The Lena Dunham Show

S.J. Culver catches last night’s premiere of Girls and feels ambivalent about what she saw.

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You’ve heard of Girls, yes? The much buzzed-about HBO series created and helmed by 25 year-old Lena Dunham premiered last night, and after watching the intermittently enjoyable Tiny Furniture (Dunham’s second feature film), I approached viewing the Girls pilot with some skepticism — heavily reflected below.


00:00:21 I hate myself for thinking it, but the first thing that pops into my mind as I watch Hannah (Lena Dunham) stuff pasta into her mouth is that Dunham is looking about one million times better than she did in Tiny Furniture. The haircut, the makeup, the clothes — maybe everything just looks glossier on HBO. Argh, the gaze of society on the female body; sorry Naomi Wolf! This is off to such a guilty start.

00:00:53 Who is that actress who plays Hannah’s mother?

00:01:08 Really distracting not to remember this actress’s name. How could IMDB not know it??? This is horrible; missing some of the dialogue; must rewind.

00:01:58 It turns out all I’ve missed in Hannah updating her parents on the status of her memoir project, an update which does not fall on sympathetic ears. Mother: “We can’t keep bankrolling your ‘groovy lifestyle.’” Heh. Parents! Always with the most excruciating words. After being supported completely for two years to intern in publishing, Hannah’s cut off, and Girls is off the ground.

00:03:24 [Title: GIRLS]. The philistine in me is relieved HBO didn’t bother to polish up a three-minute credit sequence for the screener I’ve got; sure we’ll all be tired of that soon enough.

00:03:54 Intro Jessa (Jemima Kirke), asleep in the back of a cab. Now personally very excited/invested as Kirke was easily the best part of Tiny Furniture.

00:04:20 Boring waking up/morning stuff with Hannah and her icily beautiful roommate, Marnie (Allison Williams), who I guess hates/is repelled by her mop-headed boyfriend, Charlie? Aside: why do pilots for shows so often follow the arc of a day? I would like to see the first episode of a show cover about six weeks of chronology sometime.

00:05:00 Observation: Never in my life have I shaved my legs while chatting about my relationship with my cupcake-eating gal pal.

00:07:07 Cutting back and forth here between Marnie and Hannah walking to work (topic of discussion is where texting falls in the hierarchy of communication or “totem of chat,” which, come on, show; you can do better) and Jessa arriving at her younger cousin’s Nolita “bachelorette pad,” Kirke projecting a mixture of resignation/disdain/kindness/haughtiness that ought to be impossible and yet somehow is not, perhaps because of the jaunty felt bowler she wears throughout the scene and her complete lack of smugness when she says things like “Oh, I’m not on Facebook.” Cousin Zosia Mamet (wearing a pink velour track suit) diagnoses Jessa as “definitely like a Carrie, with like some Samantha aspects, and Charlotte hair.” The obligatory nod to Sex and the City thus dispensed with…

00:09:10 …we cut to the first, and only, scene of anyone at a workplace. Seriously, let’s digress for a moment, and think about all the people we know living in New York. Do you have them in mind? I do! Now, think about their jobs. How much time do they spend at their jobs? How much do they talk about their jobs? Are they good at them? Do they perhaps live in New York in part because of the professional opportunities? I appreciate that in a half-hour television program, work brings in extra characters and settings and is not always manageable as a significant storyline (particularly in a narrative where the focus is on friendship/personal relationships), but seriously: everyone I know in New York and everyone I knew there when I had just graduated from college was there mainly for work — and hustling. Of course, nobody I know was floating along on their parents’ income while pursuing a memoir passion project, either, but to talk about class in Girls is sort of like talking about violence in The Sopranos; you can easily get sidetracked and miss the point completely.

Anyway, Hannah’s boss is Chris Eigeman, who you might recognize from Whit Stillman/Noah Baumbach movies or as Jason Stiles in Gilmore Girls, depending on how you roll (TEAM LUKE). He’s sitting in front of a rack of Tao Lin books, so I guess that makes Hannah’s fictional workplace Melville House?

TL;DR: the boss doesn’t offer to pay Hannah for her work and rescinds his offer to read her manuscript once she finishes it. “But who will read it if you’re not here?” he says. Hahahaha. Ya burnt, 23-year-old memoirist.

00:11:10 Good thing Hannah’s still using that cellphone her parents have stopped paying for so much!

00:11:18 Hannah arrives at the house of a dude who dwells at the bottom of the “totem of chat” and who is so obviously indifferent to her that if you don’t know what’s coming next it’s a complete surprise to witness the transition from awkward small talk (“I’m into this woodworking stuff. It’s just more honest.”) to some sudden and sort of painful-looking lip biting and an enthusiastic quest for lube. Thus begins the pilot’s much-discussed sex scene that everyone with a media outlet (hey Frank Bruni!) has been describing as “awkward,” “funny,” “real,” etc. Are these compliments? Who knows. Basically it’s one of the least engaging scenes in the half hour.

