Tuesday, April 24, 2012

GIRLS (HBO): The (Wrong) Voice Of A Generation, Or A (Wrong) Voice Of A Generation

I watched the first two episodes of HBO's new "comedy" Girls (Sundays, 10:30pm ET), but never planned to write about it.  After thinking about it for a bit, as I have decided to cancel it from my TV viewing, I have now found the voice of my generation, or a voice of a generation, or something.  Here are my thoughts, and hopefully they will sum up why I think this show doesn't really work as the voice of anything.  Yes, it's early in its run, but it doesn't appear to quite understand what it's doing wrong. 

First things first, I am a male who recently turned 40.  I am not in the demographic for this show.  I did not grow up rich, so I can't relate to the idea of a parent supporting me.  However, in order to make my initial career dreams happen, my Mom did offer to rent a two bedroom apartment with me, and just charge me what I could afford.  I passed on the offer, and decided to move into a different area, as opposed to working as a glorified janitor, for minimum wage ($4.25 an hour in 1994), in a major recording studio.  My initial plan was to become a Recording Engineer/Mixer/Producer in the music business.  My internship showed me some cold hard facts about how undesirable that job really is.  I had lots of other skill subsets that allowed me to explore other avenues without feeling stifled creatively.  In high school, I knew I would never want to work a 9 to 5 job, and nothing has changed for me, in that regard, in my 18 years in the belly of the Hollywood beast. 

The places, where I most relate to Girls, are my career, and in dealing with dysfunction.  I won't elaborate on any of the dysfunction part, but I actually found the Pilot to be a really "nice" depiction of realistic dysfunction on television.  We see dysfunction, all the time, portrayed in television and movies.  Dysfunction is "the new black".  The problem is that nearly every single show portraying dysfunction is a complete caricature of actual dysfunction.  Shameless (Showtime) is a prime example of this over dysfunctionality (if that's not a word, it should be).  Based on only watching the Pilot for Shameless, as I just couldn't get into the show, somehow everything still works out, even though the family situation is a disaster.  When you tell the audience how effed up the characters are, it doesn't seem realistic, to me.  We should be on a path of discovery, with the characters, showing us why they are so messed up, not seeing obviously dysfunctional people, and sort of glorifying it.  In a perfect world, we would be watching characters grow out of this dysfunction into real contributors to society.  However, the world isn't perfect, and a lot of people don't grow out of this dysfunction.  It hangs over their lives like a cloud, ruining many aspects of what could be an enjoyable life in the future.

This is where I really think Girls worked, at least in the Pilot.  It's realistic dysfunction, and I don't have any confidence that these people will change their lives.  I don't think there will be any wake up calls, they'll just trudge through life hoping everything works out, while doing nothing to make that happen.  The problem with the show, for me, is that I think it's probably supposed to be a form of satire or parody.  However, that line is so blurry, that I have no idea whether we are watching a documentary of these people's lives, or a microcosm of lives Lena Dunham is making fun of, one of which would be her own.

Based on her upbringing, it wouldn't be much of a stretch to say Girls is at least a somewhat autobiographical view of Dunham's life.  Sure, the parents have been turned into college Professors, and Dunham's character is into the literary, as opposed to film, side of writing, but it hits really close to the kind of stuff I've read about her background.  I don't have the faintest idea whether a painter or photographer would be rich, and if it would give Dunham a life of privilege.  What I do know is that it would give her a somewhat connected life to the artistic community, and probably gave her the money to make Tiny Furniture.  That has certainly helped her career advance forward, at a rate most creative people can only dream of.  No matter what you think of her work, it is extremely impressive for her to be where she is in her career at such a young age.

As an aside, right now, I'd like to break down what I feel is a myth.  I don't believe a lack of connections in the industry is a barrier to entry.  Money is.  If you have money, and are talented, you CAN make it in Hollywood.  There are tons of extremely talented people who never had the money to make a feature film, or a short film, or anything else that helps get a foot in the door.  If you have money, and are an aspiring filmmaker, just use that money to make something.  If it's good, people will probably hear about it.  You can't show people how talented you are without product.  If you ain't got money, chances are you don't have product.  And now back to the show.

