Thursday, April 26, 2012

"'Girls' - From A Distance"

Have you ever wanted to read your young adult daughter’s diary?  Or listen at her bedroom door when she’s dishing her homies?  Or secretly audit her phone conversation with a heterosexual male acquaintance?

I haven’t.

Meaning, the new HBO series Girls is really not for me.  “Not for me” in two ways – “Not for me” the way a slasher movie or seafood restaurants specializing in crustaceans are not for me.  And “Not for me”, meaning, I am not even close to being the show’s target audience.  (Not that I would only watch shows about rapidly aging Jewish men. which is good, because there aren’t any.) 

Also – See:  First paragraph – Girls’ terrain and subject matter makes me eminently queasy.  (It turns out it is “not for me” in three ways.  I should know by now not to specify the number.)

But, you know…I used to create TV series, and Girls’ executive godfather is Judd Apatow who I peripherally know from The Larry Sanders Show, plus I’d been hearing good things about Girls, plus I’m acquainted with one of the lead actors, so I was curious to see what they were doing. 

What they were doing is charming, smart, insightful, funny, quirky without crossing the “Diablo Cody” line, sweet, endearing, human and fresh.  All courtesy of creator/writer/director/star, 25 year-old Lena Dunham. 

Can such a young person satisfyingly perform simultaneously in all these capacities?  She’s doing it, so I guess she can.  (It helps that it’s HBO rather than a commercial network that demands at least 22 episodes per season.  With a shorter order, Dunham can complete all the scripts before starting production, and, if she chooses to, write all of them herself.)  

I imagine a “pitch” for Girls being something like, “It’s Sex In The City for a generation that can’t afford to take a taxi.”

I was no fan of, nor am I an expert concerning, Sex In The City, as I watched less than two entire episodes, repelled by my passionate disinterest in designer footwear and the selection of revealed intimacies that made a subplot out of farting during sex.   


Girls, for me, is more grounded in a world with which I can at least partially identify, and is, therefore, more appealing.  The characters lead believable, contemporary lives.  Hannah, the main character, "works" as an unpaid intern.  (Anna did that at least twice, her second internship evolving to full-time employment.) 

The girls, and their men, also look less like fashion models than like regular people.  Casting talented but –almost as a statement – unglamorous actors is an Apatovian trademark, dating back to Freaks and Geeks, a signal they are conscientiously “going for real.”

Girls’ dialogue seems, for the most part, natural and unforced.  The scenes are short when they need to be, and extended when letting them run would make them better.  (I notice the same thing in Mad Men, the pacing in both cases, feeling, as a result, more of this world than the world of scriptural necessity.  I was constantly writing scenes shorter than they needed to be, in the self-censoring interest of “keeping things moving.”)

The situations and the characters’ response to those situations seem appropriate to their age, and the age they live in.   The sex scenes…oh, dear…feel authentic, motivated, if sometimes irrationally, and not primarily for Peeping Toms.  Best of all – refreshing, because it’s uncommon in American entertainment – their way of going about it reveals illuminating glimpses into character.  It’s not just “doing it.”  (Thank you, Lord, for getting me through that paragraph.) 

And yet – and this is not a bad “and yet”, as the familiarity provides reliability and comfort – Girls’ underlying infrastructure rests on identifiable storytelling construction.  We have seen it before.  Just not this way.

Four gal pals making their way in Manhattan – not new.  The delineation of the lead characters – one’s “together”, one’s a mess, one’s worldly, one’s innocent – diametrical opposites – we have seen that before too. 

This opposition extends to the guys they’re involved with – one, infuriatingly solicitous, the other, less thoughtful than a girl might prefer.  Once again, not are the characters different, but, for dramatic and comedic effect, polarly ying-yang.  

The second episode, in which a girl thinks she’s pregnant, and in the end it turns out she’s not?  That’s “Little old lady, her canary flies out the window…flies back in” – which is the underlying structure of almost every episode I, and virtually ever other television writer, has ever written. 

The “Name of the Game” however, is not what you do – which derives inevitably from the “Scriptwriters’ Toolbox” – but what you do with what you do.  It’s all in the “moves.”  And in that, Girls is a pleasure-inducing delight.

Hannah, an aspiring writer, makes a pitch for her parents’ financial support until she finishes her memoir by saying,

“I think I may be the Voice of my Generation.”

Then, self-awaredly walking it back, she says,

“Or at least…a voice…of a generation.”

(A tiny quibble.  She should have said, “a voice or my generation”, as she is unlikely to be the voice of any other generation.  She could also say, “a voice of my generation, hopefully the one that sells books.”  But that’s just a suggestion.)

In another scene, when Hannah the Writer is trying to console her assumed pregnant friend concerning a scheduled abortion, her friend angrily shoots back,

“I’m not a character for one of your novels.  Stop staring at my face so hard.”

I have never heard that before.  And I like it.

In the end, what makes Girls so appealing to me is the palpably heartbreaking vulnerability of its characters.  I care about these girls.  They could be – and may in fact have been a version of – somebody I fathered.

I don’t know if I’ll watch it again.  The “queasiness factor” may be too much for me to overcome.  But I will root for Girls.

And, perhaps, now and then, I might sneak a little peak.

Veep is cleverly written but has no discernible heart.  If it gets one – and perhaps you can alert me to that – I will give it another try. 


PG said...

I agree with you about Veep....just a lot of mean-spirited snappy patter emulating Sorkin and such. From what I've been able to ascertain, there isn't a politician out there who can bandy words so rapidly, so it has no true sense of place.
Can't hold a candle to "Yes, Minister".
As for "Girls", I agree about the very talented people in the mix, but find the clueless self-entitled characters difficult to like or respect.
It's hard for us working 'folks' to feel sympathy/empathy for young people who feel they should be able to live in New York (let alone anywhere) without earning or even contributing to their upkeep.
Even if it's not in style!

Harkaway said...

Earl,thanks for this thoughtful, nuanced analysis. I agree with everything you have observed about Girls, but I don't see it as exactly a sitcom. Instead, it is more of a dramedy, with the characters working out what are probably real-life problems for this generation, but leavened with humor. I'm still trying to clarify the different characters, and I'm grateful there are only seven episodes to start or it might be pushed far too hard to keep its initial vision and quality.

Veep, on the other hand, of course doesn't have heart, but I don't think that's what Armando Ianucci ever goes for in his comedies. It's another bitter look at the inside of the political world, which he specializes in. The difference is that in the UK nobody thinks highly of politicians or thinks they have heart, while I think Americans are more sentimental about their politicians and government and at least wish they could have heart. The Veep here isn't like Biden or Cheney, but more like Quayle--someone you hope never has to take the reins of power. The question is whether this politician could ever make it all the way to the top. It'll be interesting to see if they can make it funny consistently without resorting to grotesquerie (which can be the trouble with some of Ianucci's productions).

Thanks again for exploring Girls in such depth. It is great to see how you worked through several important issues the creators would have had to confront.

And thanks for this blog. It is always enjoyable.