In both Girls and Tiny Furniture (where the climactic scene, pun intended, involves Dunham’s character having apathetic intercourse in a concrete pipe), Dunham seems interested in exploring a narrow and mildly depressing slice of sexual experience. What’s frustrating is the tendency of press coverage to make disproportionate generalizations about “sex between young people today” based on these “realistic” scenes. This trend is spurred on by Dunham herself, who likes to suggest in interviews (e.g.), that every twenty-something man on the planet is a pornography-addled narcissist. I mean, it’s rough out there, but it isn’t that rough. There’s always mop-haired Charlie!

00:16:15 Speaking of mop-haired Charlie (hereafter “MHC”), back in Hannah and Marnie’s apartment MHC is getting nowhere, sexually speaking, particularly after it’s revealed that he invited the wonderfully obnoxious Ray (Alex Karpovsky) to dinner, who comes accompanied by an unnamed date who just “isn’t really into eating this week.” Blah blah blah the dinner party is boring. Just when my stamina starts to flag, enter…

00:20:07 …Jessa! Jemima Kirke is a delight. A delight. She enters a room and just takes over. This scene also has my favorite exchange from the pilot:

JESSA: I was a live-in educator for these three children, and they all sang, and their father was a brilliant pacifist thinker—

RAY: —Isn’t that the plot to The Sound of Music? It is.

00:21:47 Marnie, Hannah, and Jessa have a tête-à-tête-à-tête in a bedroom over Hannah’s financial situation. Spurred on by Jessa — “Tell them you’ll get tuberculosis in a garret if you have to!” — and a mug of opium tea, Hannah departs the party to head to her parents’ hotel room for a confrontation.

00:24:13 If you’ve made it this far, you’re in for a treat; the last six minutes of the pilot are pure comic delight. I love all scenes with characters on drugs, even (especially?) when they’re failing spectacularly to hold it together. Hannah shows up at her parents’ hotel room under the influence and clutching what looks to be six to seven pages from her “memoir” (sorry for the scare quotes, but they’re appropriate) and asks them to read it for the purposes of requesting their patronage.

I really can’t overstate how wonderful this scene is: the parents are in very parental pajamas that make them look sort of like mental patients; the staging has them sitting throne-like on the end of the bed with their feet resting on a bench while Hannah supplicates; the slight head movements they both make when Hannah declares she might be “the voice of [her] generation” are perfect. Where do these characters live? WHO are these actors? I would like to watch their show (or a show where Ray and Jessa just bicker) a good deal more than I want to watch more episodes of Girls.

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00:27:26 Final two scenes: Hannah asks her parents for “$1,100 a month for the next two years” so that she can complete her book; they decline to invest; she falls off her chair in an opium-influenced swoon as her parents bicker above her, then wakes up the next morning to find her parents gone and $20 in an envelope on the nightstand. She takes the twenty and the other twenty her parents left for housekeeping (a miscalculation, if you ask me; you want the viewer to find Hannah at least a little sympathetic, and for me that action placed her firmly in the “brat” camp). We watch as she leaves the hotel, the final shot tracking her progress down a Midtown sidewalk while something Simon and Garfunkel-esque (but not PS&AG themselves, presumably too obvious and also too expensive for Dunham’s taste) plays. The closing shot gently echoes the opening credits of The Mary Tyler Moore Show — a show we learn earlier that Hannah and Marnie often fall asleep to. It’s a mildly disorienting note to end the pilot on; so far Girls has shown none of the interest in female ambition that was the groundbreaking hallmark of Mary Tyler Moore. Perhaps we are supposed to assume the new frontier is female… laziness?

This brings me (finally) to my main critique of Girls and most of the reviews that have been written about it so far. To be clear, Dunham has created a fine show that’s often funny and feels quite fresh (and I have faith that the inconsistencies in the pilot will eventually disappear), but has invited the same pressure to accurately portray an entire group that Sex and the City once did. To name your program Girls baits everyone to treat it as definitive, to forecast and pronounce as I just did (“the new frontier is female laziness!”), to conflate a specific piece of fiction with a diverse community’s reality. Girls is not, in fact, about all Girls — just as it’s not about all boys, or all twentysomething sexual relationships, or all Millennial workers. All that’s good about Girls runs the risk of being lost in the types of discussions it invites.

??:??:?? [Many hours later] OH! Hannah’s mom is Becky Ann Baker, the mom from Freaks and Geeks! God, is this what brains felt like before Google?


Photo courtesy of HBO; gifs courtesy of clintbarton

S.J. Culver has some degrees in writing and maintains a tenuous web presence.