The place where Girls deviates from being autobiographical (apparently), is that, in real life, Dunham would have to have worked very hard to get where she is at such a young age.  I don't know if this is a re-telling of how Dunham got to where she is, but I sincerely hope it is not, as it is an extremely unflattering portrayal of trying to "make it".

As I said above, the two places I identify with the show are being in a creative field, and the dysfunction.  Everywhere else is a no go.  As a creative person, with many years of experience, I can identify with Dunham's character Hannah's quest to get her first real job in a creative industry.  There have been seismic shifts in the entertainment industry, over the last 3 years or so, and if you're not already working a full time job in this job market, you might not ever be able to get a full time job, again (I'm specifically speaking of creative talents like Editors, Mixers, Colorists, etc.), or at least not until the economy has completely recovered.  If you're working in the industry, today, and not employed full time for a company, you are well versed in the "freelance" lifestyle.  You know, the lifestyle where you don't know when and where the next time you will work will be, and sometimes if.  It's a rough life, and the kids coming out of college today have it similarly rough.  There aren't jobs out there waiting for them, and they have to figure out how to make do until they get something.  For me, I took an extremely low paying job in the industry, out of college.  It took me about 2 months to land the job, after graduating from Emerson College.  It was barely enough to cover the tiny amount of bills I had, but I made it work.  I have been at the mountaintops, and I have been in the lowest valleys, in my career.  No one said working in this industry is easy, and I accepted that the moment I decided to be in it.  I don't think the lead character in Girls understands how hard it is to get a job in a creative field, or appears not to understand it.

As for Hannah, she's been living off of her parents, while pursuing her dream of being a writer.  As she says, as a slight paraphrase, as I don't want to look it up, "I think I might be the voice of my generation...or, a voice, of a generation."  She tells her parents this, who earlier had dropped the bombshell of immediately cutting her off, in hopes of getting them to resume paying for her listless lifestyle.  Needless to say, it didn't go over well.  This scene occurred after she asked her boss, at the Publishing house she interned for, to give her a job.  Her presentation was poor when bringing it up, and she had been working for free in this place for 2 years.  The moment she asks to be paid, her boss tells her that it was nice working with her.  When reminding her boss that another person had been promoted into a paying job, he retorts, "She knows Photoshop."  This guy is only interested in exploiting people for free (as he tells her there are many people waiting to occupy her chair for free), and has no interest, at all, in their advancement.  This was her first cold hard wake up call to the tough times we are living in.  I also worked my internship, in the recording studio, for 40 hours per week, for free, while attending college full time, and working another 20 hour a week College Work Study job.  I was rewarded with a $4.25 per hour job offer.  So, I could easily relate to the exploitative nature of some internships.  The dangling carrot of a job is often not there, or not what the person was expecting.

We then find out that just about everyone else, inside Hannah's inner circle, is similarly maladjusted, or at least maladjusted in some way.

The Characters:

Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham)-I've described our lead above.

Marnie Michaels (Allison Williams)-Marnie is the most together of all the people inside Hannah's inner circle.  She has a real job as an art gallery assistant.  She also has a problem...her boyfriend.  She basically can't stand the sight of him, and feels like he is more like a brother.  As opposed to telling him that she's not into him, she just continues going through the motions of a really bad relationship, while giving him no real indication that they are in a bad relationship.  She tells Hannah about her feelings, to which I don't think Hannah gives her any kind of constructive response (such as telling her to break up with him, as it will clearly never work out).  I could be wrong about the lack of advice, as I've probably blocked anything from that scene out, by now.

