The Trouble with HBO’s Girls
I would hate to sound like Pauline Kael on Nixon or Peggy Noonan on Obama, but could someone please tell me: who loves Lena Dunham’s much-discussed HBO show Girls? Or maybe someone could tell me if he or she thinks Girls is worthy of all the hype it has received. I’d settle for anyone who thought the show was compelling. It seems as though all the Very Serious Critics* think Girls has touched the Zeitgeist in some important way. It was nominated for an Emmy Award in the Best Comedy category. Dunham has recently inked a $3.6 million deal for a book tentatively titled “Not That Kind of Girl: Advice by Lena Dunham.” Dunham had a “Shouts and Murmurs” piece in the New Yorker. She was featured in an on-line campaign ad for President Obama. There was even a New Yorker profile about her mom’s art. In the last week, there have been articles everywhere discussing the beginning of the next season.
The new season of Girls starts tomorrow night. I’d like to register what I take to be a minority report. I have no doubt that Lena Dunham is talented, but Girls is barely a good show, and it is certainly not a great show.
Before I started watching Girls, I expected to like it. It was about poor, young, liberal arts college graduates navigating life in New York City. This is familiar territory for me and my friends. The favorable press (including interviews with Dunham on Fresh Air) made me think that I was in for some cross between My So-Called Life, which aired for one season in the mid-1990s, and Harmony Korine’s brutal film Kids, and I understood that there were a few tips of the hat to Sex and the City. So far, so good.
Dunham created the show, and she wrote and directed many of the episodes. She is also the show’s star. The show focuses on Hannah Horvath (played by Dunham) and her three friends, Marnie Michaels (Allison Williams, who is the daughter of NBC News’s Brian Williams), Jessa Johansson (Jemima Kirke) and Shoshanna Shapiro (Zosia Mamet, who is the daughter of playwright David Mamet).
Hannah, Marnie, and Jessa became friends at Oberlin College. (Dunham’s alma mater.) And now all three have relocated to New York City. Hannah, whose real passion is to be a memoirist, has an unpaid internship at a publishing house but needs to find paid employment. Marnie, Hannah’s best friend and sometimes roommate, works in an art gallery. Jessa works as a nanny. Shoshanna, Jessa’s cousin, plays less of a role in the first season at least.
The show has received criticism because of the way it depicts the characters having sex. It has also been criticized because of its lack of racial diversity. I have no idea about the sexual mores of twenty somethings, and I’m willing to bet that the lack of racial diversity in young hip Brooklyn neighborhoods (such as the one where Hannah and Marnie live) is real. So I don’t fault Dunham on either point. After watching the entire first season, I fault Dunham for her rather thin characters.
I was expecting, for example, better dialogue about more interesting topics. Oberlin is one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country. I would presume that an aspiring memoirist from Oberlin was well-read and that she would want to talk about books and movies and television shows with her friends. Hip young Brooklynites spend a lot of time talking about music – bands they like, bands they hate, bands they’ve seen, bands they wish they’d seen. But in the first season of Girls there were no discussions about whether Dave Eggers is a better memoirist or novelist, no arguments about the music of Bon Iver or Regina Spektor, no references to bloggers or food or beer or even clothing. Now talking about books and bands and beer does not necessarily deepen one’s moral sense. That much is clear and hardly needs to be said. But such discussions might show that the characters entertain a world beyond their own.
Instead, the characters in Girls talked about themselves and only themselves. And because of this, the world the characters inhabit is remarkably small. We all think about ourselves, of course, but we think about ourselves in light of a whole network of other concerns that go beyond whether our parents will continue to help us financially and whether our boyfriends are interested in more than sex. But Hannah and Marnie and Jessa and Shosanna don’t. Dunham might be to narcissism what Tarantino is to violence.
This is what I take to be the real failing of the show. It is hard to be interested in the characters because they are interested enough in themselves. Dunham doesn’t invite her viewers into the lives of her characters. Although all of the characters are deeply vulnerable, their vulnerability doesn’t invite sympathy. Her characters rebuff our interest. (In fact, the only character with any depth, I would argue, is Hannah’s sometimes boyfriend Adam. It turns out that he is interested in more than just himself, but we don’t find out his depth until the end of the first season.)
Now I don’t expect every television show to have the moral depth of the Nicomachean Ethics. I do expect, however, for great television shows to present some moral complexity, which is another way of saying I expect great television shows to present characters whose moral sympathies extend beyond themselves. These characters need not be lovable, of course. In fact, the most important characters in the best recent television shows are not lovable – just think of Tony Soprano, Larry David, and everyone in the Wire. But if television shows lack moral imagination, I can’t see why Very Serious Critics would spend so much time discussing how important those shows are. It is difficult, if not impossible, for a show to have any moral imagination when the show’s characters don’t get out of – or invite us into — their own heads.
*with apologies to Paul Krugman’s Very Serious People