A Show About an HBO Show


L-R: Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham and Zosia Mamet in Girls, HBO

by Bobbi Lurie

The children of 1960s who rebelled against their parents’ expectations decided to raise a kinder, gentler generation. They surrounded their babies with Mozart in utero, and from nursery school on, these Boomer parents sent their precious little ones to the best schools they really couldn’t afford, and buoyed up any glimpse of possible talent their child might exhibit. Were anyone to ask how these kids turned out, what with their private education and the attention garnered from their elders, they could find no better exposition than the new series, Girls, on HBO.

Girls is written, directed, produced and starred in by Lena Dunham, who now at 25 was supposedly raised in all the right ways. By the age of 22, Lena Dunham had already made a feature-length film which won awards and received the attention of Judd Apatow, one of the executive producers of the series.

Lena Durham’s film and her HBO series are built around the same story. They are about her, Lena Dunham, finishing college, being unhappy and wanting to make a film, and then a television series, about being unhappy. The film was shot in her mother’s TriBeCa apartment. The television series is shot in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The setting for Girls is its main fictional element but other than that, Girls is self-referential.

Lena Dunham’s mother is an important artist in her own right, as is her father. In fact, all four stars in Girls are daughters of parents who have achieved a level of fame in the overlapping art and entertainment worlds. In one interview, Lena Dunham spoke of wanting to become more famous than her mother. Well, she is more famous than her mother, in the world of endless self-promotion and Facebook updates that Lena/ Hannah inhabits. It is a world which privileges the nooks and crannies of pseudo-self-examination and self-disclosure at the expense of identifying, at all, with the outside world.

So Girls is really the story of girls who are in their twenties, living through one of America’s worst recessions, portrayed by girls who have no idea what financial hardship means. But we never really expect them to know what it means, do we?

This is a television show. These are girls who have gotten contracts with HBO. Their job, as far as I can tell, is to make us forget who they are in real life, just as we must forget that not everyone can afford HBO.

At her best, Lena Dunham’s insular, self-deprecation, especially her self-deprecation with regard to sex, might be compared to Woody Allen. The difference is that Woody Allen never exposes his physical, bodily self to the sharp eye of the camera. Woody Allen is not a man to be gaped at but a self-invented creation we are meant to laugh with. Lena Dunham is eager for the gaping, and the gasping. We’ve never seen sex as awkward as this before. Dunham’s ability to open herself up to humiliation knows no bounds. As her supposed best friend, Marnie, Brian Williams’ daughter, said, “You’re smarter than that.” But no, she isn’t. She poses in front of her cell phone camera and takes a full frontal Sext shot for Adam, the guy who humiliates her and, later, dumps her. But let’s not forget that Adam doesn’t seem to want anything to do with Hannah, even while they’re having sex. Adam was kind enough to Text Hannah back with an apology: he was Sexting someone else.

I did wonder if Lena Dunham’s central focus on physical nakedness and hard-to-watch sex scenes might be part of Judd Apatow’s influence, but Lena Dunham’s work has always focused on a superficial kind of self-exposure, the kind of self-exposure that needs to be funny, but isn’t. Lena/ Hannah wears the trappings of depth, but is a cardboard approximation of what she intends to make into her imagined life. She misses what’s around her because she is self-consciously participating in events for the purpose of entering them in her memoirs, which she believes will represent “her” generation “or a generation.” This, at least, is what she tells her parents, waking them in their hotel room, in the middle of the night, hoping they will continue to support her “lifestyle” even though they are feeling the effects of the recession and they’d like to retire from teaching.

Most of the criticism surrounding Girls has been due to the lack of racial diversity and the raunchy sex scenes.

Considering the fact that these four white girls congregate in Brooklyn, which is only one third white, I can understand the point about racial diversity. But as far as diversity goes, I can’t imagine how these very distinct and artificial personalities can expect to be friends at all. Yes, they are all spoiled, so that’s something they have in common, but for example, David Mamet’s daughter, as Shoshanah, does not seem capable of being anybody’s friend. Talking about racial diversity gives this show way too much credit.

Jemima Kirke as Jessa, Girls, HBO

Shoshanah says her biggest problem is being a virgin. Of course her biggest problem is that she is annoying and obnoxious and difficult to listen to. She is “The Valley Girl” on speed. Her cartoonish mannerisms and exaggerated, self-centered pseudo-angst, is enough to drive a viewer batty. What I find most laudable about this cast is that they are capable of playing off one another at all. Hannah actually listens raptly as Shoshanah unburdens her terrible secret of virginity and gushes over her love of game shows. These monologues, which are meant to be dialogues, are neither funny nor clever.

Jemima Kirke, who plays Jessa, Shoshanah’s cousin in the show, is Hannah’s/ Lena’s best friend in real life, and also starred in her film. She has no choice but pretend to listen to David Mamet’s daughter, Shoshanah. Shoshanah is fully funded by her pretend parents. Jessa lives rent-free in Shoshanah’s nice apartment in the city. Shoshanah worships Jessa, a British bon vivant, or whatever someone is called who flies into New York from Europe one day, only to have an abortion scheduled for the next day.

