Movies · TV

The Only Show That Mattered

By  · Published on February 6th, 2017

Lena Dunham’s inimitable New York and those who imitate it.

Nobody watched it. In a prior era, where the success of musicians was based on how many pieces of plastic were bought at your nearby Tower Records, that might have mattered. Far more people, for instance, watched Hung, an HBO program about a man (Thomas Jane) with a large penis that HBO canceled after a forgettable three-season run. But Girls was not Hung, it was the only show that mattered, a show about swallowing more than you could chew. Pills, people that you met at parties or in your college dorm and relay as awkward anecdotes while, intermittently, a genre of music nebulously called indie pop plays. It would come to its apex sometime toward the end of 2012, the year Lena Dunham would take New York – having suffered a two decade run of the ’90s between townhouses in the Upper East Side – across the East River. We live in Brooklyn now, in neighborhoods that cling to the river.

Per A.O. Scott, a well-known recommender:

A modest roster would have to include the post-collegiate New York Bohemian comedies Broad City, High Maintenance and Search Party; essays in self-criticism like Insecure and Fleabag; portraits of creative struggle and malaise like Atlanta and BoJack Horseman.

That’s a lot of shows! I often felt its influence strongly in the pauses between conversations at house parties and later, again, when I was alone. TV shows like Louie and Seinfeld felt, in their own way, like crabby old men grafting their own boring career choices onto the quirky and modern decisions of Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham), Marnie Michaels (Allison Williams), Jessa Johansson (Jemima Kirke) and Shoshanna Shapiro (Zosia Mamet) despite airing years or decades before. The modern air carries Girls, in the brightly sunlit sets, in its acidly satiric pen. Its ability to both satirize a thing and then satirize the person satirizing the thing. Aesthetic choice was a refuge of the recently impoverished. Evie Michaels (Rita Wilson) posed the question in the second episode of Girls’ third season: “What would you rather have? Kimchi or Sephora?”

Frances Ha

Great Recession poverty, not the real poverty of those that Benji (Michael Zegen) called the “actual poor people” in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2013). Frances Ha arrived in select theaters a year after Girls first aired and was the first casualty swallowed in Girls’ orbit, what our own Christopher Campbell called an “unfortunate laziness.” But the three movies Baumbach made since Girls, all set in Brooklyn or the more Brooklyn-esque provinces of Manhattan, as will his upcoming feature, were merely the movies Dunham didn’t have the time to make. They were movies about aspiring bohemians, a genre that Baumbach never quite looked at since his debut; Greenberg (2010) tackled the washed-up failed rockstar (Ben Stiller), The Squid and the Whale’s (2005) hero (Jesse Eisenberg) was still in high school. The bull session-esque talking-at dialogue and greatest-hits of the ’70s-soundtrack were all Baumbach, but the characters, their concerns and the Bushwick they obsessed over were all Dunham’s domain. Frances Ha’s titular hero (Greta Gerwig), for instance, is heartbroken when her college best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner) moves out and eventually takes strides at popular preconceptions of adulthood: taking faraway jobs, getting married, buying art. From its first breakup, between Hannah and Marnie’s own living situation, this would be Girls’ modus operandi: chronicling the slow disintegration of central friendships, the things that never happen to people on TV shows.

People who keep to timelines will think this connection unfair: Gerwig made haste to point out “we wrote the film and made the film before Girls was on the air… it was totally coincidental.” Like Columbus, Dunham had merely struck occupied terrain. But the entertainment that followed – Baumbach’s and others’ – stuck to what was understood to be a basic understanding of Girls’ central tenets: life in Brooklyn-esque bohemia; characters with bodies they are in command of demonstrated by their willingness to joke about them; an overall facile conversation about poverty that followed in the footsteps of the first scene of Girls’ pilot, where her parents (Becky Ann Baker and Peter Scolari) cut her off from the family credit card. Its genesis was in the post-poverty mumblecore scene in post-Giuliani New York, populated by a sea of intimate cameras collectively desperate to evoke the ghost of Nan Goldin. Dunham’s debut feature, Tiny Furniture (2010), was shot on a Canon EOS, and its staged intimacy had won the admiration of Judd Apatow, who produced her television program. She was the one who made it, and no one else ever would. Much like record labels signing bands that looked vaguely like Nirvana throughout the ’90s, even HBO would try: both Togetherness and Enlightened, the former a product of mumblecore survivors the Duplass Brothers, would both follow Girls’ timeslot only to be quickly and quietly canceled.

