HBO's series Girls is 'Sex and the City' for a new generation
of underemployed young women
girls hbo

Two of the most telling moments in HBO's new series Girls come at the end of the first episode. After being denied further monetary assistance by her parents, 24-year old Hannah, played by show creator Lena Dunham, leaves their Manhattan hotel, pocketing a $20 tip left for the maid. (She later uses it to buy gourmet ice cream.)

On her way out, she encounters the first African American character—a homeless man who implores her to smile. She ignores him and ducks into traffic.

More than once during the show, one wonders if honesty is the best policy. Unofficially billed as television verit–, Girls might itself be an obfuscation of an uncomfortable but oft-stated truth—that the most liberal society in the world is a more lonely and insular place than previously imagined, and if we're handicapped by this awareness, at the very least we are aware. And perhaps we should give ourselves a little credit for noticing.

Girls purports to deal with reality as defined by four female twentysomethings, struggling to iron out the kinks of New York City life. If that sounds familiar, Dunham both absorbs and cleverly sidesteps the inevitable Sex and the City ambit, where real hardship seemed only a proletarian phenomenon.

Firstly, nobody in Girls is living the high life, comparatively speaking (although they do manage to pay rent in one of the world's most expensive cities).

Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda might have been despicable materialists, but they wanted to be liked. That's not the case with Hannah, Jessa (Jemima Kirke), Marnie (Allison Williams) and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet). The girls of Girls don't aspire to that, though they are taken with grandiose notions of their own self-worth, which come from the relatively bohemian upbringings of the performers, whose real lives are mirrored in the show.

Dunham's mother is former Guggenheim Fellow artist Laurie Simmons, while Kirke's father was the drummer for Bad Company. Williams is the daughter of lantern-jawed newscaster Brian Williams, and Mamet is the progeny of playwright and filmmaker David Mamet. Naturally, there have been accusations of nepotism. Did that help them? I'm sure. But that doesn't make their story any less interesting. I'd say more so.

The other differences between Sex and the City and Girls are staggering. The forever misty-eyed and mysteriously financed Carrie has no equivalency with Dunham's Hannah, who grovels for love, support and acceptance without an iota of self-respect.

Hannah has bad, emotionally detached sex with a patronizing neanderthal, who turns out to be unsuited for the physical act his brutishness would otherwise betray. Making witty banter at the end of a job interview, Hannah tries too hard to be likable and then gets high on the fantasy of her own likability, making an ill-timed rape joke that costs her the job, which begs the question, When is the right time for a rape joke? Survey says never. In Hannah's world, it is difficult to take anything seriously—starting with yourself.

Girls naturally focuses on boys, too, which is interesting when the show's executive producer is Judd Apatow, impresario of the bromantic comedy. Taking revenge for years of poorly written female characters, the men on this show are uniformly bad.

There's sweet but emasculated Charlie (Christopher Abbott), who can't get it through his head that if he just treated his girlfriend Marnie a little worse, she might respect him. At the other end of the spectrum there's Adam (Adam Sackler), who entertains a "platter' of sexual fantasies that include raping an 11-year-old heroin addict, Cabbage Patch Kids and not using protection.

Looking back on Sex and the City, which ended well before the whisper of the Great Recession, I'm in awe of the way HBO managed to spin a grotesquely empowered and confidently capitalist version of feminism on a pair of $2,000 heels. Theirs was an impossible world in which women were desirous of very little, too busy figuratively and literally acquiring everything in sight.

Girls, however, doesn't have a feminist agenda. The show is apolitical. It has no responsibility except to tell the truth, as its writers see fit. And yet there are those who demand it do more, and the discussion turns cranky—look over here, adults—behold our cultural cancer.

The navel-gazing youth, sheltered and stuck in a state of arrested development—histrionic at its worst, liberating and relatable at best. Isn't that meaningful? But to those seeking the antidote to whatever plagues this generation, prepare for disappointment.

Still there's a more cogent observation making the rounds—is Brooklyn this white? It seems hard to believe, in light of age and geography, that a New York City sitcom would be without a strong black or Latina or Asian or Middle Eastern character. Or even just a diluted one.

But then popular shows like How I Met Your Mother, 2 Broke Girls or Two and a Half Men also lack three-dimensional minority characters and have escaped this kind of scrutiny. I suppose that is because we don't expect much from network shows, which aren't very good, and so unworthy of this kind of "radicalism.'

This, however, is cable. This is the place where vampires perform oral sex, single mothers peddle bricks of marijuana and The Wire happened. Though I have to add: When was the last time you saw a truly great—no, honest—female character? Can't we start there?

What's more interesting is that the conversation about the show itself has been overtaken by conversations on feminism, solipsism, privilege, race. Very few of those things, at least as of the second episode, are being broached with the same intensity onscreen as they are online. The discomfort is thrilling. Don't let your irrelevance get in the way.


Sundays, HBO

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