Brian Williams’ daughter, who plays Marnie, not only pretends to be best friends with Hannah, she looks like she is about to cry when Hannah tells her she has a sexually transmitted disease. “It isn’t fair, it isn’t fair.” Marnie is actually crying over this. She says Hannah is so careful about condoms and it isn’t fair. Really, Marnie? Isn’t it? I felt like Marnie was trying to play a real live adult woman in that scene. After all, she and her best friend talk about condoms. I find their relationship unbelievable and can’t understand what showing Marnie and Hannah in the bathtub together, is supposed to do for us. Hannah, of course, is the only one naked in the bathtub.

Just to show how “sexually liberated” these four friends are, in one episode we see the Marnie masturbate in response to a creepy artist-type who says he knows “how to do things like a man” or something like that. Marnie is somehow moved by this, forgetting her faithful boyfriend who is getting on her nerves for being kind.

The “real world,” as represented by a black, homeless man, is used as a prop for Hannah/ Lena. He screams out a cheer to her, at the end of the first episode, as if his homeless existence is meant for nothing but to serve Lena/ Hannah in her need for attention.

Lena Dunham gives a talk after each episode. She looks more adult in these talks; her hair is up; she is dressed in something shiny and purple. She tells us more about Hannah, or her. It’s hard to make a distinction between the actor and the act.

It’s also hard to want to follow stories which begin with premises such as accidental Sexting, or “abortion parties,” or watching Becca act the part of the slutty babysitter who automatically falls into seducing a married man, the father of the two children she happens to be a nanny to. The father assures Becca that losing (his) children happens all the time. It even happened to him. So don’t worry. No problem losing children in New York. No problem at all. And “Girls” is called a comedy. But somehow I keep forgetting that. The world of Hannah Horvath, populated by creepy people, who happen to be in their mid-twenties, is drab and depressing.

Hannah does get a fulltime job, but we only find out about it once she’s working. No big deal is made over Hannah’s job, just as no big deal was made over Hannah stealing the money her parents left for the maid. Hannah crashed their hotel room in the middle of the night, to try to get more money out of them, after they told her they couldn’t afford to pay for her any longer. When Hannah heard this, she made it clear she didn’t want to see her parents again. Nice kid. She came back to them to try and get more money from them, after gaining inspiration from her scummy friends. Hannah’s parents wisely let her sleep off her opium-tea high. They leave Hannah in their hotel room, without saying good-bye to her: the people who know Hannah best need to escape from her.

Likewise, Adam prefers masturbation over being with Hannah. Adam has no problem getting Hannah to watch him. He tells her it would make a good chapter in her memoirs.

Hannah’s boss, who she works for in one and a quarter episodes, likes to fondle his female employees. The female “ethnic” group members sent over by casting, to quiet  down the angry reviews about the lack of diversity in Girls, told Hannah it was okay to let him molest her. The token ethnics allow him to molest them, after all. This seems to be an insult to “the ethnics” until, in the next episode we find Hannah propositioning her  sixty-year-old boss, at the behest of her friend Becca, who seduces an old flame who is in a committed relationship. But Hannah’s boss refuses to sleep with her. “I’m married,” he says.

Hannah quits her job, not because of sexual harassment but because her boss refuses to sleep with her. I don’t know if Hannah is upset by not appealing to her creepy boss or because she thought sleeping with him would be a good addition to her memoir. She tells her boss she’ll get back at him by writing an essay about him some day. So Hannah gets her “story” anyway.

Hannah takes a hundred dollars from Adam’s drawer while watching him masturbate. Is her comical demeanor supposed to make her narcissistic self-indulgence palatable?  Hannah’s journal entries about Marnie’s boyfriend breaks his heart. At the height of Marnie’s upset, after her boyfriend storms out of their apartment, Hannah asks Marnie for a critique of the writing which destroyed Marnie’s relationship. This self-referential humor points to a narcissism which makes friendship or empathy impossible. All that is left is something to post on Facebook. “I hate everyone who loves me,” says Hannah to Marnie. That was the most honest thing Hannah has ever said on Girls.

We are meant to believe that Hannah’s “real” life will begin with the completion of her memoir and the completion of her memoir will come once she accumulates enough experiences. But Lena/ Hannah’s television series is really about a young woman who has signed a contract with HBO and teamed up with Judd Apatow, the purveyor of sexual raunch. Judd Apatow and Lena Dunham are a team now. This is the real story of her life.

About the Author:

Bobbi Lurie is the author of three poetry collections: Grief Suite, The Book I Never Read, and Letter from the Lawn. Her work has appeared in numerous print and on-line journals, including New American Writing, E-Ratio, Counterexample, Otoliths, The American Poetry Review and Big Bridge. Dancing Girl Press will be publishing her chapbook, “to be let in the back porch,” in 2012. Her fiction can be found, or is forthcoming, in Noir, Dogzplot, Pure Slush, Wilderness House Literary Review, Melusine, Camroc Press Review and others. Her essays have been published in Gnosis, Inner Directions, The Good Men Project, Wordgathering, The Santa Fe Reporter, Craft International and other publications in the U.S. and the U.K.