Why HBO's Girls is an Unfunny Vacuum of Pandering, Privileged Dross

By John Semley April 17, 2012

Girls

On Sunday night, Lena Dunham's Girls made its debut on HBO. This really means it made its debut Monday, when everyone in the show's target audience got around to BitTorrenting the pilot. It also showed up on YouTube. "It's here," a friend proclaimed on Facebook, as if Girls were the HIV vaccine or a jetpack.

In the show's opening scene, creator/writer/sometimes-director/star Lena Dunham (playing a twenty-four-year-old intern named Hannah) is confronted over a fancy dinner by her parents, who want to cut her off financially. She throws a fit, complete with emotional blackmail and pleas of how hard it is to make it in New York and the whole thing. I get it. She's unlikeable. And she knows she's being unlikeable. And she's "daring" to be unlikeable. And the whole thing.

Like anyone else the show was tailor-made for, I can recognize myself in a mirror and think thoughts and know what "self-awareness" is. So I know that Dunham's entitled brat shtick is calculated to ignite those twin flickers of recognition and disgust in the viewer, who by this point has already backspaced through three tweets to get to the perfectly pithy observation about how "relatable" this show is. Anyway, it's not so ludicrous how dependent and functionally hopeless Dunham's Hannah is. I once dated a fully adult woman whose mother ordered for her at a restaurant. But, ludicrous or not, the routine is tiring, typifying Girls' desperate attempt to bring viewers into its fold.

The truth is that Girls feels less like a portrait of a generation than a napkin doodle of bougie urbane privilege. All consoling cupcakes and winking and parents-who-are-both-of-them-professors, it's like the origin story for a new breed of Cathy, ack-ing her way through professional and personal malaise and urgently nudging you all, "Yeah, right? You too, right?!" Halfway through the first episode I expected Lena Dunham to use the phrase "go girl" in air quotes and then turn and wink at the camera like she's Zack fucking Morris. It's lousy.

To paraphrase something my girlfriend said—yes, I have a girlfriend, despite the fact that I'm an agent of the patriarchy who doesn't like Girls—this show is lifestyle porn for the willfully miserable, indulgent escapism for people who think they need to be unhappy to be real. Or at least to be different. It's like Thought Catalog got hit by lightning, acquired sentience and wrote a sitcom.

What's most annoying, and offensive, isn't that Girls is entirely mediocre—as it has every right to be. It's how absolutely pandering the program is. It's like that new movie, Cabin In The Woods. Sure, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's comic-horror puzzlebox may lack the political wattage that's been humming around Girls. But as is the case with Cabin, Dunham's thing feels as if it's entering into a dialogue with a clearly demarcated target demographic only to flatter its wit, its savvy, its very awareness of being part of a target demographic. Girls, like Cabin, feels specific to the point of feeling focus-grouped, like someone dismantled your whole character into a network of cultural reference points and dopey quirks and rejigged it into something just for you. You don't have to struggle or grasp or do any work to "get it." It gets you.

For all of Dunham's already sealed status as don't-call-her-a-the-voice-of-a-generation, she fits pretty neatly into the whole pantheon of boringly self-aware, self-consciously witty American filmmakers (mostly male) whose films similarly work to flatter the viewer's sense of their own cleverness, rather than require them to do anything like actually think.

There's a pretty broad range here. But I'm thinking mostly about stuff like the oh-so precious mise-en-scene of Wes Anderson, the cosmopolitan schlubiness of Noah Baumbach and whole other swaths of School-of-Whit-Stillman filmmakers, which might as well include the subculture of Sundance-certified mumblecore—a movement to which Dunham both does and doesn't belong, borrowing its ragged DV-cam aesthetics if not its on-the-fly improvisations (because her scripts are just that good). If there's one tie the binds these directors—now that their uniform maleness has been intruded upon by Dunham—it's the sense of frustrating closed-offness that dogs their films. They feel like they make movies for characters in their movies.

Like Dunham's breakout feature, Tiny Furniture, Girls works very deliberately to hail its audience, to situate itself in what the program understands as the vacuous transitional space between Gossip Girl and Sex and the City, where people are "figuring out" "who they are." It's not like this isn't a subject. As the so-called "quarter-life crisis" continues to afflict those lucky enough to be afflicted by it, there's certainly space for films or TV shows that explore this phenomenon, that attempt to relate to those who are overstaying their welcome in parentally subsidized adolescence. The problem is Dunham's approach.

Her attempt to "relate" is reducible to all these quirks and cultural nods: to eating cupcakes in the bathroom and listening to Feist and MGMT and shitty tattoos and are you a Samantha or a Carrie? It's the namedropping of anti-depressants and types of wine and the casual framing of characters reading collections of Woody Allen short stories. Like Tiny Furniture, Girls establishes this whole constellation of things that you know and you like and you're into as a way of saying, "See? I am like these things."

Of course, it can't be so on-the-nose about it. She's taken lessons from earlier, more tone deaf screenwriters like Diablo Cody, who carpet-bombed her Juno script with references to the Melvins and Dario Argento movies. Dunham's smarter than that. You're smarter than that. So instead Dunham gets HBO to shell out big bucks for a Jay-Z song just so the girls in Girls can talk over top of it. It's not only about its cachet of cultural capital, but the way it flippantly tosses it out.

Girls' narcissism, knowing or not, is culturally endemic. It's indicative of a mode of living that privileges the nooks and crannies of self-knowledge, at the expense of something so crass as identifying (at all) with the outside world. (See: Girls' magical black homeless man, the only character to encroach upon the show's hermetic vacuum of overwhelming liberal whiteness.) This would be annoying, sure, but all well enough if those pits of introspection weren't a mile wide and an inch deep. Instead of driving at depth, Dunham scatters her scripts and her set design with all the stuff that merely suggests depth: anti-depressants, creative writing degrees, couture cupcakes, a friend who knows where to get opium tea, a well-curated iPod playlist to which you can half-listen, etc.

It may be unfair to lambaste the show based on its pilot—though no more or less unfair than crowing for it with the same knowledge—but whatever happens with Girls and its cast of girls, its tone and attitude is going to be tough to shake. It's also not very funny, for a comedy. Though I suppose it's all designed to be the kind of thing that you're supposed to find "amusing," instead of actually laughing along with.

Yet the fact that Girls is so thoroughly lousy and unfunny may be its great strength. Or, at least, it allows the show the fulfill all its political hype, even better than if it were actually worthwhile. It's certainly true that women don't have as many models of identification as men, especially when it comes to stuff like American movies and cable sitcoms. And Dunham, both on her show and in her capacity as its guiding intelligence, does offer this. Maybe this is what we can salvage from Girls and all its trumped-up, post-feminist promise: making enervating, entirely disagreeable, phony-baloney, pandering entertainment for twenty-aughts raring to be confirmed in their own cleverness is no longer just a man's game. So, plus one for gender equality, I guess. "Go girl"?

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