Talking Normal about "Girls"
Is there any normal way to talk about Girls? - That was the question asked by James L. Brooks (via Twitter) today and I think that, obviously, there is but nobody really wants to do. People (and I've been guilty of this as well) are so set in their beliefs that most discussions become Point-CountertoapointIthinkyouweremakingbutI'mnotsuresinceIastoppedlisteningandhavebeenjust-waitingtomakemypoint. So, now that I've spent far too much time already debating the show (on message boards which, I know, I was supposed to quit wasting time on as a New Year's Resolution), here's my deep-breath-talk-normal take on "Girls" and the controversy.
The Show Itself
Episode 2 was much better than the pilot. I think one reason that more people found it agreeable was that Hannah (Lena Dunham's character) was obsessing on something most everyone has thought about at one point in their lives (STDs), as opposed to something that people WISH they could have worried about (their parents cutting them off after supporting them for two years after graduating college.)
The new attack on people who don't like the show is that citing "unlikeability" isn't a legit reason not to like a show. Shows like Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Eastbound & Down are often mentioned as examples of unlikable characters. What these critics miss is that those weren't unlikable characters, they were characters that did unlikeable things. People loved Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer or Larry David, and they couldn't wait to see what unlikeable thing they'd do next to see what kind of hijinks ensue.
The problem with "Girls" is that, so far, no hijinks ensue. Be it STDs or her parents checkbook, the first two episodes' main stories have been: Hannah obsessing about something, Hannah talking to about it with her friends, and Hannah then talking about it some more. Nothing really happened. This problem was even worse in the pilot because what Hannah was obsessing over was pretty annoying and then nothing really came of it besides her acting brattier than before. It's like the pilot focused completely on just making the characters unlikable and then they were stunned at how people didn't like them at all. Unfortunately, this is an even bigger issue for two of the remaining three main Girls.
While Jemima Kirk's Jessa's fuck all (literally and figuratively) attitude has made her an interesting maelstrom to watch (and an example of a character that viewers happily follow even if they probably shouldn't "like" her), Marnie, played by Allison Williams, has been nothing but a wet blanket and Shoshanna, Zosia Mamet's character, seems like someone who wandered in from a completely different show. Marnie, like Hannah, doesn't ever have much to do. Even when she had something to do, like hosting the Welcome Home party, we never saw her actually do it. The only time we really saw her was when she was complaining about having to do it. One of the most basic writing tenants is show, don't tell; I believe Girls needs to heed it because, while "Oh that's an interesting take on (fill in the blank)..." can carry you for a short HBO length season, if you don't make anything more out of your assessments, even the fans will quickly tire of the show.
On the whole, it's fitting that Hannah's memoir is really just a collection of essays because that's what this show feels like. While there are good scenes, some of them seem only barely connected to the overall half hour (the job interview being a great but random moment in episode 2) and you could imagine that the shows, as presently structured, would be far more enjoyable as individual scenes. If "Girls" had premiered online with three scenes - the opening scene, Hannah losing her job, and Hannah's job interview, I think people would have been far more open to the show and may have even seen Hannah, for all of her flaws, as more likable (or watchable, if you prefer that wording.) Also, if her complaints had stemmed from those issues, maybe the pilot's fish-not-out-of-but-rather-just-having-to-swim-alone-in-the-same-water conflict would have played better and Hannah's complaints come as insightful rather than simple complaining. Instead, those scenes are mixed into a day in the life structure that doesn't help the show in any way. It's even more jarring with the more "insightful" moments of the show since they often just hang there as they don't lead anywhere and are often followed by a fairly disconnected scene. Right now, the show's structure (aside from nice connections between the opening and closing scenes) doesn't elevate the viewpoint nor does it extend the discussion into an interesting situation.
The Diversity (or lack thereof) Issue
For me, the biggest problem with the lack of diversity is that Lena Dunham said it happened by accident. And the reason this is a problem to me was actually exhibited well in episode 2 of "Girls"
While Hannah eventually screwed up her job interview, there was a point where the man doing the interview was going to hire her. Mind you, the job wasn't one she was really prepared for, it's not one that she really wanted (besides the paycheck), but her qualifications were basically deemed an afterthought because... the interviewer bonded with her over their favorite neighborhood bars.
That is the face of modern discrimination.
Discrimination isn't so much about actively excluding people who are not like you (although, obviously, racism still exists) but it's usually about including people who are like you mainly because they are more like you. I don't doubt that Lena Dunham didn't mean to not cast any non-white actors as leads, it was that it never dawned at her to think about it. Many people see that the main actresses are all daughters of celebrities and scream nepotism; I disagree. It's not that their dads got them the gigs but it probably did help them, in one way or another, relate to Dunham. I don't doubt that if someone comes in and says, "Oh man, your dad is Brian Williams. That's gotta be cool.", the other girls bond over a knowing little eye-roll.
And, no, it's not Dunham's job to force non-white actors into her show but if you believe that TV needs more diversity, then you have to hold her to that standard. This isn't to say that she should change the content of the show (if she had said that the whiteness of the characters was key, none of this would have been an issue), but there are entitled black, Asian, Indian girls out there so similar looking actresses could have filled any of the characters shoes and not changed the show one bit. Just like Stacy Dash in Clueless, Gabrielle Union in Can't Hardly Wait, Meghan Goode and Devon Aoki in Debs, didn't change those films, I don't believe hiring a non-white actress necessarily makes a difference in the content and the belief that it does is the stereotype that needs to be broken the most.
One of the most concerning responses from supporters of Dunham is: it's probably a good thing that she doesn't have any black or Hispanic characters because she wouldn't know how to write for them. This, to me, is exactly why writers, producers, directors should be pushed to at least just bring non-white actors in for auditions for these roles. Because what Lena Dunham is writing is New York entitlement and, as someone who went to a prep school, I can tell you that that entitlement is able to cross racial boundaries. The concept of "writing black" is based entirely on tired stereotypes. Amy Heckerling didn't have to learn how to "write black" when she put Stacy Dash and Donald Faizon in "Clueless". The script for "Can't Hardly Wait" didn't net to be doctored to tweak the voice of Gabrielle Union's character. Entitled is entitled. Yes, if a show was going to go deeper, there would be some different struggles but since it's not like "Girls" seems to be going that deeply into those types of issues, it wouldn't necessarily come up.
(Although, I will say that Dunham has been a trooper, taking a brunt of the blame when you would have thought that HBO or executive producer Judd Apatow might have stepped up. After all, this being Dunham's first show, you'd think they would be the ones that would have been the ones keeping an eye on this. Granted, Apatow doesn't have the greatest track record for this. I mean, he couldn't find one project for Romany Malco or Kevin Hart all these years?)
So, in the end, did Lena Dunham do anything wrong? No. But too often, diversity is lost, not by the presence of wrongdoing but because nobody thinks about trying to do right. And while I don't think "Girls" should be judged more harshly as a show because of its lack of diversity, I also don't think that it should be given any sort of pass for following in the same lilywhite footprints as the countless other white only shows out there. (Also, while some people claim they don't want to get in the way of Dunham's vision or artistry, if we don't expect an attempt or even just mere cognition of the need for diversity from our artists, how can we ever demand it from our corporations?)
"Girls" isn't a bad show but it has some substantial flaws, which doesn't help since it's already aiming at a limited demographic. I get why some people like it; I don't get why critics somehow don't understand why most people don't.
(Oh, and as always, comments are down so just go to the SoulHonky facebook page or e-mail me at email@example.com to weigh in.)