One recent evening, while enjoying a small, dry sherry at a hostelry in the coolest corner of the centre of the universe, I overheard a conversation about HBO's series Girls.
At a nearby table sat five young women, all in their early 20s, I'd guess. Whatever they discussed was of no interest to me and I tuned them out until I heard the phrase, "It's on HBO." One young woman was enthusing about Girls and asking the others if they'd seen it. She had, and declared, "It's the new Sex and the City. It's cool. It's like it's about us." One other woman at the table had seen it: "I saw it, yeah. It's gross." The other looked at her, agog. "It's just gross," she said. The enthusiast for Girls then closed the chat by saying. "Well, you guys should just watch it."
Girls (Sundays, 10:30 p.m. on HBO Canada, and on-demand all week) is indeed gross, as far as some viewers are concerned. In January, when TV critics were in Los Angeles for the mid-season press tour and shown the first three episodes, there was an outbreak of thanks-but-no-thanks from those who are middle-aged men with teenage or twentysomething daughters. "I don't wanna know about this stuff," one critic practically wailed to me. I sympathize, but it's still important to put the male gaze on Girls.
So, here's the weird thing about Girls – it's a comedy and not everybody understands that. In fact, some people don't even understand that it's fiction. The show has a laconic quality and a sensibility that suggests it's a form of docudrama. But it isn't.
While the reaction of male viewers/critics with twentysomething daughters is understandable to some extent (the young women on it are comically hopeless or just horrifically inept), the series suffers under a knee-jerk, instinctive impulse in the culture to see it as real, as non-fiction. As if it should be labelled "based on a true story." Clearly the keen observational quality of Girls has some roots in realty, but it is certainly a comedy – the characters are being mocked, even as there is a sense of melancholy about their existence.
To grasp this, it's best to go beyond focusing on Lena Dunham, who created the series and stars in it as Hannah, that deluded bundle of insecurities about money and men.
Judd Apatow, who acts as producer, said recently, "There's funny things to hate about it, because it is about people who are self-entitled and smart and screwing up their lives. It's supposed to be about people who are a disaster and privileged, and every time you do something about people like that, people go, 'Why are they like that?' Well, because that's the point of the show. The joke of it." There you go – anyone who thinks Hannah, Holly, Jessa and Shoshanna are role models is a fool.
Perhaps what makes people think it's not fiction is the exotic quality of the drama. Surely, some might feel, this bizarre world of young women, naive about work and money and having horrific relationships with men, is a previously unknown world revealed to us by someone who has emerged from it?
No such thing, I suspect. It's just that these young women and their lives seem more authentic than the shopping-and-shagging foursome on Sex and the City. All vagina jokes and Manolo Blahnik shoes, they were not really creatures of this world, but sprites of some kind, sprung from some delirious, folkloric imagination as applied to urban life at the end of the 20th century. It was a fantasy world, a utopia that many female viewers escaped to.
Girls, though, is fiction grounded in reality. The characters are in a liminal state – that is, on the threshold between adolescence and adulthood. They are in the middle of a transformative stage. That is a key part of what makes them compelling. They're in a very weird place in their lives, but it is a real place.
The Manhattan of Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte on Sex and the City was a mythic place, absurdly glossy and teeming with great shoe stores, cocktail bars and handsome businessmen. The Manhattan of the women on Girls is authentic, grubby and slightly sordid. Instead of teeming with Mr. Big-business types, it seems to teem with young men who are, for the most part, morons.
The young woman who said, "It's the new Sex and the City. It's cool. It's like it's about us," is wrong. The young woman who said, "It's gross," is only partly correct. The young men are gross. But it's all fiction, not a documentary, says this male gazer and geezer.
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