How And Why Did HBO’s ‘Girls’ Become The Most Divisive TV Show In America After Two Tiny Episodes?

Friday, April 27 by
If this is aspirational television, you should probably get your life in order.  

Girls may no longer be the newest show on HBO (that’s Veep), but after the first two episodes premiered on the heels of months of hype, the show sure has managed to court mountains of criticism and discussion despite lackluster ratings. The fact that such a tiny show (in scope, anyway) is making so much noise on a number of different fronts is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the show itself. Why are people so set on demanding more from this myopic program that sets its sights about as low as can be set?

My first instinct is to call Girls a “vanity project” from writer-director-star Lena Dunham. She made a name for herself winning Best Narrative Feature at SXSW Film with her character study Tiny Furniture. If a project created by one person in which that person writes, directs, and stars in the story which is modeled around her own life isn’t a “vanity project,” then I don’t know what is. (Full disclosure: I don’t know what a vanity project actually is.Girls follows a handful of mostly-female friends in Manhattan who wholly represent the antithesis of the Sex and the City ”everything is fucking fabulous all the time” mantra. The men and women of Girls aren’t particularly attractive, they’re smart but lack ambition, and they seem to be really poor despite coming from privileged backgrounds.

Trying to define, even topically, the show after two episodes is short-sighted, but TV critics have taken Girls and the few topics it’s covered and had a field day discussing everything from whether or not this show is what America needs, to if this glamorizes the slacker sensibility more than anything before it. So why is this show the greatest and/or worst thing to hit television since…ever? (Hyperbole mine)

The Characters Aren’t Likable

My knee-jerk reaction to this complaint is “ Would you like a realistic show or a show with likable characters?” Granted, cynicism abounds in that response, but in the show’s portrayal of social circles, I came to the realization that I only know why I like my friends. I have no idea why my friends like their non-mutual friends. I think most of my friends’ friends are weird and dumb, which is why they haven’t also become my friends.

Such is the world of Girls. We have absolutely no idea why these people hang out together. They just got together to eat dinner and drink opium in the pilot episode, which leads us to believe they’re friends. They don’t seem to particularly enjoy each other’s company, but they flounder even more spectacularly without each other.

Would they be more fun to watch if they were nice or funny, or better-looking? In real life, probably, but in the majority of shows, all we are subjected to is a parade of smart, funny, over-achieving, hot people. It’s been that way for about 40 years with a few notable exceptions (Married…with Children, All in the Family, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld, etc) so it stands to reason that people get up in arms when a lauded show hits the air and there isn’t anyone to like.

The scene that best encapsulates the “these are bastard people” philosophy comes in the pilot, when Dunham’s Hannah wakes in her parents’ hotel room to find them gone. Her first instinct is to reach for the phone and order room service on their dime. That doesn’t work, but she finds her parents left her a nominal amount of cash (on the nightstand, no less). Deciding it’s not enough, she takes the cash left for the housekeeper as well. Yeah, that’s a shitty thing to do. But I would have probably done both those things when I was in her position, so I see myself in her, which makes her inherently likeable to a shitbag like me.

Girls has explicitly conveyed very little about its characters, but they all seem to be grinding life out painfully and fairly humorlessly. That’s something, right? At the very least we should like the fact that they’ve been in the real world for two years and haven’t enrolled in grad school, shouldn’t we?

The Characters Are All White

Yup. They sure are.

That will happen some times when you want to tell the story of privileged, underachieving girls trying to hack it in New York City. Honestly, the criticism of Girls‘ homogeneity baffles me, and it’s been the most frequent topic of discussion in regard to the show.

This isn’t a cross-section of America. This is a show that speaks about (and to) a very specific demographic of contemporary young Americans and nostalgic ones. The show’s biggest asset is its realness, its honesty, so to say, “Put a black guy in there!” completely undermines the efficacy of the show.

Why exactly does this cast of characters need to be more diverse? Two episodes in, these characters aren’t intended to be didactic nor someone we aspire to become. They are people presented largely without commentary. And sometimes circles of friends in real life are quite homogenous. In fact, that’s why they’re all friends – cause they’re all the same.

In fact the whitewashing of Girls serves to turn a stereotype on its head by showing rich white girls constantly mired in the shittiness of life. Haven’t there been enough shows that show black people in that position? In failing to show black people falling short in the most basic metrics of responsibility, isn’t that a step forward in equality? I wouldn’t wish the existences of these girls on my worst enemies (none of whom are black, btw), so this seems to be above criticism, but here we are.

To ask her to make this plight broader would result in an unfocused mess, rather than the laser-beam-focused mess that we’ve seen for two episodes. Nobody complained about Sex and the City’s lack of diversity because that show was terrible and no one cared enough to speak up. The fact that Girls resonates with a certain group of people doesn’t mean it needs to be changed to do so with a larger group of people.

Just Because It’s Different And Honest Doesn’t Mean It’s Good

Maybe not, but it helps. I understand that many people don’t and won’t like this show. I’m not convinced that I will, but I’m hopeful. I also understand that with every critic lavishing such praise on this show, as if to say, “You’re missing the zeitgeist if this doesn’t resonate with you,” people are bound to lash back.

It’s easy and understandable that detractors would say “Fuck you. At least Two and a Half Men is funny.”

To which I say, “No. Two and a Half Men is not funny, but I see your point.” You don’t need an endless reservoir of empathy, hindsight, and shared experiences to “get” a joke about Ashton Kutcher pooping or Jon Cryer being a nerd. If you did, I could guarantee that Two and a Half Men would be the least popular show on television.

It’s easy to say, “If you don’t like it, don’t watch it,” but when this much praise is lavished on a show about a girl given every opportunity, but spinning her wheels in every aspect of her life, it’s just as easy to want to rebuff that praise rather than just ignore it.

Chances are, if you like the show Girls, then your life probably hasn’t turned out quite the way you planned. Not necesarily in a bad way, but the people who identify with this show have probably endured a misstep or two. Could putting this show on a pedestal serve as a way to legitimize your own crappy life by calling it “great television.” Yeah. In fact, I think that’s probably the case in a lot of instances. But watching a story that closely parallels one’s own life can be great television to them regardless of whether or not it’s entertaining everyone else.

Basically, everyone’s up in arms because a show by a 25 year-old girl isn’t making everyone happy. Once the critics shut up about how great and unfailingly honest it is, people will stop reacting to the praise and simply stop watching. The people who love the show will also probably shut up, as they realize no one wants to hear about how similar THEIR abortion experiences were, and Girls will find a small, but loyal following that will keep it on the air for a handful of seasons, and the world will keep on spinning.

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