“Girls” lives up to the hype

HBO's new show has rightly become a generational event. It's just as funny, smart and authentic as we'd hoped

Topics: Girls, Girls Girls Girls, TV,

"Girls" lives up to the hypeLena Dunham in "Girls"

HBO’s “Girls,” a new comedy about four affluent, early 20-something friends boldly and haplessly talking, tweeting and screwing their way through starter jobs, clueless dudes and New York City’s outer boroughs, is easy to love and even easier to worry about. The many articles already written about the zeitgeist-crashing series, created by and starring the 25-year-old Lena Dunham, reflect this, falling into two overlapping categories, give or take a few outliers: the rave review— of which, to be clear, this will be one— and the concerned cultural report, in which the type of frank, awkward sex that the girls in “Girls” are having is deemed bleak, depressing, prudish or in some other way alarming. While the raves dole out the love and the cultural reports the apprehension, the latter may be the more flattering: Those are the pieces that proceed as if “Girls” were not fiction at all, but a sort of factual report about female sexuality dispatched from the front lines of gentrified Brooklyn. (It’s funny, if “Girls” were a reality show we’d be debating what about it was fake and staged. Because it’s fiction, we’re debating not even what about it is real, but what the realness means. Or is that “funny”?)

I have to confess that I have enjoyed both the raves and condescending hand-wringing, not because I find the show to be a sexual doomsayer, but because it alleviates my own set of anxieties to have “Girls” taken so seriously. I’ve been worried about “Girls” too. My concern was that “Girls” speaks so specifically and accurately to the experience of me and my census buddies — and to be clear, that’s urban white girls with safety nets; have at us in the comments — that people would either write it off as navel-gazing, snark at the innate privilege undergirding the whole thing, or find it unrelatable. “Girls” is smart, bracing , funny, accurately absurd, confessional yet self-aware, but it is also undeniably about four white chicks with, relatively speaking, no worries in the world. And so, as just such a white chick, I have spent the last few weeks, to paraphrase a question oft asked by bubbes and zeydes, nervously wondering of the show and its high profile, “Is it good for the girls?” So far so good.

About these girls: The ringleader is Dunham’s Hannah Horvath, an aspiring memoirist— she’s finished four chapters, only has five and an entire life to live left to go— who has been living off her parents since college, but, just as the series begins, is abruptly cut off. Fast-talking, tattooed and good-natured, Hannah is a messy compilation of only seemingly contradictory traits. She ambitiously claims under the influence of opium that she might be “the voice of her generation. Or the voice of a generation,” but ruins job interviews with ill-timed rape jokes, does not have the energy to eat cupcakes in the shower while standing up, and often arrives late. She’s neurotic enough to spend an entire episode wondering about the stuff that “gets up around the sides of condoms,” but is also easygoing and affable, even in situations where being easygoing and affable are not necessarily warranted, as when one’s sexual partner is being vague about whether he is using a condom at all. Watching Hannah can be excruciating, embarrassing and cringe-worthy, but as Hannah says to her gynecologist during a checkup, “It hurts, but the way it’s supposed to.”

Hannah lives with her best friend Marnie (Brian Williams daughter Allison; all four of the actresses on “Girls” have famous parents), already a more mature, put together and adult force than her friends. She has a sweet, doting boyfriend who, as Hannah succinctly puts it, has a metaphorical vagina. Marnie has no interest in having sex with him. (For all the distress “Girls” has stirred up about the sexual lives of young women, I don’t see how the concerned parties can watch it and feel great about the sex lives of “Boys” either.) The foursome is rounded out by the debonair, sophisticated, well-traveled and flaky Jessa (Jemima Kirke, whose crack timing makes her the series’ comedic standout) and the virginal, chirpy Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet, the weak link of the bunch), who, as the least worldly member of the crew, is obsessed with “Sex and the City,” which, in the pilot anyway, is meant as a sort of character burn. Shoshanna describes herself as “definitely a Carrie at heart, but sometimes Samantha comes out. And when I’m at school, I try hard to put on my Miranda hat,” when, of course, she is a total Charlotte, which  Dunham and the writers of “Girls” — admitted “SATC” watchers — must know. It’s a deft little jab at the aspirational fantasy components of “SATC” (that “Girls” intentionally lacks), which encouraged the show’s audience members to imagine themselves as that which they are not.

