TV: Girls, HBO

Zeitgeisty and hipsterish as it may be, Girls is funny, self-deprecating and well-written

-Kathryn Bromwich

girls hbo

Is it a witty revision of Sex and the City seen through Woody Allen’s thick-rimmed spectacles, or the over-hyped creation of an over-privileged girl? Many viewers will predictably side with James Franco’s preachy and humourless take on it.

Sure, men don’t come out of it well: revolting venture capitalists, substandard thespians unwilling to ‘compromise on their art’, nice-but-dim small-town boys, bland indie musicians, or sleazy dads having a mid-life crisis. And yes, the girls are bitchy, self-obsessed, and prone to falling out with one another. But what makes this show bearable is the fact that writer/director/creator/protagonist Lena Dunham knows this. Unlike most television shows, the girls are not presented as perfect role models of achievement, virtue and beauty: they are realistic, flawed and, yes, goddamn irritating.

Franco also speciously argues that Lena Dunham is not well-placed to write about or act as a struggling writer, seeing as she is (now) so successful. Yet, following this circuitous logic (in which he has presumably misunderstood the concepts of both ‘writing’ and ‘acting’), surely world-famous actor, Yale grad student and self-satisfied Renaissance Man Franco is in no position to judge a show aimed at directionless young people who are struggling to find their place in the world and, more prosaically, a job.

In a nutshell, the story follows four female protagonists who live in New York and occasionally have sex with men. There are, of course, similarities to Sex and the City: the atavistic figures of Writer, Uptight, Sex Goddess and Career Woman transform slightly into Writer, Uptight, Sex Goddess and Virgin. But the difference is that here, they are not going on and on about Manolo Blahniks and Roberto Cavalli in the same lobotomised and consumeristic fashion of Carrie & co. Instead of presenting an unfeasibly successful lifestyle to aspire to, these girls struggle to pay the rent, have bad sex with inappropriate men, throw tantrums, depend on their parents, and have badly paid jobs in unglamorous offices. In Britain this kind of TV is hardly a novelty, but in the US it is being hailed as nothing short of revolution.

Girls acts as a travelogue into Brooklyn hipster life, perfect for anyone who wishes Gossip Girl would move away from the glitzy Upper East Side to Vanessa and Dan’s artsy bohemian friends in Williamsburg or Greenpoint. The closest UK equivalent is probably VICE spoof Dalston Superstars, or Nathan Barley. Of course, seeing as ‘hipsters’ are intrinsically annoying, the show pre-empts this criticism by slathering itself in self-loathing.

Dunham’s Hannah Horvath is Everygirl: overemotional, neurotic, a bit like a female Woody Allen. Jaded ‘artist’ Jessa, who has ‘the face of Brigitte Bardot and an arse like Rihanna’, fluctuates between being mesmerising and unbearable. Hannah’s best friend Marnie is bored of her long-term boyfriend and with her reputation for being ‘uptight’, and innocent Shoshanna spends her time watching reality TV and hating herself.

The show works best when it looks at small details, which are acutely observed: from a screenshot of Hannah’s Twitter page, you can glimpse her humdrum previous tweets (of which she has 4,140), that she is following 902 people, and that her followers are 26. The show’s zeitgeisty elements are current and will be recognisable to mid-20s viewers: apps, unpaid internships, overhearing your housemates having sex, and stalking exes on Facebook. Less interestingly, however, when the show tackles ‘issues’ such as abortions, STDs and – the worst taboo of all – virginity, it does so in a smugly provocative way.

Let’s face it. It’s not The Wire; it’s not even South Park. The characters are one-dimensional, deeply flawed and profoundly annoying, and some of the comedic conceits stray into farce in a way that a more mature writer might have been able to rein in. But if you’re a 20-something facing the alienation and indifference of city life and office jobs after a totally useless humanities degree, it’s consoling to see PLU struggling with the same predictably mundane problems as you.

Postscript. The lack of diversity on the show has received a perhaps disproportionate amount of attention in the media. Dunham could have responded, rightly, that most privileged, middle class hipster types tend to be Caucasian: after all, it is not her fault that there is racial inequality in America. I can’t speak for Brooklyn, but living in Hackney it is obvious that there is a stark divide between the largely non-white people who have lived here all their lives and the (usually) white university graduates who work in the media and shop at delis who have recently moved into the area. This is obviously not because of any inherent difference between races, but because of tragic social and economic inequality in the UK, which unfortunately is often correlated to race. This particular criticism of the show therefore seems to me to be misplaced or, at least, exaggerated. The nepotism, on the other hand, is much more annoying…

2 Comments on “TV: Girls, HBO”

  1. Terry says:

    What nepotism? Strange to mention it in the postscript with no context whatsoever

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