Death, two other Brooklyn-centred comedies which I already miss dearly. But if Girls is really the result of those casualties, it is just possible that those serious losses may not be quite the end of television as we love it.

At its most basic, Girls is about four educated and directionless twenty-something women, living erratic and decidedly unglamorous lives in New York City – Greenpoint, Brooklyn to be precise. It is most definitely not Sex and the City, HBO’s groundbreaking comedy series that put the cable network on the TV map back in the late 90s. These girls aren’t Carrie, Samantha et al, and the characters (with perhaps one exception) know it.

The four central characters – Hannah (Lena Dunham), her best friend Marnie (Allison Williams), their British friend Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and her American cousin Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) – are not role models for the put-together Manhattan set (exemplified by the women of Sex and the City) whose only real problems are emotional. These girls have issues that are real, and inform their behaviour in fascinating and meaningful ways—their financial insecurities, student loans, and genuine and serious issues with sexual, social, and professional self-confidence are not the kind that can be cured by brunch and mimosas (not that they could afford such a thing even if it did). And they are refreshingly pragmatic, as when Marnie makes it clear that she although she doesn’t want to live with him, she will invite her boyfriend move into a shared apartment in order to make rent.

Dunham, who is the creator, main writer, and star, is only 25 herself. HBO greenlit Girls early last year following the critical success of Dunham’s 2010 indie comedy Tiny Furniture (which also features Girls co-star Jemima Kirke). Dunham has recently said that the series fills “that in-between space” between Gossip Girl and Sex and the City, and demographically that certainly is true. But the show is more interesting than that. The forthrightness and frankness of the characters and dialogue transcends the novelty of its 20-something cast and crew. Like Louie before it, Girls has a raw voice rarely heard in popular television.

Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham and Allison Williams
Though the comparison doesn’t go very far, the show has quite a bit in common with Louie, Louis C.K.’s brilliant autobiographical comedy series on FX. Most importantly, it features a warts-and-all main character – played, as on Louie, by the show's writer/creator – who dares us to love them despite the growing suspicion that they don’t quite love themselves. Unlike Louie however, Girls comes with an ensemble cast of equally confused and poorly-functioning characters.

One notable feature of Girls is that it takes up, with no apologies, the financial relationship between people in their 20s and their parents. There is an awareness that the parents are established, and got to establish themselves in a time when loans were not as dreadful and apartments in New York did not require (metaphorical) organ donation to afford key money. Interestingly, the second-generation vibe of the show extends well beyond its plot. Their faces might have been unfamiliar until now, but you may be familiar with their family names of three of the leads: Zosia Mamet is the daughter of David Mamet and actress Lindsay Crouse (House of Games), Allison Williams is the daughter of NBC news anchor Brian Williams, and Jemima Kirke is the daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke. (Poor Zosia still doesn’t have her own Wikipedia page. Search for her name and you end up in the “Personal life” section of the David Mamet entry!)

But it’s not all new blood, at least not behind the camera: Girls also marks the return of Judd Apatow (on board as executive producer) to series television more than ten years since the cancellations of his two brilliant-but-underwatched network shows Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. Apatow co-writes at least one episode this season, but the voice of the show is very much Dunham. Not content with starring in and writing the show, she also directs four of this season’s episodes.

In the first episodes, the only two characters that we meet in great depth are Hannah and Jessa – in the first episode Hannah’s parents declare that they will no longer be financially supporting her (she graduated from college two years ago), and in the second episode we learn quite a bit about the complex character underlying Jessa’s wild, adventurous, world-travelling exterior when she thinks she needs to have an abortion. The other two girls, Shoshanna and Marnie, are set up very well, and while we may have to wait to learn about them, Marnie’s dissatisfaction with her long-term boyfriend and anxiety about the future, and what seems like Shoshanna’s painful and transparent lack of an internal editor (an early scene of her monologuing on which Sex and the City characters best exemplify her is almost excruciatingly unbearable), are very promising places to start.

Lena Dunham, in a scene from Girls
Hannah, however, is our introduction into this world, and she is a fascinating guide. She is a 24-year-old aspiring writer (“essayist”) struggling in New York City: in the first episode her parental support is cut off, she loses her long-term unpaid internship because she asks to be paid, and the boy she likes will not text her back.(It may seem amazing that there is a generation of 24-year-olds who feel that they’ve lived long enough to write a memoir, but that is only until you remember that we live in a universe where Justin Bieber can publish an autobiography at the age of 16.) Hannah is not without direction (she’s certainly working on her dream of being an essayist/memoirist), but she definitely doesn’t have a plan. In that way, the show certainly can speak to the Millennial generation, coming of age in a sagging economy without much hope for an immediate turnaround after two relative boom decades – a generation with a reputation for feelings of entitlement, but not without a real undercurrent of hopelessness. And in the character of Hannah, the show has it both ways: it lays claim to the experiences of an under-represented demographic, while coyly implying that no-one can really claim that kind of authority. As a stoned Hannah declares to her parents, basically just before falling off her chair: “I think I may be the voice of my generation,” and then, after a self-conscious beat, “or at least, a voice…. of a generation.” Hannah doesn’t write because she believes she can speak for everyone, she writes because she’s hoping to be able to finally speak for herself. Well, at least until she falls off her chair.

In the first episode we also meet the dickish guy in Hannah’s life (the one who won’t text her back) – Adam (Adam Driver) a part-time actor/carpenter who seems to disassociate during sex, and who demands, as though it is his right, oddly specific (and often disturbing) kinds of sexual role-play. But as disquieting as Adam’s behaviour and Hannnah’s relationship with him might be, it is Adam who soothes Hannah’s embarrassment over having been relying on her parents by admitting that he receives a monthly support check from his grandmother. Hannah is clearly not into Adam’s sexual fantasies, but she goes along because she seems unwilling to lose the physical and (even cursory) emotional contact. What makes Hannah interesting as a character is not simply that she obviously has a number of issues, both about her body and about her general self-worth, but that she is in many ways aware of the sources of her issues and their continuing impact on her behaviour.

“I am trying,” Hannah says to her parents at one point, “to become who I am.” And in that sense, for all its explicit self-identification with the Millennial Generation, if the show works, it works because it tells a story that speaks to more than its own. As a bewildered gynaecologist says to Hannah in the second episode (as Hannah chatters neurotically about her life all through her pelvic exam): “You could not pay me enough to be twenty-four again.”

Girls is earnest and profane, ironic, and at times nakedly honest. It is smart television, and it comes with a real voice. And it is, it needs to be said, quite funny. The second episode is actually much funnier than the pilot, as the show’s confident pacing falls into place. There is something new about the series, something not quite like what we’ve seen before. We’ve all been 24 and if you (like me) can barely remember it, then this show may arouse a small measure of respect for these young things, and simultaneously remind why you would never, ever, want to go back to being 24.

Girls airs on Sundays at 10:30pm EDT on HBO and HBO Canada. The third episode airs tonight.