Jessa Johannson (Jemima Kirke)-I don't know anything about that hipster s**t, but from everything I've read, this is the hipster character.  This is the character that is supposedly the most polarizing on the show.  Okay, if you say so.  She's obviously the daughter of very well off parents, who allow her to travel the world doing whatever she wants, on their dime.  She's irresponsible, and doesn't appear to have any real future.  We find out she's a "real" person, though, when we learn, after Marnie yells at her for her irresponsible ways, that she is pregnant.  She will eventually attempt to have an abortion, but ends up not showing up to the appointment, so that she could get drunk and have sex with a total stranger inside a bar.  When the guy touches her in her yay area, he comes up with blood on his fingers.  That's as much as I'll ever learn about that storyline, as I've stopped watching the show.  It seems pretty clear, however, that she has likely had a miscarriage.

Shoshanna Shapiro (Zosia Mamet)-This is our wide eyed character.  She seems extremely naive, and probably believes that NYC is the fantasy land portrayed in Sex and the City.  She desperately wants to fit in with the cool kids, but she has never actually ventured into "being cool".  In the second episode, while attempting to lie about her sexual exploits, we find out that she is a virgin, and that she is quite embarrassed about that.

Adam Sackler (Adam Driver)-This is a disgusting and vile human being, who Hannah somehow manages to have some kind of bizarre attachment to.  He treats her like a piece of meat, and basically only uses her for sex (and only in the ways he wants her).  There is no way this character could be thought of as sympathetic, and he really demonstrates how low Hannah's self esteem is. 

Charlie (Christopher Abbott)-This is the most well adjusted character on the show, and he is weird.  He's the over sensitive guy who ends up smothering Marnie.

By portraying these characters the way Dunham has, we get the appearance of realistic dysfunction.  That was very evident in the first episode of the series.  The second episode became a much different animal, and, to me, it became far less realistic.  The second episode starts out with an EXTENDED, and extremely disturbing sex scene between Hannah and Adam.  One of my real problems with the show is Dunham appearing to want to put herself on sexual display as often as possible.  It's just not necessary, and if you're going to do that, try not to be so disgusting, degrading, and repulsive about it.  Also, make the scenes shorter.  The sex scene between these two in the Pilot was equally detestable, but mercifully short.

The main stories of the second episode were Hannah's first job interview and Jessa's abortion.  Another place where the show just absolutely does not work for me is how insanely idiotic Hannah is.  She's basically a frumpy blob of apparent submissiveness (while at the same time being arrogant and manipulative), but yet she can go into a job interview, and blow it by being extremely inappropriate.  She starts the interview by really hitting it off with the interviewer.  As the interview progresses, it gets gradually more personal and inappropriate, but not before basically being told she was getting the job.  After things appear to be progressing fine, though a little over the line, Hannah turns into a blithering idiot, spouting off several inappropriate jokes.  Her topper is basically accusing the interviewer of being a serial date rapist.  Yeah, that's not a funny joke, at all, and yet the whole scene is certainly played for laughs.  The interviewer immediately gets extremely uncomfortable with her, tells her what she's done wrong, and basically tells her the job is not going to work out.  I find it amazing that someone could be this IDIOTIC on a job interview.  Scenes like that make her character extremely unbelievable (where are the self preservation and survival instincts?), and extremely unlikable.  It just doesn't seem like she's going to be able to move forward in her life, at this rate.

As Hannah begins to realize that Adam really is a scumbag, effing anything that moves, usually without a condom, she begins to get worried about sexual diseases, specifically HIV leading to AIDS.  She repeats a very bad joke about the "stuff around the condom" several times, and is worried about what diseases she can get from it.  This culminates with her telling the woman examining her that she is very afraid of AIDS, which must mean that she secretly wants to get AIDS.  The doctor was very disturbed by this, and explains to her why she doesn't want AIDS.  Again, this scene is played for laughs, but it's very disturbing in the context of a real life.

