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TV Show Review: HBO’s Girls

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Lena Dunham of HBO's "Girls"

The  “Generational Event ” of the premiere of HBO’s Girls has, believe it or not, finally actually happened.

After the show’s relentless hype machine more or less took over all social media platforms all day Sunday in the run-up to the airing of the premiere, only to be overtaken, amusingly, by a more organic form of fan gushing over the second half of a particularly strong Mad Men episode that was airing at the same time, the show has now been seen (and can be seen, for free, at HBO.com and a bunch of other places) for the first time by an audience beyond TV critics and those who saw the first three episodes at South by Southwest.

My first impression, after watching the pilot this morning on HBO.com, is that I’m amazed that there was so much hype and discussion over a show that’s ultimately so slight. The word is that this is the slightest of the first three episodes, which is good because it’s really hard to believe that the show in the pilot is the show that launched a thousand thinkpieces.

This isn’t to say that the pilot didn’t have its moments. The much hyped moments of uncommon realness, particularly the justifiably praised ultra-awkward sex scene, were there, along with a surprising number of actual laugh-out-loud funny moments, actually many more than the critics made it sound like there were. But ultimately the whole thing felt a little too insubstantial to live up to its deluge of hype, as if any show could.

The premiere does little other than set up the show’s very spare, minimal premise. It opens with one of its strongest scenes, in which creator/director/star Lena Dunham’s character, Hannah, is having dinner at a fancy restaurant with her parents who are played by Peter Scolari (great to see him getting work!) and Becky Ann Baker (the mom from Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks).

I thought it was great that she was behaving in the time-honored manner of twenty somethings with no money in the big city when their upper middle class parents take them out to dinner, just scarfing it down. Hannah’s line “I’m a growing girl” made me laugh out loud and was a nice beginning to dealing with Dunham’s body image issues which seem to be central to her work. The purpose of taking her to such a public environment is of course to deliver the bad news that they’ve decided to completely cut her off financially. The scene is well done, has some extremely funny lines, and makes it possible to sympathize with both sides equally. It’s clear that Scolari’s character is deeply conflicted about the whole thing as well he should be. Sure she’s spoiled but as she correctly points out they’re the ones who’ve spoiled her.

You see, Hannah’s problem is that she fancies herself a writer but, in a hilarious bit of self-referentiality, has only written the first few chapters of a memoir/”collection of personal essays” when in fact nothing of note has really happened to her yet. She’s not supporting this writerly ambition with a day job but is instead working full time as an unpaid intern at a publishing company. Hannah’s need to start making money leads to another one of the pilot’s strongest and funniest scenes, when she asks her smarmy boss, brilliantly played by Chris Eigeman, to turn her unpaid internship into a full-time job and instead ends up getting fired.

The phenomenon of companies, particularly big media companies in New York, relying so much on twenty-somethings performing what is in effect slave labor is a real and timely topic for a TV show to tackle but the subtlety of Dunham’s writing and characterization in the scene makes it clear that Hannah is no crusader for workers’ rights nor even particularly sympathetic. The way Eigeman plays his character it’s clear that he’s meant to be a douchebag but it’s also clear that Hannah truly hasn’t done enough in her long stint as an intern to deserve a real job simply because she asks.

This humiliation leads more or less directly to the next humiliation of her very bad day as she text-stalks Adam, who I guess is what the kids these days call a “fuck buddy”, and eventually just shows up at his apartment unannounced. The Adam character is just hilariously douchey. He says that unlike her, he would never take money from his parents but then has to admit that he’s getting $800 a month from his grandma. He’s supposedly an actor but is getting into woodworking now because it’s “more authentic”. Then comes the oft-discussed awkward sex scene on his dirty sofa. The scene truly is remarkable both for being one of the most true-to-life depictions of bad sex ever on television or film and for being filmed almost entirely from the female’s perspective.

The rest of the pilot, less successfully in my opinion, introduces the other titular “Girls” and tries to give the viewer a sense of their dynamic. There’s Hanna’s best friend Marnie (Allison Williams) who’s a little older and more “together” than the others but has the ultimate “first world problem” in that her boyfriend is too nice or too perfect or something. There’s Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), the show’s broadest and least successful character. She’s a huge fan of the only previous HBO series with female protagonists, Sex and the City, in a way that just seems too cartoonish and clueless and not necessarily the best way for this new show to acknowledge that one. Finally there’s Jessa, played by Dunham’s real life friend and Tiny Furniture co-star Jemima Kirke, an annoyingly cool hipster-bohemian type coming to join the other girls as a roommate after a long period of ultra-cool-sounding jet setting.

This all unfolds amiably enough, but nothing about the pilot is as revolutionary or genre-redefining as many critics have suggested. Nor is the show as completely without antecedents as many are making it sound. Influences including Woody Allen, Whit Stillman, the movie Kicking and Screaming etc. are all clearly present in the show’s DNA. And while Dunham deserves to be so lauded for being so willing to confront the audience with her average-weight body, schlumpy “slacker” female characters are not totally without precedent on television either. I see some of Lucy Davis’s character in the great UK series Spaced in Hanna, an influence I haven’t seen anyone else mention.

The pilot of Girls is promising but judging on the pilot alone the series does not deserve to be compared to show’s like Louie as revolutionary, genre-redefining TV, despite the fact that some critics are making such comparisons.

If you don’t have HBO and want to see what all the fuss is about for yourself, HBO is making the pilot available for free on HBO.com and on YouTube.

Tiny Furniture

 

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