'Girls' on HBO is a generational phenom
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Consider life at 24:
You have one foot still planted in the past, one in the future. You are fixated on becoming what you'll become but don't have a clue what that is. This breeds insecurity, maybe self-loathing, which sometimes leads to terrible choices in your personal life, like destructive relationships, unsafe sex or drugs.
Some moments you laugh at yourself. In others, you recoil at what you've turned into -- a narcissist who projects your inner tumult onto the rest of the world. That thought throws another log on your roaring existential fire.
Oh, and "you," by the way, are Hannah Horvath, protagonist of one of the most acclaimed new series on television in recent memory.
Hannah and "Girls" -- an HBO roman à clef of creator and star Lena Dunham (who's 26) -- are often clever enough and self-aware enough to realize just how silly or borderline tragic this life-at-24 business can be. Like FX's "Louie," to which "Girls" has been compared, it's neither comedy nor drama, but occupies some hazy middle ground, while remaining a sharply defined portrait of one woman and her friends at a specific point and place (Brooklyn) in their lives.
Its antecedents are wide and varied, owing a debt to pop cultural landmarks as disparate as "Sex and the City" to the '00s mumblecore cinema movement ("Hannah Takes the Stairs"), which often featured angst-ridden 20-somethings mumbling angst-ridden improvised dialogue.
All that's simple enough; the reaction to the series has not been. Besides the unexpected Golden Globes' win last month (best actress/comedy; best comedy), "Girls" has done well for HBO, averaging about 4.5 million viewers, which is a reasonably big number for the pay-cable channel. (The show begins production on a third season this spring.) Fans, a fervent lot, see it as reflection and mirror, as well as TV's most astute commentary on the "millennial generation" to date.
Then, there are the non-fans. They, too, are a fervent lot who have hated on the show for what they see as a hipper-than-thou smugness and an insularity that has turned Brooklyn into an all-white enclave for oversexed underachievers. In late January, former NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (of all people) made the case in a Huffington Post essay that the show had succumbed to tokenism this season by adding Donald Glover to the cast, as Hannah's black boyfriend. (He has since left.) Calling the Glover character "some jungle fever lover," Abdul-Jabbar wrote, "This really seemed like an effort was made to add some color -- and it came across as forced."
Clearly, HBO and the showrunners have been stung by the criticism. Dunham -- who wasn't available to comment for this piece -- told a website she had only skimmed the Jabbar post, then faintly praised his cameo on a Fox sitcom last year, saying, "Kareem crushed it on 'New Girl.' If we're ever in need of a Kareem type, he's definitely the first person I'd go to."
Dunham's close friend and co-executive producer of the show, Jenni Konner -- Judd Apatow is the other overseer of "Girls" -- said in a recent phone interview that she hadn't read it either. "I want to continue thinking about him fondly from my childhood and from 'Airplane!'"
But the overall blowback, she says, "is so crazy. I've never been involved with something that people liked so much and that's been so divisive. It's certainly, I guess, kind of exciting, but it's not our intention to be divisive. I'd be a sociopath to have expected this.
"Judd told us early on not to get a Google alert and don't spend nights searching for negative comments and to 'shut down that whole thing.' It's been good advice because otherwise] I'm sure I'd have spent a huge amount of time going down a dark rabbit hole."
Fans appear to outnumber the haters. "Girls" has been acclaimed by Jon Stewart and even by Howard Stern, who said, "I really do love the show" after apologizing to Dunham for saying on the air that she was "a little fat girl who kind of looks like Jonah Hill." Critical praise has been lavish. Noting that it's probably not a good idea for a critic to go "native" on a show, Emily Nussbaum, writing in New York magazine, then went native, calling the series "a gift" and a "bold defense (and a searing critique) of the so-called millennial generation ..." Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker bestowed an A, saying, "You want to go all-in on Dunham's own gamble that she can make 'Girls' be great." (Newsday? Yeah, we kvelled, too.)
For that reason, it's difficult to pinpoint when -- or why -- the "Girls" backlash began.
Gawker.com -- which has sparred with Dunham ever since she forced the website to remove a copy of a memoir book proposal she was about to sell for $3.5 million -- appeared to have fired the first shot last April. It debunked the creator (in a review) as someone who dramatized her "own life while posing as someone who understands the fundamental emptiness and narcissism of that very self-dramatization."
