The cast of Girls Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham and Zosia Mamet.
Please feel free to go ahead and roll your eyes at all the critics, fans and wannabe Brooklynites who have hyped themselves up into a frenzy over the new HBO comedy series, Girls. Veritable paeans have been sung about the show, created by Lena Dunham, a wunderkind who at just 26 already has two feature films under her belt. There have been more than a few negative commentaries as well, most notably involving the show’s lack of racial diversity. And, as with any juggernaut, it’s earned a bit of a backlash too. But overall, people - especially young, female people – have been foaming at the mouth with enthusiasm, calling it the first show ‘by us, for us’.
So. Is Girls really the greatest show on television? Well, the acting is a little uneven, some of the characters are a bit two-dimensional and the writing doesn’t really hit its stride until episode 3, (when it gets incredibly funny). So the short answer to that is, probably not. But is it the most important? You bet your realistic-sized arse it is.
Girls centres on Hannah, (Dunham) a 20-something writer who aspires to greatness. She’s living with her best friend Marnie, (Allison Williams) in an apartment in New York. Marnie’s been with her mild, hipsterific boyfriend now for over 7 years and the itch has taken hold – she hates him.
In the first episode, Hannah’s pretentious, sexually-magnetic friend Jessa, (Jemima Kirke), arrives in town from a stint in Europe and promptly finds accommodation with her cousin, Shoshanna, (Zosia Mamet) another friend of Hannah’s -- and Jessa’s polar opposite.
Yes, the series resembles Sex and the City, inasmuch as it’s about a writer and her three girlfriends figuring out the finer nuances* of life and relationships in New York City. Girls tries to dispense with the pink elephant in the room straight away by having Shoshanna compare each of her three other friends to their would-be SATC counterparts in the first episode. (Shoshanna is a total Charlotte by the way.)
Dunham has had to diplomatically dodge the SATC comparisons and forge ahead by describing Girls as grittier, younger and more realistic, but I honestly don’t see the SATC parallels as a bad thing. Because if the viewing public didn’t first see women dressed up in designer clothes with gigantic corsages tackling sexual taboos in glitzy bars over Cosmos I don’t think they, (or, okay, we) would ever would be able to swallow four ordinary women acting out even greater taboos without so much as a pun in the voice-over. And, in case you haven’t seen them yet, the operative words back there were ‘acting out’. Yep, the sex scenes are raw, clumsy and almost always awkward. This isn’t all that new, as anyone who has seen American Pie will attest. What is new is that the sex – especially in Hannah’s case – is not a harmonious, or sanitised or even mildly romantic act. The first episode is actually borderline horrific. The second is worse. In other words, she never really gets a happy ending, (in both senses of the term) and she never really learns anything – except what ritual humiliation feels like. Without putting too finer point on it, the sex scenes are agonising. But that’s not all!
Lena Dunham exposes her perfectly normal and never-before-seen-on-television-type of body with what seems like gay abandon. She regularly flings out her normal breasts, her normal, bulging tummy, her normal hips, her normal, sweaty forehead and normal matted hair – it’s all out there. Dunham, sophomoric genius that she is, has said in interviews that she sees sex as a ‘political act’ and is bravely prepared for the unfavourable reactions – even toward her body. She’s not the only one getting it all out there. Jessa, who is obviously hot but neither conventional nor skeletal, enjoys getting her kit off too.
So at the risk of sounding hyperbolic here, this – ladies and enlightened gentlemen – is nothing short of revolutionary! Because the subtext is that normal-looking girls have sex. This. Is. New. Television. Isn’t that sad? But it’s true.
But let’s pan the camera back because there is something else almost as shocking going on here too – Dunham’s Hannah is a woman who is smarter than she is beautiful. Granted, Sarah Jessica Parker was not conventionally beautiful, but she did have an extremely low body weight, making her aspirational and the perfect ‘paper doll’ as Parker herself put it, for the costume designer Patricia Field to hang her glorious clothes on. Housewives on television can be ugly as hell because they’re not being presented as sexual beings but rather nags who aren’t deserving of good sex or a respectful husband.
But a young, single woman? She must be beautiful, and, although she may stumble through unpleasant interactions at work or with men, she must eventually triumph by regaining her power, usually by the completion of the 3 episode arc. This doesn’t happen to Hannah, which has earned her comparisons to Larry David and Louis CK for her balls-out ‘loserness’. Only, the character is more subversive than either of those guys because the Female Protagonist Law which states that ‘intelligence is negotiable, looks are not’, has been inversed.
There is only one other woman who has subverted this law – Tina Fey. Liz Lemon on 30 Rock is not trying to look aspirational. Indeed, Fey made no attempt to hide her ‘baby weight’ this season. Liz also swans about in boy blazers, boot-cut jeans and appears to look her age – 42. Amy Poehler doesn't count - she's too farcical in Parks and Recreation. But it looks as if Mindy Kaling from the US version of The Office is following in her footsteps with her own show later this year with The Mindy Project. Although, it must be said, it doesn't look all that funny or orginal. It's .... Scrubs meets Grey's Anatomy if you want to know the truth. However, it's worth celebrating that the women themselves are writing the shows. And this is what's making the difference.
But other than these precious few pioneers, there doesn’t seem to be anyone else doing what they’re doing on TV. And with 30 Rock ending next year that leaves only Lena Dunham to carry the torch for normal-looking women everywhere who value their own intelligent voices and believe that this alone is enough to ensure their (romantic, awkward, unique and fascinating) stories are told.
*I wrote “finer nuances” because it sounds too confronting to write “hideous relationship choices” in the third paragraph. It is TV Evangelist after all!
Episodes 1 & 2 of Girls premieres Monday May 28 from 8.30pm on Showcase.