Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Girls: Hannah's Diary (1.4)

Referencing this show's parallels with Sex and the City is the critical equivalent of bringing up The X-Files when talking about early Fringe, or bringing up any other show heavily indebted to a certain cultural touchstone from the past. It's tired and predictable and not all that interesting to read about. But I will for a little bit, because I'm not being paid for this so 'meh', and because Girls itself has such an odd relationship with its HBO predecessor: intentionally distancing itself from it, while embracing so many of its key characteristics.

Something that initially bothered me about Girls' pilot was the depiction of Shoshanna as this naive, vacuous caricature, and how one of her first bits of dialogue involved talking about which Sex and the City girl she's most like. It seemed to be this annoying statement on how 'lame' that show was, as if Shoshanna is reflective of the type of woman at one point in time obsessed with Carrie Bradshaw and her gal-pals. And that, just as Shoshanna exists in this very insular bubble of lightness and ignorance, Sex and the City itself represented that, too -- Lena Dunham pushing that, while Sex and the City was eww!icky-mainstream and 'fantasy', her show is something all-together more 'real', in spite of the overriding narrative/economic implications that it sort of isn't.

Hannah's Diary is particularly eyebrow-raising because it's structured exactly like a Sex and the City episode. Now that we've hit the ground running in a lot of ways (the characters introduced, the show comfortable in its own skin), Dunham is able to make each half-hour a collection of smaller subplots, all running concurrently, and all anchored by one of the titular 'girls'. They're all away in their individual life-stories, before coming back together at the end of the episode for a group scene. And it works, absolutely, but it only sort of furthers the love/hate relationship it's easy to have with this show. That feeling of a sitcom, everyday-television sensibility, yet wrapped up in this elite, premium-cable, 'smart television' package. Though, writing all that down, I don't know if that speaks more to my own insecurities about wealth and class, and less about the show itself?

Hannah, like Carrie Bradshaw before her, is a flawed protagonist, her season one journey to some kind of betterment easy to sympathize with. Her near-breakdown at Adam's door, finally addressing how low and shitty he makes her feel, is rousing and effective as an emotional breakthrough... until it's crippled by Hannah's continued tendency to allow people to walk all over her. Despite his girlfriend standing there, exposing all of her anxieties, Adam just allows the revelations to pass through him. He silently pulls at her shirt, and she's completely suckered in again.

It speaks to Hannah's own existence a lot of the time, too. Just as she allows herself to be given this gnarly makeover by some of her new co-workers, and how she ultimately puts up with a boss that gropes and massages her because of the so-called perks of the job elsewhere, Hannah allows herself to fold to other people's desires. She's a pallet, there to be painted over or taken advantage of by those around her, and it's clear that the biggest hurdle for her to overcome involves just taking control of her life. Or, to be more precise, taking the control back.

Jessa's story this week seems to be responding to the race criticism leveled at the show as it premiered, or at least a feeling that the show and its characters could expand their cultural horizons. But the scene in the park with the nannies is messy and unsatisfying, a brief sojourn that tries to explore racial divides in moneyed, entitled Manhattan... until it's dropped and Jessa moves onto the next thing -- the prime focus of her story being losing the kids. So it all feels a little trite and hollow. Either go there, or don't.

The show has done a good job so far of depicting Shoshanna's virginity as something sweet and endearing, played for laughs but not in a particularly mean-spirited way. Zosia Mamet is doing spectacular work here, too, refusing to allow everything to sink into caricature. I'm glad things didn't work out with that guy, either. It was a stretch that he wouldn't sleep with her, particularly after they got so far, but he did come off like a huge douche anyway, so she's better off. It's also interesting to see Adam and Ray anchoring their own side-story, though the dialogue sometimes felt a little stilted. I feel uneasy assuming that it's gender-related, more that these two characters just haven't been as developed as the women in the cast, their friendship still being felt out and textured by Dunham as a writer.

It all builds to that fantastic final scene, though. In life there are obviously things that go unsaid, particularly between close friends. And having them all blow up out of nowhere, particularly in such a public setting as the one featured here, is horribly uncomfortable. But it's also a moment that is spectacularly written and performed. There's a calm before the storm, punctured by shock and awe, and a killer Jessa line that sends the episode to credits. It's in those moments that the show truly elevates into fantastic television, where all the fussy, over-critical sniping that's easy to raise but also sort of annoying in its very existence just evaporates. And all that's left is a great show. B+

Lena Dunham Director Richard Shepard

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