If it was lazy to use Dunham’s creation to sell every variety of Brooklyn film, then the power of Girls was in its power to absorb the movies that it may or may not have had anything to do with. If dating other people was awkward and treating your non-New York family to them was even worse, than Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior (2014) tied this to New York’s immigration narrative, with its director playing an Iranian-American college grad who can’t come out to her parents about her bisexuality and starts teaching in a school in an overly hip section of Park Slope. Both the director and the latter plot point would be snatched for the fourth season of Girls, where Akhavan plays a writer critical of Hannah’s oversharing and Hannah, in turn, takes to teaching. If the Brooklynite march to the sea was an organic creation of, say, Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles RogersFort Tilden (2014), then “Beach House,” the incredible season three highlight, outdid it. If Girls copped out of broadcasting a staged abortion in its first season, then Gillian Robespierre made her career by filling that void. Obvious Child and Tilden are excellent cases in point, excellent arguments for the savviness of Girls’ inimitability. Obvious Child (2014), short of its abortion, had very little else going on: its protagonist (Jenny Slate) has a singular night stand with a very boring looking man (Jack Lacey, it is always Jack Lacey; Girls would later suavely pick him up to play a self-consciously “nice guy” stereotype) who tells her it is okay, a plot that Murray Miller, a writer for Girls, gamely plucked and threw in “Close-Up”, an episode where Mimi-Rose (Gillian Jacobs), Adam’s new girlfriend, tells him that she had an abortion just the other day. He is upset, which felt real. She didn’t care, which felt real.

Like David Bowie stealing Marc Bolan’s whole glam thing and leaving him to die in the dust, Girls was capable of taking anything it wanted and turning it into something fundamentally more arresting than its assembled parts. Tilden’s failure to be Girls, on the other hand, made it a spectacle of pure gauche, a loaded barb of hipster humor aimed nowhere particular enough to matter. In a set piece cannily plucked from Girls second season, when Marnie sings a joyously painful cover of Kanye’s “Stronger,” Tilden opens on a painful performance of an awfully written song whose audience clearly feels awkward. But these singers aren’t our heroes, the song is simply generically bad and, unlike Marnie, we are never asked to empathize with them: Tilden’s protagonists sit in the audience making the same snide jokes the script presumes we are. The movie is mangled in between sweeping pans of a neighborhood one character calls “Flatbush and…whatever,” and jokes about how neither character spends money prudently, its wandering camera implores us to find something— anything – funny, relatable, worthy of HBO. They eventually got TBS, which is something. “A Comedy For Anyone Who Wanted “Girls” To Be Meaner,” Buzzfeed raved in 2015, a remark on par with Rolling Stone calling Donavan the more authentic Bobby D.

Fort Tilden

Criticism of both Girls and the show’s creator took on a life of its own, feeling, for some, to be essential to the art of watching it, the way certain professors will tell you reading Ulysses without the Gifford annotations is tantamount to not reading it at all. “It is a series about precisely the sort of young, wired, highly educated people who would have strong feelings about Girls,” James Poniewozik assured. He imagines that few of its characters would actually watch it. There was the criticism of her body politics, particularly that of showing lots of it and not looking like Emilia Clarke. Something about the show bothered others, however, but I don’t think these things are unrelated. The word narcissism showed up often and people would tell me, but you wouldn’t like these people in your own life, would you?

New York, perhaps as the adage goes, is not America, and America is not New York. But, while every Oscar season tries to convince us that L.A. is the neighborhood of dreams, particularly this one, New York remains at the center of America’s cinematic imagination: Annie Hall (1977) and Working Girl (1988), Seinfeld and Friends. (L.A. has, I guess, La La Land and Entourage?) And, in Lena Dunham’s hands, New York has become, perhaps, smaller: gone is the emphatically-scored-by-Carly-Simon skyline that opens Working Girl or, even, the long Taxi Driver-esque lit-by-streetlamp drives that comically populated a sitcom like Seinfeld. Lena Dunham’s Brooklyn was almost comically suburban: in one character-arc Shoshanna’s ex-boyfriend Ray (Alex Karpovsky) runs for local office and wins and this image of the city has slowly stuck. Elizabeth Wood’s White Girl (2016) becomes a sly study of the geography of Ridgewood (a Brooklyn-esque neighborhood in Queens), and in Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, entire episodes take place in retirement homes or even entirely different cities. Like its heroes, Girls remained restless inside its format of being a New York City show, characters decamping for Iowa or Japan for arcs that lasted nearly the length of seasons. But their returns were well-written, we believed they were coming back not because the format of the show demanded it but because the city was where they belonged: the people outside of it were, in Girls’s universe, strange and square. And as the late-culture wars flamed through the late-Obama years, Girls became emblematic of what the city represented to people in its vast and red middle: bored, privileged, unwilling to do the work of real hard work of Average Joe Americans.

If I don’t get to do those things, neither do you,” wrote Lena Kay back in 2014, in an essay for Huffington Post titled “This Is Why I Don’t like Girls.” This was the real criticism of Girls, the kind it would face had it populated its cast with the diversity aspirationally wanted of it, had its stars kept their clothes on. Girls, Kay noted, was not aspirational television, not even aspirational in the sense that, sure, we don’t tell people at parties or first dates that we want to be Tony Soprano or Walter White but, presumably, the show’s vast popularity means, secretly, we do. Girls was a way of reckoning with that, whose characters did not get joyously married like Chandler and Monica, whose heroes did not get Sigourney Weaver’s job in the elevators. It was a show for the in-between eras of our lives, to be watched as we slowly realize that it was all life ever is: in between.

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