“You have to watch this show; the first few episodes are the most reactionary critique of sexually liberated Brooklyn possible; it’s a dystopia.”
Paraphrased, that’s what one wise friend told me last year about “Girls,” the HBO series that captured best Comedy Series at the Golden Globes last night, along with a Best Actress nod for its creator, producer, and star Lena Dunham. The show also premiered its second season last night.
The series has become something of a fixation for the overclass. It is our financial crisis era-hipster version of “Sex and the City,” but written by a woman! The boys at Slate are learning to love it. The new editor of Gawker hates it. Good grief, even Esquire has episode recaps now.
The show has been hailed as “revolutionary” but from the opening scenes it has always felt fairly inevitable to me. As it exposes a certain privileged slice of new white transplant life in Brooklyn, I feel like I’ve been observing these characters for a decade. The Girls (now, really, young women) went to Oberlin, I went to Bard. A significant portion of my friends are also new white transplants in Brooklyn with similar ambitions, though they lack access to parental reserves of cash and social capital to construct their lives. But my friends can occasionally overlap with those people in Girls. In some ways, it is a life I might have lived or at least lived around, if I hadn’t self-consciously rejected certain features of it.
There is a self-awareness about the show and its creator that is endearing. Characters utter precious modern truisms in hilariously self-interested and defensive ways. Dunham’s character is portrayed as sexually depraved and worse–kind of creepy–when she visits her hometown in Michigan in one early episode. Dunham was also hammered in some corners of the press for not having more racial diversity in her show. This season her character is dating a black Republican played by Donald Glover. It is a bit of the diversity people asked for mixed with a diversity they didn’t. The world and characters that “Girls” portrays will surely spit him out soon.
“Girls” may be impossible to watch for some people. Dunham is nude in it, frequently. Her on-off boyfriend will utterly repulse anyone with a hint of bourgeois sensibility. It isn’t delicate. It is so obviously partly based on true events, and partly fictionalized. It is difficult to refer to the characters by their fictional names rather than their identities: Dunham, Brian Williams’s daughter, David Mamet’s daughter.
Girls portrays an oddly telescoped kind of life. There are no children. The parents are far away and exist only intermittently. In the latest episode, one character’s mother shows up and talks frankly about sex, disgusting her adult daughter–ground well trod by Noah Baumbach in “Kicking and Screaming.” By comparison I see my in-laws no less than once a week, usually more times than that.
Instead the show is about 20-somethings who live in a world that seems parenthetical to one with personal inter-generational obligations. The drama consists of the characters making demands of the world and demands of themselves, and failing to be satisfied. As with many of my friends (and myself) they invent and announce codes of ethics and conduct for themselves on the spot. “I’m doing this a different way, I’m not just going to show up on your door in the middle of the night… I’m going to make logical responsible decisions when it comes to you,” one character says.
The oddest thing about the show is that these girls are fascinated–that really is the right word here–by men who have so few qualities. And the fate of these girls is to continue these confusing sexual relationships with badly damaged men, where pantomimed rape fantasies are a feature and a bug, for perhaps a decade. Only then it may become permissible for their social set to start thinking of marriage.
Perhaps I underestimate the trials of my more suburban, married existence in comparison to those of my Brooklyn friends and their stand-ins on this drama. But for a show with the tone of wild celebration in self-discovery, enabled by so much social capital, the ambitions and possibilities for these Girls seem so small and sad, and their 20s seem tragic.
Of course, they’re all famous and will be pretty wealthy soon. So, maybe it is worth it?