HBO’s ‘Girls’: Smartly cracking Gen Y’s morose code
By Hank Stuever,
“You could not pay me enough to be 24 again,” a free-clinic gynecologist says with a weary sigh while examining the nether regions of Hannah Horvath, the talkative, deeply neurotic central character of HBO’s startlingly original new series, “Girls.”
“Well, they’re not paying me at all,” Hannah says, bitterly.
Hannah’s another 24-year-old adrift on the sea of self-discovery and only vaguely aware that there is no promised shore. She’s writing a memoir but four chapters in has realized she still has yet to live the other nine essays she’ll need to make a book. “I want to be the voice of my generation,” she tells her parents. “Or a voice of a generation.” She works as an unpaid intern at a publisher.
The very first scene in “Girls,” which premieres Sunday night, shows Hannah — played by the show’s creator-writer-director-star Lena Dunham — wolfing down a fancy plate of pasta at a Manhattan restaurant with her visiting mother and father. Her mother tells her that they’re no longer willing to pay her rent and expenses, including her cellphone. They’re cutting her off. “No. More. Money,” her mother says, while her doting father (Peter Scolari) nervously backpedals, agreeing with Hannah that it’s a net savings to keep her on the family phone plan. But even he admits, “It may be time for one final push.”
“Do you know how crazy the economy is right now?” Hannah snaps. “All of my friends get help from their parents.”
Hannah’s mother (played by the great Becky Ann Baker, who played Lindsay’s mom in the seminal “Freaks and Geeks”) persists. “You have an internship that you say is going to turn into a job. . . . You graduated from college two years ago.”
“But I’m your only child,” Hannah complains. “It’s not like I’m draining away your resources. This feels very arbitrary. . . . I am so close to the life that I want, the life that you want for me, and you want to just end that right now?”
You’d assume that we’re supposed to root for the tough love here. Much of the media response to the maturing of the millennial babies is to wish that they would stop whining and buck up. As such, “Girls” may be a difficult form of enjoyment for anyone still trying to nudge one of these underemployed, self-obsessed soul-searchers out of the 600-thread-count nest. What becomes of an America that never grows up?
Stipulated: A 24-year-old isn’t what she used to be, and adolescence may now be a decades-long journey.
They’re great at taking standardized tests and checking off the to-do lists, but the wheels come right off their carts as soon as they’re handed a diploma and a bill. Their relentless sunshine easily morphs into snark. If their press is to be believed, they don’t marry, they don’t move, they don’t work hard enough, they don’t pay attention, they don’t share, and, apparently, they don’t even have sex the right way. The nerve of them, really.
There are only a thousand or so demographic studies, surveys, parenting books, angsty memoirs and trend articles claiming to support this — most of it written in a way that ensures that anyone older than 35 will roll their eyes and leave righteously cranky comments at the bottom of the article. Whether we realize it or not, America is experiencing a spasm of cross-generational disconnect at a level not experienced since perhaps the 1960s.
Dunham, 26, is the Oberlin-educated daughter of two artists, raised in private-school privilege in Manhattan. She has followed the surest impulse of any budding storyteller by writing and filming what she knows. Her first feature film, 2009’s “Tiny Furniture,” was a bleak story of a young self-absorbed woman who returns to her artist mother’s downtown apartment after college graduation and awakens to the idea that she has no prospects.
The film was a haunting exercise in personal and sexual letdown — just the kind of thing HBO loves. Dunham’s real mother and sister played her character’s mother and sister in the film. Critics and film-festival denizens praised “Tiny Furniture’s” honesty, earning Dunham comparisons to the younger versions of Norah Ephron and Woody Allen.
But acclaim for “Tiny Furniture” wasn’t universal. Dunham’s invented, semi-autobiographical world may not resonate with the 24-year-olds who live among us and work two jobs while paying off student loans, or who go off to fight wars, or who finish nursing school while raising a baby, or who simply don’t have the sort of parents who can float the rent for a year or two while they explore their career options in the big city. Executive produced by Judd Apatow, “Girls” has already tantalized the New York cognoscenti, which may have less and less appeal the farther you get away from Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. Still, Dunham has created a superior work of fictionalized anthropology.
After the no-more-money dinner with her parents ends badly, Dunham’s Hannah returns to the Brooklyn walk-up she shares with Marnie Michaels (played by Allison Williams). Their British college friend, Jessa Johansson (played by Jemima Kirke), has returned to New York after a long absence, crashing at the Target-splurged, color-coordinated apartment belonging to her younger cousin, a pampered college student named Shoshanna Shapiro (Zosia Mamet).
