What's the verdict on HBO's Girls?
Executive produced by Judd Apatow, the first season of HBO's Girls has concluded. So, amidst the controversies it attracted over race, sex, and class, was it any good? Caroline surveys the first season...
This year’s much-discussed new HBO series, Lena Dunham’s Girls, has now drawn to a close, and the reaction is just as confused and critical as it was after the first episode aired back in April. Before viewers, those twentysomethings the series was aimed at especially, could even form a personal opinion about Hanna (Lena Dunham), Marnie (Allison Williams), Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) and Jessa (Jemima Kirke), rows about its lack of racial diversity, the privilege of its characters and, somewhat strangely, the size of Dunham’s thighs, had overtaken the conversation, and the show found itself fighting an uphill battle.
The series follows Hanna, a postgraduate writer living with best friend Marnie in New York. In the first episode, she is working through a long-term, unpaid internship, totally supported by her parents back home. When they come to visit her however, the money is unceremoniously cut off, and she must figure out how to fund her dreams all by herself. Type-A Marnie is having relationship issues with her nice but dull boyfriend Charlie (Christopher Abbott), Jessa is a flighty, hippie girl lost in her intense lack of focus, and Shoshanna, initially a supporting character, is insecure about her sexual, and emotional, inexperience.
Tipped as the hot new thing on television, along with its creator, it’s strange to look at where Girls is sitting now. For one, calls for it to address its perceived problems immediately seem to have been heeded: strange for any TV show; almost unheard of for a cable show not so reliant on advertisers. Having reached the end of its ten episode run, is it time to ease up on the cultural criticisms and look at the quality of the show itself? Critics are still split, but viewing figures have been healthy enough to green-light a second series on HBO, and the fact that I’m writing this proves that there’s still a lot to say. After all, the show’s tagline reads: “living the dream, one mistake at a time.”
We should start at the beginning, which means with writer, creator, and star Lena Dunham. Dunham first rose to fame with an embarrassing viral video on YouTube, before reclaiming the humiliation (at appearing half-naked in a university fountain) by constructing an entire character around the incident. Soon, mumblecore effort Tiny Furniture arrived to critical success on the festival circuit, and the 25-year-old’s HBO arose off the back of her achievements. It doesn’t sound plausible for a network with such a high success rate to put their faith in a newbie with a neat idea, but she had the backing of comedy king Judd Apatow and, as said, a pretty neat idea.
At first, the proposal must have sounded like nothing special, as the story of four girls living and working in New York was something we’d all seen a decade ago with Sex and the City. While the duo of cinematic monstrosities have now sullied the name of the original HBO series, we should remember it as cutting edge at the time; in the words of Hanna herself, it was the voice of a generation. Girls was conceived to fill the gap left between the spoilt teens of Gossip Girl and the more worldly women of Sex and the City, but many have now criticised the show’s narrow, white, middle-class world view. Those detractors have questioned Dunham’s intentions, which seem to be just to tell her own experiences.
And those experiences seriously resonate with a key demographic, despite its limitations. If you’ll allow me to get personal, I am a recent arts graduate who grew up within a strikingly similar small town, middle-class existence to Hanna. Although we would all like to think we possess a higher level of self-awareness than she does, many in the same position exited university with the sense of entitlement (to a chosen career path) many have picked the show up on. Like it or not, these are the young people being thrown into the world with little preparation for reality, and what Dunham has done by highlighting that attitude shouldn’t be underestimated.
But Girls isn’t a ten-week long rant about the injustice of a post-recession world, it’s a television show, and television shows have to entertain as well as engage. Judd Apatow’s name was what got a lot of people, who weren’t already introduced to Dunham, interested, and his involvement has probably contributed to the funny-factor so perfectly judged in the show. Considering past controversies surrounding his own representations of women on screen, the fact that the humour is so bitingly real and familiar is an achievement in itself. Then again, we’re still dealing with the man-child generation, refusing to grow up by disguising their fear with vague ideals and morals, but applying it to women instead.
After the controversy surrounding diversity, the aspect of the show receiving most attention has been the painfully awkward sex scenes. Though there’s no use dwelling on it (but many have), Dunham does not possess a swimwear model’s body. She has wobbly bits like 80% of women, but still writes and stars in brilliantly graceless sex scenes in search of realism. She’s not the only one who looks normal either, as the cast seem to have been assembled for their abilities and fit for each character, rather than the way they look. It’s incredibly refreshing to see, but barely matters once you’re past the pleasant surprise.
Much more important are the characters that have evolved over the course of the first season. All four girls are deeply flawed and complicated characters, and are even allowed to be unlikable, egotistical and self-pitying at times. Is Hanna selfish towards her friends and family? Yes, of course, but so are many real twentysomethings going through a difficult period. The assured finale, leaving each character in a specific place for the six-month break, just highlights the show’s lack of responsibility to those that have condemned it. Should we be focusing on what it hasn’t shown us, or on the new and exciting things it has brought to our weekly viewing schedule?
More than anything, even if its five hours are as flawed as the characters that inhabit it, the first season of Girls was a brilliantly written, confidently conceived look into the lives of young women living in tricky times. You might say it has explored unconventional relationships, whether between friends or romantic, but that would be assuming that the telly-world norm is the real-life norm. I’m not so sure there’s anything too radical about the lives Hanna and her friends lead, but have thoroughly enjoyed watching them unfold over the weeks. Whether Dunham (or, indeed, Hanna) will become the voice of her generation is still up for debate, but she certainly has the potential to be one of them.
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