“Girls,” the HBO comedy series about four twenty-something women living in Brooklyn that is scheduled to begin its second season next month, was probably the last television program I would ever want to watch.
But at the urging of some friends who swear by the program, I agreed to review the series (made easy by the on-demand function available on Time Warner Cable and HBO).
Now, after viewing the first six episodes (some more than once), I was surprised by how much I liked the series, how relatively realistic it is and how relevant (despite the fact that I am least 20 years older than the protagonists) I found it to my own life and history.
For those who have never seen it, “Girls” documents the lives and misadventures of four post-collegiate young women struggling to survive and find love in Greenpoint, once a drab industrial neighborhood of Brooklyn that has now become a partly gentrified (i.e., white) hipsters' paradise.
The lead character, Hanna, wants to be a writer, works as an unpaid intern at some literary magazine in Manhattan and has a very unpleasant quasi-boyfriend who abuses her verbally and forces her into acts of degrading sex (ah, young love!).
Hanna's best friend and roommate, Marnie, is a very attractive, elegant, responsible assistant at an art gallery who is bored with her wimpy, easily-controllable boyfriend.
Jessa is a free-spirited, impulsive and peripatetic blonde English girl who presents an anarchic counterpoint to the more staid Marnie.
Lastly, Shoshanna is a naive, seemingly innocent and inexperienced NYU student who is obsessed with “Sex and the City” -- "Girls'" more upscale predecessor on HBO -- and (at the start of the show) admits she’s a virgin.
Bizarrely, the four top characters all feature alliterative names -- Hanna Horvath, Marnie Michaels, Jessa Johanson and Shoshanna Shapiro. What this means is anyone's guess, but I suspect it's an inside joke.
Without giving away any plot details for those who have never seen the show, its creator, writer, executive producer, director and star (Lena Dunham, who plays Hanna) has depicted, from my perspective, a very bleak world inhabited by twenty-something American women in the second decade of the 21st century.
The program would ring true to almost anyone who came to New York City after college and struggled to make a living, find love through various relationships (many of them with the wrong partners) and discover a compelling reason to stay and prosper in an overcrowded, hyper-competitive and stressful metropolis.
Hanna and her friends seem to drift along with no concrete plans for their future, as most people their age do. But what makes things worse for them is that they have entered into the worst economic period in U.S. history since the Great Depression and are also saddled with crushing student loan debts.
Exacerbating this already crippling situation, Hanna and her peers, having grown up in middle-class or upper middle-class homes, feel entitled to the best things in life, even if they are way beyond their grasp.
For example, in the first episode, Hanna's world comes crashing down around her when her parents announce they are cutting her off financially after supporting her for two years after graduation. The spoiled middle-class Hanna is outraged, and she begs, pleads and even cooks up a new scheme to continue to extort money from them (all to no avail). After her efforts to turn her internship into a paying gig fail, she balks at the idea of working at McDonald’s (she does eventually find a job at a friend's coffee shop).
Aside from this absurd sense of entitlement, these young ladies aspire to sound “important,” “urbane,” “hip” and “intellectual” by name-dropping various books, records, films and even TV shows (again, like real people do).
Dunham has accurately portrayed some of the bitter realities of young urban life -- where love is considered a luxury and a distraction; people are more interested in sex than healthy relationships and often end up with the most unsuitable of partners; and paying rent and surviving in an expensive city becomes one's raison d'etre. People who come from suburbia and small towns seek to block out the “real” grit of New York by essentially re-creating their native habitats and hanging out basically with their own kind; as a result, life for these people almost never turns out the way they hope.
I also admire Dunham for completely de-glamorizing New York City in a way that smashes the fantasy worlds provided by shows like the execrable and unfunny “Friends” from the 1990s and the well-written, but wildly unrealistic, “Sex and the City” of the past decade.
The “Girls” of Brooklyn live in messy, small, apartments; their boyfriends are mostly average-looking young men without good jobs (or any job at all); they seek abortions to “solve” an unwanted predicament; and almost everyone is trapped in the immaturity of adolescence and their vague, hopeless dreams.
This is all too real.
Hanna are her friends also frequently say the wrong things, insult each other without meaning to, sometimes make fools of themselves, lie to each other, and think they are better, smarter and more attractive than they really are.
Again, just like real life.
Indeed, Dunham herself is singularly uncomely, with a plain face, broad nose, imperfect teeth and pudgy body (which, disturbingly, she is not the least shy about frequently displaying in the nude). Thus, she looks like a real person, the kind one would see at the local deli or on the subway, not parading on a fashion runway.
As I recall, two of the biggest criticisms of the series when it debuted last April were that all four stars have famous parents and that the show distinctly lacked ethnic diversity.
I think both attacks were invalid and miss the point entirely.
As for the "famous parents" angle -- for instance, one actress’ father is an NBC News anchor, another is the daughter of the drummer from the rock group Bad Company -- nepotism has always existed in show business and likely always will.
Besides, the actresses play their roles pretty well.
With respect to the racial grievance, it is indeed true that all the principal characters are white and/or Jewish. But Dunham is likely writing about people and situations she knows very well -- and her whole world since birth has probably been white and Jewish. What else is she supposed to write about? Blacks in Bedford-Stuyvesant? Korean immigrants in Flushing, Queens? Eskimos on the North Pole?
Forced racial diversity (which one sees in many TV shows and movies) would add an element of incredulity and unrealism. Despite its polyglot nature, New York City is surprisingly segregated, by choice more than by government policy.
Besides, if one goes to any gentrified neighborhood of Brooklyn these days, one would be swept away by how “white” it is.
As a man, I have also noticed that “Girls” presents highly unflattering portrayals of males. Marnie’s boyfriend, Charlie, is a weakling milquetoast; Hanna’s semi-boyfriend, the hideous Adam, never seems to wear a shirt or leave his apartment, and he has no discernible source of income; Charlie’s friend, Ray, is a loquacious bore; Hanna’s boss at the magazine is an officious, persnickety bureaucrat; and even Hanna’s father is a squeaking mouse dominated by his loudmouthed, domineering wife.
I suspect Dunham is saying that contemporary American men have become emasculated, perhaps by mass media, the lack of physical labor and military service, and by the rising success of women in lucrative professional careers.
Normally, I would characterize these portrayals as a blanket condemnation of the male gender, but the women don’t fare much better.
Nonetheless, my favorite “Girl” (by a very wide margin) is Jessa, the wild, free-spirited, licentious, globe-trotting, promiscuous and flirtatious British lass played by the exquisitely lovely Jemima Kirke.
I have known many women like Jessa -- Kirke perfectly captures her combination of tough-girl veneer and childlike vulnerability.
Impulsively seeking instant gratification, bouncing from one one-night stand to another, and never staying in one place long enough to establish any deep, meaningful relationships with anyone, girls like Jessa enjoy their lives immensely (albeit superficially), but they tend not to age well.
Once they lose their youthful beauty -- and their ability to ensnare men with their charms -- ladies like Jessa face a brutal middle age, often ending up alone, decimated by drug and alcohol addictions.
Indeed, in the final episode of the first season, Jessa suddenly gets married to a wealthy, older man (again, quite a plausible scenario, given her personality).
Having said all this, while I like “Girls,” I don’t love it -- it cannot hope to compare in terms of quality and entertainment value with HBO classics like the prison drama “Oz” or the Mafia soap opera “The Sopranos.”
Then again, I’m a middle-aged man and perhaps I am not “Girls’” target audience.