Thursday, April 11, 2013

Girls: Pilot (1.1)

Girls is inherently kind of gross. Gross people, gross morals, gross everything. It's a show that expertly dissects themes of youthful entitlement and a very generational type of arrogance, made worse because we're collectively existing in a time of financial strain and little opportunity. It doesn't help that seemingly everyone working on this show is somehow descended from money and power, understandably leaving you with a bitter taste in your mouth at the very thought of this show existing in the first place.

But it's also sort of annoying to come at Girls from that angle. For anybody not living under a rock in early 2012, this show was everywhere. You couldn't swing a cat without being bombarded by articles about it, writers and critics using the show as a jumping-off point for discussions of race, class, youth, weight, sex, gender, or whatever hot-button subject a guy with a deadline and an iMac could muster. It was suffocating, and probably gave Girls a lot more credit than it actually deserves. For while there are certainly interesting elements to the show that could easily say something about where we're at as a society, it's also just a very thematically rich, well-made comedy drama -- just as repulsive and ugly as it is fun and thought-provoking.

As directionless college grad Hannah Horvath, Lena Dunham uses every element of her body as a kind of tapestry of meaning. Her face frequently conveys mushy disappointment, appalled that her life has somehow ended up as lacking despite her educated, aspirational pedigree and affluent professor parents. Her weight, and, yeah, I hate that I'm going there so quickly, is also a major source of material. Her on-screen boyfriend pokes and pulls at her flesh, and she mentions at various junctures her dissatisfaction with her eating habits and appearance. But it's contrasted interestingly with her brazen confidence, her willingness to expose herself in the most vulnerable of positions, or even how often we see her shoveling food into her mouth.

I feel awkward being that guy, but it's undoubtedly an important part of her character -- the juxtaposition between her atypical beauty and her freedom as a result of it, versus her tendency to verbalize how unhappy she is with it all. Of course, all of that is surface. She's still pretty flawed and troubling as an actual person.

Money is the major factor in this pilot, Hannah cut off by her parents and forced to figure out where she goes from there. Her seemingly endless internship at a literary magazine is abruptly canned, and her "voice of a generation" memoir, currently half-done, is suddenly less of a priority. And then she steals the money that her parents intended for the housekeeper at the hotel they're staying at. So, yeah, she's messy. And sort of awful.

But there's also an uncomfortable truth to a lot of Hannah's entitlement. During one pointed moment, she remarks that she could never envision working at a place like McDonalds, not with her college degree, and, yeah, it's an ugly statement. But isn't it also... you know... kind of true? Wouldn't fast food be something of a step down after years of toil at some fancy-pants liberal arts college in Westchester or wherever? It would feel like regression, or at least the obtaining of a position that you could have easily achieved college or not? And that was a moment that really stuck with me. Hannah is arrogant and obnoxious, but she also works as a statement on how we all are, at one point or another. It's a similar tone to the dismissive ugliness explored on HBO's short-lived Enlightened, another show that used one woman's journey as impetus for discussion of grander social dynamics. And while Girls lacks Enlightened's dreamy, contemplative aesthetic, it has a unique voice all its own.

Away from Hannah, Girls is a little harder to define right now. Her best friend Marnie is stuck in an oh-how-horrifying-for-you relationship with a guy who entirely adores her, and so far lacks the delicate insight to make her character anything more than just a whiny brat. Jemima Kirke's bourgeois hippie traveler is amusing in an awful way, but it's hard to get a handle so far on where her new roommate fits in, Zosia Mamet nailing Shoshanna's vapidity (though cheap shot with the Sex and the City slams, show), but having little to do outside of that. It's also unfortunate that the two non-white faces glimpsed here are an Asian tech nerd and a black homeless man, but I feel like complaining about that means traveling down a rabbit hole already well-traveled in media circles.

What makes Girls compelling, though, in spite of all the things we ought to hate about it, is Hannah herself. So much of her character is calculating and narcissistic, but there's also an underlying tragedy there that makes her easier to swallow. Her unbalanced relationship with aspiring actor Adam is key, Hannah willingly allowing herself to be used for rotten sex in the middle of the day, Adam pulling her off-topic whenever she begins to talk about her actual feelings. It's a small moment that says a lot about her vulnerability. And while it's hard to look past all the negative aspects of her character to actually find that innocence, it's a tiny spark bright enough to keep you tuning in. That and the fact that Girls has tapped into a particular strain of ugliness that is uniquely "millennial". So much of this show is gross, but it's a gross that we're all far more familiar with than we'd probably like to admit. B+

Lena Dunham Director Lena Dunham

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