If you’re sitting down to watch Girls tonight with folded arms and a “this better be good” scowl, I don’t blame you. The tidal wave of advance press has turned it into more of an issue than a half-hour comedy, and its creator Lena Dunham – who also stars as the heroine, Hannah — has been profiled so often that you’d think she was running for president. There’s a whole subcategory of writing about the series which seems worried that it’s politically incorrect to even watch it, because the characters are white and have money, which contributes to the perpetuation of the hegemonic ruling class — oh, hey, people, that’s the bell! Don’t forget to read chapter four, there’s a quiz on Monday!
Sorry if that sounded flippant (and it was). The Problem of Representation, as they say, is the entertainment industry’s problem, not Lena Dunham’s. If the depiction of privileged lives made art innately uninteresting, there would be little art worth discussing. What’s important is that the artist finds truth in her characters and setting, whether you personally approve of them or not. On that count, Girls is a success. This is a rare sitcom about young women who seem like real people (albeit irritating ones) rather than sitcom cutouts. It’s not arriving onscreen with a somersault and a “ta-DAH!” It feels precise and aesthetically modest, like a female-centric cousin of movies by Whit Stillman (whose first feature in a dozen years, Damsels in Distress, just opened) and late-seventies Woody Allen. Like Stillman’s and Allen’s characters, only raunchier and more self-doubting, Dunham’s characters live very well (often at their parents’ expense). They’re educated, privileged, and often petty. They talk to hear themselves speak, even when they think they’re having conversations, and miss potentially revelatory moments even when they’re right in the middle of them.
Hannah’s sometime lover, a carpenter named Adam (Adam Driver), is secretive and smilingly intense. He denigrates Hannah during sex in a way that seems playful but might not be; because so much of what he says has implied quote marks around it, it’s tough to tell. Marnie (Allison Williams) is gorgeous and smart and has been in the same relationship since she was 19, with a guy who would seem passive-aggressively clingy if he didn’t act so damned sensitive all the time. (“You’re sick of eating him out because he has a vagina,” Hannah offers.) Jessa Johanson (Jemima Kirke) is English and notoriously loose (none of the other women trust her around their boyfriends). But the group never rejects her because her frank bitchiness and blithe decadence makes her freer than the others. Our heroine (if you can call her that) is charming and funny but also judgmental and a bit of a parasite. Hannah wants to be a famous writer without having to refine her art, much less struggle to practice it. Hannah seems to be longing for a lifestyle rather than a life.
The characters are self-aware, but not as self-aware as they think, and aware that they’re not as self-aware as they think. Although they labor to express themselves as precisely as they can, they keep talking past one another, their narcissism acting as a kind of communications-scrambler. The male characters don’t so much converse as pontificate — even the “sensitive” ones — and many of their female counterparts phrase statements as borderline questions, as if they require approval of every impulse. The sex scenes are refreshingly real: frank but awkward, and always tied to character. They tell you more about the relative happiness of the participants than three pages of heart-to-heart dialogue might. Hannah worries about pregnancy and STDs and insists that Adam always use condoms, but this doesn’t quell her fear (expressed in a future episode) that she’s going to catch a disease anyway. She could be 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon post-college.
The opening scene in the pilot, which finds Hannah’s parents telling her they’re not going to support her anymore, is one example. Hannah is oblivious to her sense of entitlement, and her parents fail to really fess up to spoiling her. “I could be a drug addict, do you realize that?” Hannah whines, trying to make her law-abiding mediocrity seem like a triumph. There’s never any doubt that Hannah will eventually find a way to get back on the parental teat, because nobody from her background is ever truly cut off, unless they murder somebody — and sometimes not even then. “I can last in New York three-and-a-half more days,” Hannah tells her friends later, “maybe seven if I don’t eat lunch.” For all its old-money handsomeness and upper-middle-class flailing about, Girls doesn’t feel insular. It captures 21st-century twentysomethings — maybe educated Westerners generally — relating, or not relating. These people have no idea how ridiculous they are.