2012 is a good year for the woman-centric comedy. In fact, so many women-centric comedies have premiered on television that I don’t have time to watch them all. Three recent women-centric comedies I have been watching are ABC’s Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 and HBO’s Girls and Veep. I originally planned to write a post about all of these shows, but I find that I don’t have much to say so far about Don’t Trust the B—- and Veep. Don’t Trust the B—- is amusing and I really enjoy Krysten Ritter and James Van Der Beek, but I’m not sure I see the show keeping its high-energy momentum for very long. As for Veep, I’m too busy laughing – and forcing myself NOT to laugh so I don’t miss all of the funny lines – to have many deep thoughts about it yet, so I’ll probably save a Veep post for later in the season after I rewatch the episodes. I unreservedly love the show so far – I know it’s only two episodes in, but I’m optimistic.
Girls, on the other hand – I have a lot to say about Girls, even though I’m not sure the show deserves as much thought as I’m giving it, and I don’t know if I would even be talking about Girls if everyone else wasn’t talking about it. (Talking about something because everything else is talking about it…does that make me the opposite of a hipster?)
Girls debuted on April 15th after weeks and weeks of hype, positive press, and descriptions as an innovative show that would speak to a broad audience of twenty-something women. Immediately after the show debuted, it was criticized as being yet another New York City-based show that was all about white people – spoiled, privileged, whiny white people at that.
Defenders of Girls claimed that Lena Dunham was writing about her own personal experience, and therefore shouldn’t have to include people of color for the sake of diversity. Critics of Girls wanted to know how she could live in Brooklyn without meeting any people of color worth writing about. One such critic was a friend of mine who went to high school with Lena Dunham and wrote this essay: Monochrome. Then writer Lesley Arfin showed her ass by writing a racist tweet, and Jezebel essays about the annoying trend of hipster racism wrote themselves.
But the portrayal of a lily-white Brooklyn isn’t the only aspect of Girls that viewers are questioning. Many people are complaining that the characters themselves – Hannah (Lena Dunham), Marnie (Allison Williams), Jessa (Jemima Kirke), and Shoshana (Zosie Mamet) aren’t likable.
I’ve watched the first three episodes and I, for the most part, agree with this assessment. The only character that I find myself liking at all is Shoshana. She’s annoying and whiny, but in a way that makes me feel sorry for her rather than wanting her to get off of my screen. She’s also been the center of one of my favorite scenes on the show where she describes her three types of baggage in ascending order: her IBS, the fact that she doesn’t like her grandmother, and her virginity. She’s irritating, but I feel for her, and she reminds me a little of a Freaks and Geeks character.
The other three characters, however, I don’t like at all. This isn’t necessarily a problem. I don’t have to like a character in order to find a character interesting. A character can be a terrible person and still hold my interest (see Lannister, Cersei). But I also don’t find these characters interesting, and that’s a huge problem. I don’t care about Marnie and I find Jessa to be such a complete cliche that my mind turns off whenever she’s onscreen. Hannah is more interesting than the other two because she’s been given more time to develop, but for every scene that makes me empathize with Hannah (meeting with her gay ex-boyfriend Andrew Rannells and feeling humiliated) there’s another scene where I find her actions unsympathetic and completely unbelievable (making a joke about date rape with the person interviewing her for a job). And I don’t object to the joke about date rape because I don’t like rape jokes (though I don’t); I object to the scene because I did not believe that even someone as clueless as Hannah would make that particular joke in that particular moment. It seemed completely forced, like the writers wanted so much to create an AWKWARD MOMENT that they bludgeoned me in the head with it.
Now, some viewers have wondered whether the characters on Girls are supposed to be likable. That’s a good question and I’m not sure how to answer it. The marketing has certainly pushed the “by us, for us” angle, advertising Girls as a show that can and should appeal to a broad audience of women. On the other hand, Hannah has a line in the first episode that seems to counteract that expectation, when she says, “I think I’m the voice of my generation…or of a generation, somewhere.” Dunham is poking fun at self-absorbed writers, but also at the idea that any single person can claim to be the voice of a generation.
So maybe Girls isn’t meant to appeal to a wide audience of women. Maybe it’s meant to appeal only to white twenty-something women in hipster Greenpoint and Williamsburg. That’s fine – not every show can or should appeal to anyone. But in that case, why is the show called Girls? Why not Hannah and Her Friends, or something else that shows the limited appeal of the show and doesn’t almost rip off the title of a Woody Allen movie?
This, I think, is the main problem with Girls. It wants to appeal to a wide audience without actually trying to appeal to a wide audience. We’re supposed to relate to these girls because we’re supposed to, not because they do things that many people can relate to. We’re supposed to laugh at these characters’ selfishness while also feeling sorry for them – an extremely difficult task for any writer to pull off. I admire them for trying, and I think they sometimes succeed, but I often sense them trying SO HARD to be realistic that they often come off as unrealistic.
Of course, the other main problem with Girls – or at least the problem I have with it – is that it doesn’t make me laugh. A lot of the moments that are supposed to be awkward-funny are just plain awkward, particularly the opening of the second episode where Hannah has awful sex with her boyfriend as he enacts a rape fantasy of an eleven-year-old girl. It’s meant to be awkward and uncomfortable, but we’re also meant to be laugh at the boyfriend for being such an asshole. Well, the show succeeded with the awkward and uncomfortable part, but don’t try to tell me that scene was funny, because I honestly found it harder to watch than the rape scene from Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I’m not exaggerating. Even though Hannah was engaging in consensual sex, the feeling of violation was so strong that I almost couldn’t watch the rest of the episode. I’m quite disturbed that the scene was meant to be funny, even if awkward-funny instead of ha-ha-funny.
Now, the show still has bits and pieces that I enjoy. I liked Shoshana and Hannah’s conversation about baggage. I really like Charlie, the sweet boyfriend who’s way too good for Marnie. I felt for Hannah when she was meeting with her ex-boyfriend. I like that the women look like real women with minimal makeup and clothing that people would actually buy instead of clothes from whatever designer is advertising a line of fashion. I’ll probably watch the rest of the season to see if it improves. But based on reactions I’ve seen from critics and fans, I strongly suspect that Girls will become one of Those Shows where not loving it means that “you just don’t get it,” and nothing will turn me off of a show more quickly than an obnoxious fanbase – especially a show where my feelings are already ambivalent.