In the past couple of weeks, I have had more conversations about “Girls” than just about anything else. All of these discussions have included long dissections of what in the show feels real, not so real, realer and realest. (Realest and sweetest in a landslide: coming home late at night to find your best friend dancing around the apartment to Robyn and joining in.) “Girls” invites this sort of parsing. It is such an acutely observed series, grounded so deeply in a particular social milieu — post-collegiate life in New York City among kids who implicitly consider their job to be finding, and making, themselves — that, relative to most comedies, it plays like anthropology. Most sitcoms have had their specificity market tested out and their cultural affiliations scrubbed away. Not “Girls,” which has the atmospheric authenticity — the ill-fitting clothes, messy sheets, unimposing Brooklyn streets, throwaway observations that have been saved up for years, the late-night tweeting — we’ve come to associate with highbrow dramas or documentaries and the single-minded focus on a subculture usually relegated to lowbrow reality shows.

But “Girls” is much more than a filmed live journal entry. Yes, it’s accurate and realistic, but what elevates the show and makes it great — makes it a show I would recommend to anyone, not just people who can identify with its subjects — is the extent to which it is also a broad, wonderfully crafted, laugh-out-loud television program. “Girls” has punch lines. “Girls” takes plausible observations, relationships and events and amps them up, a little past the point of plausibility, but keeps applying realistic dialogue and character motivation to make it go down believably. The much discussed dirty talk scene, in which Hannah’s not-quite boyfriend aggressively encourages her to take on the role of a tweenage prostitute, is the sort of horrifyingly icky and hilarious conversation that could probably only happen between two actors. A chat about the pros and cons of doggy-style sex ends with the goofy kicker, “Well, maybe a woman wants to feel like she has udders.” A provocative sexual come-on inspires one of the women to run off to the bathroom for a gonzo emergency masturbation session. This is not quite like life, but it all feels immensely lifelike.

“Girls” does have one glaring, inexcusable flaw: race. “Girls” is confoundingly white. There are hardly any people of color in the first three episodes, and the two that appear have short, perfunctory roles. (Hannah interns with an Asian girl who knows Photoshop; her gynecologist is not white.) This whiteness is not particularly realistic — this is New York City, and it’s easy to imagine Hannah and her crew being more diverse, without sacrificing any verisimilitude — but if Dunham and her writers had made any mention of the whiteness at all, it could be understood as a loaded and knowing acknowledgment of the tendency to self-segregate. They don’t. (In fact, the one mention comes when Shoshanna tells Hannah about a TV show she is watching, and quotes Jerry Springer as saying an African-American woman spending $1,000 on her hair every month is “unbe-weave-able.”) In the episodes I’ve seen, “Girls’” racial politics seem remedial, all that whiteness a reflection of obliviousness, not self-awareness.

This is in marked contrast to how “Girls” deals with class, another knotty issue for the show. “Girls” is about a group of economically privileged women with no college debt who, if worse comes to worst, can always move home. These lucky financial circumstances may be alienating to many Americans, and Dunham and her writers seem to have thought about this. Unlike Dunham’s semi-autobiographical character in “Tiny Furniture,” who lives with her parents in their giant Tribeca loft, Hannah has lost her income. Though “Girls” remains a show about the affluent, it at least seems aware of other financial realities and to have made an effort to appeal to people who are less well off than Dunham and her colleagues.

The same can’t be said of race, and that’s hugely disappointing, more disappointing than it would be in a lesser show. “Girls” is fairly explicitly about representation, about showing a group of women in a new, loving, plausible, generous, nuanced, weird, freaky and fundamentally serious way. The experience of watching “Girls” has been unexpectedly moving for me: I’m older than the main characters, but it has been powerful to watch a TV show that feels so much like it is actually about me and some of the people I know, and to have us treated with such a clear-eyed, occasionally skewering, but always respectful light touch. It’s a rare pleasure, and it seems such a hideous misstep that “Girls” wouldn’t be more inclusive of all the women, of whatever color, who could so easily have had that experience of it. “Girls” is too good to make a mistake this bad. Next season, may all of its most embarrassing errors be scripted.

Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

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    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

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