This year, as in so many years recently, twentysomething women have been ubiquitous in popular culture: their tastes in fashion and food, their tastes in men, their talk and their slang. From Zooey Deschanel's New Girl to any film with Katherine Heigl, TV sitcoms and romcom movies celebrate them.
And yet, as we often discovered in 2012, the picture delivered is superficial. And only real women in their twenties can show us that. One day this past May, I overheard a conversation, unfolding among five young women in a restaurant, about the HBO series Girls. I wrote about what I heard then because it so succinctly imparted the essence of the show's forceful appeal.
One of the five was enthusing about it, and asking the others if they'd seen it. "It's the new Sex and the City," she declared. "It's cool. It's like it's about us." Another woman said, "I saw it, yeah. It's gross." The others looked at her, agog. "It's just gross," she insisted. The enthusiast for Girls then closed the chat by saying. "Well, you guys should just watch it."
The conversation was worth reporting then and acknowledging now because its intensity was startling. Everything about Girls is startling. It is comedy, but subtle. It is fiction that feels grounded in reality. It is sometimes loving and sometimes brutal about its smug, entitled but brittle characters. It's annoying. It's intense. It's hilarious.
In a packed year of television highlights and astonishment – the Olympics, a great Mad Men season, Homeland's awesome second season, the CBC in crisis, the BBC in crisis, Honey Boo Boo, Downton Abbey dopiness, The Walking Dead's bleak weirdness, U.S. election fever, Justified 's just-so-cool storytelling, the exotic flavours of Game of Thrones and the baroque machinations of Revenge – Girls emerges as what matters. Comedy as docudrama, life as it is lived, a small but important portion of the culture starkly illuminated.
The day after I saw the first episodes of Girls, in January in Los Angeles, where TV critics were gathered for the mid-season press tour, I canvassed opinions. Some fellow critics, middle-aged men with teenage or twentysomething daughters, were repulsed. "I don't wanna know about this stuff," one practically wailed to me. I wrote about that, too, because it dovetailed so significantly with the young women I'd overheard in that restaurant.
That male reaction speaks to how Girls creator Lena Dunham has revealed a hidden world. It's not so much that her creation is realistic; like all television, it is a bit contrived. But it has a naturalism that commands women viewers to connect with it.
Not since Sex and the City has a show so unnerved some viewers and delighted others, and Girls is a far superior show to the fantasy universe of Carrie Bradshaw and friends. Dunham has presented a believable world of jobs, sex and friendships for women in their twenties. It's plausible and the characters are perplexing because they seem real, anchored in the contemporary urban space.
In today's pop culture, so many iconic female figures are bland and innocuous: stars such as Taylor Swift or the cheesy Katy Perry. Girls is like a response to all of that. For its rawness and naturalism, Girls is utter innovation, and that's why Dunham is entertainer of the year and Girls is the series of the 2012.
Series producer Judd Apatow has said about the series, "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."
And yet the joke is indirect. There's a melancholy feel to the daily existence of Hannah (Dunham), Marnie (Allison Williams), Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet). They aren't role models. They are reflections, characters on the threshold of adulthood, in a transformative stage, making horrendous errors and finding vital clues about the adult world.
It is Dunham's gift for naturalism – hard to achieve on TV – that makes Girls wonderfully original, superior drama that disturbs even as it entertains.
Television is an arena notorious for copycat inclinations. No doubt someone is measuring Girls for a knockoff version. But it seems unlikely that its authentic qualities can ever be successfully copied. It's pristine television originality.
10 shows (and moments) that mattered
Mad Men (AMC)
A stunning fifth season of often visually unforgettable scenes, including Jessica Paré as Megan Draper doing Zou Bisou Bisou at a house party, and Roger Sterling's acid trip.
A second season of intensity gave way to outlandish plot twists that underscored the irrationality of the spying world in which the show is set. Claire Danes outacted almost everyone else on TV.
Here Comes Honey Boo Boo (TLC)
A celebration of the Thompson family of McIntyre, Ga., and pageant contestant Alana (Honey Boo Boo), she of boundless energy and sass. Not remotely neurotic about anything, the family pointed the way toward celebrating redneck America.
Mr. D (CBC)
Comedian and former high-school teacher Gerry Dee plays a seriously underqualified teacher stumbling through classes and school politics. Well done, CBC, for giving the right vehicle to the right stand-up comedian.
A notable failure despite star power in Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina and Nick Nolte in a drama about horse racing, created by David Milch (Deadwood). Dense and intricate, it never clicked with viewers. Too ambitious, too dark.
Bomb Girls (Global)
An against-the-odds success. About the lives of Canadian women who worked in munitions factories during the Second World War, this show was big, bold and brassy, like some of its characters, but did well enough for a second season. More evidence that female-centric stories rule.
Downton Abbey (PBS) A soaper but a massive hit, with a loyalty from well-off viewers that networks would kill to garner with any show. Life is hell for the upper and lower classes in post-Edwardian England. Poor Lady Mary. Sigh.
Game Change (HBO)
The best TV movie of the year, and a devastating portrait of the McCain/Palin U.S. presidential campaign of 2008. Palin (Julianne Moore) was revealed as shockingly out of her depth in a campaign that was out of control; and it was all true, according to the movie's writer and producers.
Fox NewsAt long last, it appeared weakened by its partisanship; some said it had a role in Mitt Romney's defeat, having done more harm than good. Postelection, it dropped some right-wing pundits and seemed in retreat.
Said "No/Non" to Bell's acquisition of Astral, thereby reminding a surprised Canadian industry and citizens that it did indeed have power and that it intends to use it. Ended the year by rightly leaning on Corus to justify programming on OWN (Oprah's network).