From that point, the line grew. Sharing their views (where else?) on the Web, detractors went after Dunham's apparent fetishization of her own body on the series. Many were angered by the presumption -- never claimed by HBO or Dunham -- that "Girls" was the "voice" of an entire generation. ("I may be the voice of my generation, or at least a voice of a generation," Hannah said to her parents in the first episode; it was meant to be funny, and was, though some interpreted it otherwise.) Others were appalled by the sometimes graphic, occasionally dehumanizing sex scenes, or the characters' louche lifestyle, or even that cast members were children of privilege. Allison Williams, who plays Hannah's close friend Marnie, is the daughter of NBC News anchor Brian Williams; Zosia Mamet's (Shoshanna) parents are playwright David Mamet and actress Lindsay Crouse, while Jemima Kirke's (Jessa) father is Simon Kirke of the 1970s band Bad Company.
Then, actor James Franco hammered the show in the Huffington Post in May, saying HBO had a "responsibility" to broaden the diversity of the all-white cast, "especially when you've chosen to set that show in one of the most culturally mixed cities in the world," Brooklyn.
While Franco neglected to explain why (for example) CBS shouldn't have the same responsibility with a show like the Manhattan-set "How I Met Your Mother," that particular charge has stuck.
Admitting he was surprised by "the vehemence of the detractors," HBO Entertainment's senior vice president, Casey Bloys, said in a recent interview, "There are some artists who go out of their way to be provocative just to cause trouble, which has its own merits. But Lena is writing something she knows, and that's near and dear to her."
Nevertheless, "I do think the diversity issue was an important thing to talk about and something they were aware of. It wasn't a complete shock, and it was something they'd been talking about. That's a valid conversation to have."
Konner admits the race charge "probably prompted us to talk about race in those episodes more than we might have," but also said Glover's contractual commitment to NBC's "Community" forced him off "Girls."
"If we could have had him for the whole season, we would have had him for the season. We would have loved to," she says, but NBC limited his involvement to two episodes. (She said "Girls" is hoping to revive his story line -- as Hannah's Republican boyfriend, Sandy, who in one especially meta moment lashed out at her for dating him simply because he was black.)
But there are no apologies. The show "comes from everyone's life -- a huge amount of it is Lena's, some mine, some of the other writers. I learned from Judd a long time ago to write from the truth ..." Nothing on the series, she adds, is done for "shock value. Honestly, 90 percent of what we say came out of someone's mouth.
"My boyfriend always says we wouldn't have had any of these problems if we had just called it 'Girl.' We're not trying to represent every person in the world, and Lena has talked about the race issue so much...."
Then, Konner's voice trails off. "We're all on a learning curve."
So, what are the girls of "Girls" up to? Let us review:
HANNAH HORVATH: (Lena Dunham): Still working in Ray Ploshansky's (Alex Karpovsky) coffee bar -- mostly halfheartedly sweeping the floors. She finally has a book deal, or specifically an "e-book deal." Publisher needs it in a month, and she's written the first line. Her love life is terrible -- a divorced 42-year-old doctor (Patrick Wilson) with whom she shacked up is apparently now history. And she's trying to avoid contact with her ex-sort-of-boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver).
MARNIE MICHAELS (Allison Williams): Ditto Marnie's love life, as in "terrible." Her too chic/too full-of-himself artist squeeze, Booth Jonathan (Jorma Taccone), had a tantrum during a party, and she took off. She's all alone -- again.
JESSA JOHANSSON (Jemima Kirke): Ditto Jessa's love life, as in "terrible." Her wacko instant-husband, Thomas-John (Chris O'Dowd), also had a tantrum, and off she went to live with Hannah. She is depressed.
SHOSHANNA SHAPIRO (Zosia Mamet): Well, Ray and Shosh do seem pretty happy together, but appearances are almost certainly deceiving. She does wonder why he never actually moves out of her apartment (a story line lifted from Dunham's "Tiny Furniture," in which Karpovsky played Jed, and also declined to move out of his girlfriend Aura's -- Dunham's -- apartment.)--VERNE GAY