It’s tempting to view these four women in New York through the prism of that formative HBO juggernaut of the ’00s, “Sex and the City.” Shoshanna watches cable TV all day and still classifies everyone’s personality by archetypal analogue to that show. “I think I’m definitely like a Carrie at heart,” Shoshanna tells Jessa, who is too cool to admit ever having seen the show. “You’re definitely like a Carrie with some Samantha aspects and Charlotte hair. That’s like a really good combination.” Shoshanna says it flatly, almost mournfully, like a disciple who now doubts the gospel.
All of these women project such eloquent vibes of sadness and uncertainty. The authentic tone of “Girls” bluntly separates them from all the “Whitney,” “2 Broke Girls” and Zooey Deschanel bunk, or worse, the reality TV stories delivered in the Kim Kardashian “vocal fry” speech patterrrrnnnnnn that typifies young women on TV these days. Next to “Girls,” all those shows together amount to not much more than a Pinterest collage. I do not anticipate a time when young women will be trying to decide if they’re a Jemma or a Marnie or a Hannah.
One curious note: In addition to Dunham, each of the actors in “Girls” is the daughter of a boldface name — Allison Williams’s father is NBC News anchor Brian Williams; Kirke is the daughter of the drummer of Bad Company; Mamet is the daughter of the playwright David Mamet. Knowing these things has a way of making “Girls” that much more intriguing, and that much more annoying, as an already-narrow realm gets slightly more insular. It’s a little bit like the Sofia Coppola effect — which on the whole is a good effect.
And yet “Girls” — which is very pointedly not titled “Women” — has more to tell us than how lousy the job market is or how high the rent is in Brooklyn. It’s an intelligent, if microcosmic, depiction of a very certain sliver of life as it’s currently being experienced by four young, educated, white females. Like Mike Nichols’s “The Graduate,” Allen’s “Annie Hall” and Richard Linklater’s “Slacker,” “Girls” has potential to become a once-in-a-generation work that helps define a shared era.
This is not easygoing TV. Very often, the lies and disdain and explicit sex are about as appealing as the cervical scrape Hannah gets at the free clinic. As television, “Girls” is disturbing, sharply honed and even wickedly funny. Depending on where the show goes (HBO supplied just the first three out of 10 episodes for this review) and what it ultimately conveys, “Girls” could potentially affect our perceptions of feelings toward Generation Y.
The technology they’ve mind-melded with is not making things easier, it’s making things more frazzled and panicky. And the sex has become so porn-derived that Hannah’s romantic encounters (with an indifferent hipster brute played by Adam Driver) cast her in the role of willing receptacle.
With her willingness to bare her pudgy, tattoodled body, Dunham has been described as “unconventionally pretty,” which is one way of putting it. Perhaps the most striking thing about “Girls” is its willingness to leave “TV pretty” behind. All that talk about the “real women” who are seldom seen in pop-culture portrayals is not just talk. Dunham’s work differs in that it’s about young mundane people in all their young mundane-ness.
Dunham’s stories also have something to say about the older adults who loom almost menacingly — the parents, editors, authors, documentarians, painters and gallery owners who got in just under the wire, before the 21st-century economic maelstrom shifted the American dream. “Girls” is about a culture in which there just isn’t enough satisfaction to go around anymore. It is partly an indictment of upper-middle-class entitlement, and yet it also demands that its own entitlements be acknowledged, recognized and grieved. When Hannah deigns to ask for a salary at her internship, her boss fires her. “When you get hungry enough, you’ll figure it out,” he said.
“Do you mean physically hungry or hungry enough for the job?” she asks.
I like the show because I want to know more about the generation that came behind mine, but I want to hear them say it, not the New York Times. I want the stereotypes debunked and confirmed. Dunham and her cast are trying to tell us something about a world in which expensive liberal-arts degrees are just part of a Ponziesque ruse. The jobs are gone, if by “job” you mean decent-paying, post-modern, Manhattan-based creative careers in which one can sit in a cubicle all day and surf the Web for shoes and gossip until a fabulously quirky weekend arrives. The coddling and hyper-parenting backfired in precisely the way child psychologists predicted it would.
Hannah puts on one of her mousy outfits and tries to charm a trade journal’s Generation X-aged assistant editor during a job interview. She takes his willingness to banter too far and kills the moment with a date-rape joke. Her sense of irony is so overdeveloped that it flattens his. “Maybe you’re just not used to the office environment,” the editor says disappointedly ending the interview. “Jokes about rape or race or incest or any of that kind of stuff — it’s not office-okay.”
So it’s off to the free clinic, where Hannah wants to get tested for STDs and an exasperated Marnie is upset at Jessa for missing the abortion appointment that Marnie arranged. “How could she ruin the beautiful abortion that you threw for her?” Hannah says, not missing a beat.
“Girls” is a puzzler that way — part drama, part awkward comedy and a lot of subtle anguish.
(30 minutes) premieres Sunday at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.