The time has come… for retractions.
Last fall, I posted about “New Girl,” the Zooey Deschanel sitcom which debuted to great hype on FOX. (Remember when that was supposed to encapsulate the experience of the contemporary twentysomething? Before Lena Dunham showed up?) Back then, I decried the show’s stereotypical deployment of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope; Deschanel’s Jess seemed to exist for the sole purpose of adding sparkle to an apartment full of bros. It was a pretty wretched pilot, and I resolved not to watch again.
But numerous sources have been whispering to me, for the last two or three months, that the show had gotten way, way better – and so last week, in the midst of a soul-crushing work project, I decided to enjoy some post-office relaxation with “New Girl.” And lo, the numerous sources – they were correct!
The show has dialed down Jess’s Manic Pixie meter a few notches, registering now at somewhere around “Awkward, Weird, Girly Nerd-Girl” rather than its former “BALL OF CUPCAKES AND SUNSHINE AND KITTENS YAAAAAAYYYYY!!!!!” Even more crucially, the show has fleshed out the rest of its cast: the bros populating Jess’s apartment have grown into full-fledged characters, quirky and neurotic in equal (though distinct) measure from Jess. Also, Jess’s best female friend has been upgraded from a recurring character to a regular, reducing the sense that Jess is “The Girl” adding prance and sparkle and estrogen-dust to her dude-crew. In short, the show has matured well beyond its initial cliche to become a funny bit of storytelling about a group of people on the cusp of thirty, trying to navigate adulthood.
Which brings me back, once again, to “Girls”. The characters on that show are a couple years younger than those of “New Girl” but the underlying themes are the same: sex and romance, friendships, trying to find oneself and build a meaningful career and a meaningful life. The characters of “New Girl” have recognizable – though often ambient and unfulfilled – ambition, but it is markedly different from the ambition on display in “Girls,” which is more truthfully called expectation. But if the girls of “Girls” suffer from expectation and privilege it is only because the entire universe of “Girls” is designed to suit their needs: what is most grating about the show’s pilot is that the viewer is, to a certain degree, forced into sympathy for Dunham’s character, Hannah. Although she is so spoiled that her parents have supported her completely for the past two post-college years, it’s also pretty shitty parenting on their part to cut her off totally, with no warning, because they want a lake house. They know, after all, that she is working for free as an intern and unable to support herself – most reasonable parents might give a thirty-day ultimatum, or wean their children off gradually, or at least set up some kind of expectation of eventual self-sufficiency, but because Hannah’s parents have never done so her expectation that they support her indefinitely is not unreasonable. It’s an easy solution, borrowed from the Woody Allen/Larry David comedy playbook: how is it possible to generate sympathy for someone who is fundamentally unsympathetic, whose privilege is so obviously manifest?
Well, you can always make everyone else around them even more horrible.
Now, as the example of “New Girl” demonstrates, shows can certainly grow beyond their initial premise, developing depth and nuance along the way – it’s not impossible that “Girls” might not only offer Hannah a path to redemption but also color in the rest of her world with subtlety and genuineness. But the shows diverge greatly in the mechanics of their narrative setups: “New Girl” is based on somebody in their late twenties moving in with people found on Craigslist (highly relatable, non-specific), while “Girls” is based on being in one’s mid-twenties and newly cut off from one’s wealthy parents (highly specific, non-relatable to most of the world). Hannah’s closest cousin, in a certain sense, is Rachel from “Friends” – a spoiled girl who, in the show’s pilot, was cut off by her parents when she was in her mid-twenties. But Rachel made a conscious choice between security (acceding to her parents’ wishes, marrying someone they approved of) and independence, and was surrounded by a crowd of reasonably down-to-earth friends with her best interests at heart. Hannah, on the other hand, seems to operate in a moral vacuum.
Perhaps “Girls” will improve; perhaps the show will find its footing, find something to ground its protagonist in reality – we’ll have to see. Lacking HBO, I’m not in much of a position to keep watching anyway, and if Dunham continues to be compared to Woody Allen, I’ll take that as a sign to keep my distance. Like Allen, Dunham seems content to take the easy way out; it’s simple enough to create heroes in a world full of monsters and morons. The realism of “Girls” has earned it heaps of praise, but it bears little resemblance to reality as I’ve experienced it – diverse, subtle, self-sufficient, interesting, intelligent, worthwhile. "New Girl" may bear more obvious markings of a sitcom (being on network television, its sex scenes are less cinema verite) – but in the depth and variety it has developed in its characters, the show is, as of now, the more real of the two.