Girls demands that we talk about it.
Writing about Girls, Ellen Gray noted:
Maybe I’d have been more shocked if I weren’t already a much bigger fan of Showtime’s “Shameless,” a show watched by more people that seems to generate only half the buzz, despite plot points that recently included a man trying to impregnate his own mother-in-law — the old-fashioned way — and more teen sex than “Skins” ever dreamed of.
If I continue to prefer “Shameless” to “Girls,” it’s not so much for the sex as it is for the sheer exuberance of its characters, who for the most part have problems bigger than Hannah’s and who still mostly manage to pull themselves out of bed every day.
I think the last few words are a cheap shot … the characters in Shameless are indeed exuberant, and their problems are bigger than just about anyone’s, but those of us who have had our fair share of “can’t get out of bed” days know how debilitating it can be. And I know I’m supposed to be writing about Girls, not Shameless. But I’m puzzled that Girls gets argued about while Shameless gets ignored, when they are both pretty great shows dealing with 20-something women with no money struggling in the big city. If I had to guess, I’d say Lena Dunham’s skills at self-promoting make the difference (and more power to her, I’m not complaining). Shameless tries to get our attention by the outrageous things that happen on the show; Girls gets our attention by locking onto the current Zeitgeist. As Hannah said, she thinks (or thought) she might a voice of a generation. (Most people just quote the first part, before she qualifies her statement: “I think I may be the voice of my generation”. The difference is crucial, Dunham knows it, and too many people ignore it in their hatred of the character, the show, and Dunham.)
Dunham provides the focus for Girls, which is “her show” even more than other show-runner classics like The Sopranos, The Wire, or Deadwood. Significantly, all three of those series were violent and male-centered, while Girls is perhaps emotionally violent but, as the title reminds us, very female-centered. Combine Dunham’s work on the series as creator, director, writer, and star, and the autobiographical connections to Dunham’s real life, and you have a series that people assume isn’t just about Hannah Horvath, but also about Lena Dunham. No one thinks David Simon “was” McNulty, or that David Milch “was” Al Swearengen. But people do assume Hannah is Lena, and since Hannah is extremely self-absorbed and not particularly likable, it appears people who don’t know her think the same about Dunham.
You could say she invites this kind of deranged identification. But, to the extent that it is true, it merely marks the brave way that Lena Dunham is producing the work that she wants, how she wants it, which is a kind of power not many people have. I don’t think many people are jealous of Fiona Gallagher on Shameless. Emmy Rossum is brilliant in the role, and we empathize deeply with the character. We might envy her rock-solid commitment to her family. But Rossum is just the star of the show, not the creator, and the realities Fiona lives with (working poor, scrounging to get by, responsible for more than she should be handling) mean her life isn’t enviable. But we can watch Girls and feel jealous of Lena Dunham, if not of Hannah Horvath, precisely because she’s doing what she wants the way she wants it, and being rewarded for her efforts. Hannah is self-absorbed in the worst ways, but Dunham is self-expressive, creating art from her self, and it’s nonsense to be a hater because she’s doing what she wants to do.
Of course, if Girls sucked, none of this would matter. But the characters are finely drawn, Dunham gets the milieu down right, and there is some excellent acting going on. Girls isn’t wonderful because Lena Dunham shows off her naked regular-person body, and it isn’t reprehensible because it shows people acting in less-than-admirable ways, even though at times it seems like that’s all anyone wants to talk about, as if Girls isn’t a piece of art/entertainment, but is a social marker with a clear impact, for better or worse, beyond the screen. I’m not saying the social context is irrelevant, and again, in many ways, Dunham invites such speculation. But in twenty years, when the social context has fallen to the background, people will watch Girls solely because they like it. Grade for Season Two: A-.