So, I just watched “Girls.”
For those who do not live in the intersection of “feminism” and “comedy”, whose worlds may not have been filled for the last two weeks with “Girls”-related chatter: “Girls” is a new show on HBO, written, directed, produced, created by and starring a young woman named Lena Dunham. It is, so they say, revolutionary, a feminist achievement, funny and witty and real, even if there are no black people or Hispanic people or Asian people or gay people or any people who don’t come from huge amounts of privilege. (And that last clause is completely independent of the race thing: all these characters have parents or grandparents capable of sending them fat checks each month, so that they might pursue their twentysomething dreams in New York City.) But it’s hilarious and truthful, so that’s OK, the critics reassured me.
Having read so much of the pre-premiere hype and discussion, I felt certain of two things: 1) the show would disappoint me on a sociopolitical level; and 2) it would be funny. Only one of those things wound up being the case.
Because here’s the thing: in the show’s final scene, it occurred to me that I hadn’t laughed once. Not even my usual airy snort-to-myself that I do alone when I can’t quite muster a full-on chuckle – in an episode of something like “Parks and Recreation,” that airy snort happens at a rate of at least once every minute. But “Girls”? The show that only contrarians could dislike? It mostly just kinda bored me. I didn’t feel invested in any of the main characters. The adults – as in, parents and bosses and other responsible figures, not the semi-adult main characters – were all awful, dream-crushing caricatures. The exposition was clunky, and the references felt forced and, well, referential. Also, roommates who bathe together? While one eats a cupcake? Is this really a thing? Somehow, I don’t think that this is a thing.
Mostly, though, it makes me sad for Lena Dunham, who rose to prominence two years ago with the highly autobiographical film “Tiny Furniture,” in which she cast her mother and sister as her mother and sister (once again, Dunham plays the lead role; the whole thing is filmed in her parents’ Tribeca loft). "Tiny Furniture,“ much like "Girls,” is about a post-college slacker with big dreams but no actual plans, meandering through her white, wealthy world. I tried to watch it; it, too, bored the bejesus out of me, but it impressed Judd Apatow and the good folks at HBO enough that they gave Dunham her own series, and with complete creative control over it.
So why am I sad for her? Well, because she’s not a bad screenwriter or director, but she’s a far cry from being a good one – and instead of being pushed to become good, her mediocrity is being rewarded by the world. "Girls" isn’t a terrible show, but it’s not a great one, and part of that is tied to its lack of racial or ethnic or socioeconomic diversity. The great joy and challenge of storytelling, after all, is inhabiting other worlds, building believable, relatable characters with whom audiences can empathize and, by that empathy, expand their own universes; it is in the landscape of our imaginations that we learn to reach out and understand people different from ourselves. Storytellers populate those landscapes, and they can choose to create characters and narratives that are familiar – that reflect our own selves back, prettily or not – or they can choose to challenge themselves and their audience, to broaden the scope of empathy we might offer up together.
But Dunham doesn’t seem interested in that task. Her life is the object of its own lens, but she lacks the critical skills to do anything substantive with that life – just like the main character of “Girls,” an aspiring memoirist whose cushy life (which she clings to) gets in the way of living anything worthy of memoir. Her world is as tiny as its furniture.
In skilled hands, privilege and insularity can be skewered into comic delight; the aforementioned “Parks & Rec,” after all, operates in a small town, although that show’s deft writing makes Pawnee feel much larger than the New York presented in “Girls,” whose writing belies both a lack of skill and a lack of ambition – not an absence, mind you, but less than there should be, given all the hype.
Is Lena Dunham making a pretty good show, for a twenty-five-year-old? Eh, it’s OK. It’s not very funny, but I wasn’t compelled to turn it off any point (I’m looking at you, “Whitney”/“Two Broke Girls”/“New Girl”). When it comes to portraying the misadventures of a young woman, I much prefer “The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl,” a web series whose protagonist is a much more successful everywoman – she’s even more idiosyncratic than Dunham’s Hannah, but much more relatable, and a whole lot more fun to watch.
To read many of the reviews of “Girls” is to think that this is the first story ever told about a young woman. But it’s not the first, and it’s far from the best.