I titled this piece "The (Wrong) Voice of a Generation, Or a (Wrong) Voice of a Generation", and now I'll get to why I have a problem with the "voice" this show is creating.  I am a very progressive guy, on just about everything.  It disheartens me to think that the generation that Dunham is a part of has regressed so far, in relation to women's issues, racism, and probably just about everything else.  As I said, if this show is a satire, or parody, it's lost on me.  It's not obvious enough that this is the case.  When it's not obvious what's going on, you almost have to take it at face value.  The show degrades Hannah's character so much, sexually, that it's nearly impossible for me to watch (this is probably the main reason why I don't want to watch it anymore).  I don't see any social commentary on the degradation, or on the so called "entitlement generation", I just see their lives.  If anything, it appears that Hannah feels like she's been wronged, when she's really had so much right in her entire life.  She may realize, too late, that she's taken everything in her life for granted.  The other big issue floating around about this show is that it is basically whitewashing a very multicultural part of New York City.  Its apparent treatment of this diversity, so far, is to make it invisible, even though I have read that Dunham says that is accidental.  I haven't heard any racist dialog, or any overt acts, yet, by any of the characters (unless I've missed something), but rumor has it that it's coming (won't be around to find out, and I certainly would check out of the show at the first hint of this).  One of the writers for the show (Lesley Arfin) has gotten into recent trouble (article detailing the trouble), because of some very troubling statements she made on Twitter, and also some of her past behavior.  These are developing stories for the show's universe, and how they progress will show us how disturbing, or satirical, this show really is.  For now, I see no empowerment of any of the characters, all I see is a depressing and often degrading experience for most of them.

To wrap up this mess of words that probably didn't go where I wanted it to, I don't get the show.  I don't think it's funny.  It's funny in the way people laugh when someone falls down.  I haven't laughed at a single thing in the show, because its parody (if that's what it is) is disturbing.  We have no indication that any of the characters will grow, and I'm not even sure that would be a proper direction.  The characters are a lot like children (with Marnie as the Mom), whose growth has been stunted by the over protection from reality that their parents delivered in the form of money.  They're about to find out there's a cruel, cold world out there, but I can't see how it's any kind of a lesson to this generation.  Is the message, "Yes, everything's messed up.  Our parents threw us out, or cut us off, but this is our show now.  We'll show our parents how messed up it was for them to cut us off."?  If so, oops, that message is going to get lost in translation, if it was intended to be parody, or in some way was trying to encourage the people this show is about to get up off their butts and do something about it, instead of feeling sorry for themselves.  The real problem is that the jobs economy is bad, and it's not improving fast enough.  That's why I feel it's nearly impossible for this to be parody.  There is no simple way out, or up, for these people.  They're trapped, and wondering if they will ever "make it after all".  I have no idea what message Girls is trying to send, but whatever message it is sending is likely to ultimately be lost in translation.  I am repulsed enough, by what I've seen, so far, that I can't take the journey with anyone else who watches the show.  I'm worried about where the show's headed, and very worried about the ultimate messages that might be taken from it.  It actually does have the power to be somewhat influential to that generation, but, to me, it doesn't seem to be going about it, at all, in the right way.  I have real concern that the best years of that generation's lives have been taken away, by how things are in the world today.  It's not something I feel should be laughed at, or made light of.  It's a real problem, and one that I have sincere hope will be repaired one day.

My generation inherently identified with Beavis and Butt-Head, because we all knew someone who reminded us of them (I can still remember Stephen J. and Erik H. in my 8th grade homeroom sitting in the back of the class saying, "Chris Crawley, huh huh huh", when my name was called for roll).  The difference is that Beavis and Butt-Head was clear parody/satire (that went over the heads of a lot people, leading to a ridiculous, and humorous, disclaimer at the top of the show), and it allowed some sort of catharsis for everyone who had to deal with people who were like that.  There was no mixed message, these guys were destructive idiots, who were likely going to end up in jail.  I just can't see whatever messages Girls is attempting to send coming across correctly.  There's nothing to laugh at.  It's just a sad, disturbing take on that generation's problems, that is trying to play for some amount of what should be uncomfortable laughs, if any laughs are deserved at all.  I'm now done writing about and watching this show.  Thanks for reading.

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