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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 Dunhams 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 shows star. The show focuses on Hannah Horvath (played by Dunham) and her three friends, Marnie Michaels (Allison Williams, who is the daughter of NBC Newss 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, Hannahs 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 ones 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 dont 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 shows characters don't get out of -- or invite us into -- their own heads.

*With apologies to Paul Krugmans Very Serious People

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Did she write a "Shouts & Murmurs"? I remember a long, very unappealing, let-me-tell-you-all-about-my-breakup essay that I couldn't quite believe was in The New Yorker. Didn't finish that, and it's a big reason I haven't bothered to find out whether the show is as good as critics (including (The New Yorker's) say.

Thanks, Mollie, you're right. In the August 13, 2012 issue the NYer published her "Personal History" (not a "Shouts a Murmurs") entitled "First Love." I found the essay unappealing as well.And I should also make one correction: _Kids_ is more properly Larry Clarke's film than Harmony Corine's. (Thanks to my brother for reminding me of that.)

What bothers me about the show is that it aspires to transcend the admitted superficiality of its forbears, especially 'Sex in the City' (which it nods to explicitly, and cleverly, in the first episode), but fails in just the way Scott describes. Then there's the weird accuracy of the names of Brooklyn bars visited by the characters -- but not the locations of those bars. She keeps putting them in the wrong neighborhoods. That said: I appreciate the fact that it actually shoots in Brooklyn, like the late great 'Bored to Death.' A funnier show.

So long as we're being honest I should admit that not having HBO is another major reason I haven't bothered to check out Girls. But I do follow a handful of people (critics/professional culture commentators) on Twitter who can't stop talking about Lena Dunham, and I would rather just suspect that I would not share their enthusiasm than go to the trouble of confirming my suspicions. Your take on it sounds a lot more like the one I imagine I'd have, Scott! The weird thing is how one's feelings about Dunham (I would say "Dunham's work," but really it seems like Dunham herself is a strangely polarizing figure) have come to seem so important, and so indicative of what sort of person you are. I kind of like not seeing the show and thus not having much of an opinion, so I don't have to worry about what the opinion I would have says about me.

While Mr. Moringiello's comments are spot on, I have to confess being intrigued by the show's simplistic banality--that is, it requires no real thought or analysis by the viewer--you can just sit back and benignly witness the vapidity of three narcistic but essentially harmless souls.There are other shows on TV that provide ample intellectual curiosity and reflection. But sometimes a half-hour of mindless viewing is just a good way to decompress.Kinda' reminds me of why I enjoy meatloaf occasionally (much to my gourmet wife's chagrin)--because everyone once in a while it's OK to simply enjoy the commonplace things.

Laid up with the flu last week, I settled into for what I thought would be a marathon of the first season of "Girls." I had not read your piece yet, but had absorbed the hype. I watched the first episode, then ten minutes of the second episode, and stopped. I then watched reruns of Mad Men happily for the balance of the afternoon. I could not quite figure out what turned me off to the show, but it was a borderline revulsion. Your piece gets to the reasons, and I'm glad my instincts were right.

Danny Glover, bitches. Danny Glover.

"I kind of like not seeing the show and thus not having much of an opinion, so I dont have to worry about what the opinion I would have says about me."At least you are honest about your take, Mollie, tho your courage is perhaps wanting. Certainly our comments do tell us something about ourselves tho this might be a truer path than the one Mollie takes. First of all this show is a comedy and must be seen through that lens. It certainly has a serious part which is remarkable. Dunham is willing to expose faults which most will not talk to anyone about. She does not glamorize sex while she exposes all the incongruities surrounding it at times. What I find amazing is that she is willing to expose her decidedly unattractive body for all the world to see. In flagranto delictu.Vulnerablility has always been a quintessential part of a good movie or good story telling. Maybe we are showing our Catholic disordered sexual roots when we fail to see humor in this series. Methinks that we protest too much and that we are more vulnerable than we care to admit.

Bill, I'm not sure what to make of your comment. I don't presume to speak for anyone, but when I read the line you quoted, I laughed. You don't seriously think that not watching a TV show on HBO shows a lack of courage, do you?You wrote, "Vulnerablility has always been a quintessential part of a good movie or good story telling." I agree. My point was that the narcissism of Dunham's characters makes them unsympathetic, and I argued that the show lacks a deep moral imagination. You're welcome to disagree with me on that, but I'm not sure if that's your point.You also wrote, "Maybe we are showing our Catholic disordered sexual roots when we fail to see humor in this series." I don't know who the "our" or the "we" is here. Maybe the reason some people fail to see the humor in _Girls_ is because, well, it really isn't that funny.

Scott, didn't Mollie speak for a lot of people when she wrote:I kind of like not seeing the show and thus not having much of an opinion, so I dont have to worry about what the opinion I would have says about me. Think about it. As far as moral imagination is concerned it depends on your definition of art. Art is supposed to please above all. That does not mean it should be immoral but it must please first. Having said that Dunham does explore male crassness in sex and demands that her men show an accounting. Something a stoical Catholic culture does rarely. As far as funny is concerned, it does show your lack of awareness of what art is. Above all art is in the eyes of the beholder and so many find Girls quite hilarious as I do. Are you showing puritan roots. Dunham is in unexplored territory. She does make one think about the morals of one's actions. Perhaps that is the reason dot Commonweal and Verdicts have not discussed FiftyShades of Grey. They fear what it might say about them. Perhaps you can rework this thread in a new thread as I came in late and others might want to chime in again.

Bill, it's late and our conversation is getting unproductive, but a few things before I go to sleep.1. I'm no Puritan. I had a Christmas tree this year and everything. I even cut it down myself.2. You can't say both "Art is supposed to please above all" and "Above all art is in the eyes of the beholder." How high are we going here?3. I once read the first few pages of _Fifty Shades of Grey_ in a train station newsstand while I was wasting time. Here's what I hope not posting about _Fifty Shades of Grey_ says about me: I don't buy, read, or enjoy books like _Fifty Shades of Grey_. And I'm not afraid to admit it!Seriously, though, like you I'm interested in the relationship between art and morality, art and humor, and art and objectivity. I hope to raise those issues in future posts. (And I hope I raise them in some ways in most of my posts.) I also hope you'll hold me to that.

d'accordo.

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About the Author

Scott D. Moringiello is a Lawrence C. Gallen fellow in the Humanities at Villanova University, where he teaches the Augustine and Culture Seminar and courses in the theology department.