Mumblecore Sex and the City—that’s an easy way to describe HBO’s new series Girls, but it’s also an accurate one. Critics can talk about the show’s creator, 25-year-old Lena Dunham, as being the new voice of her generation, but the influence of SATC is all over the place, from the whiteness of the four main characters to the poster of the show on one character’s wall.
You get the feeling Girls wants to be tongue-in-cheek about its homage to its forebearer, but the similarities can be just a little too much, down to the jerk who’s having sex with Girls’ main character, Hannah Hovrath (played by Dunham). Does Generation Y really need its own Mr. Big, the perpetually sexy and unavailable New York male, in the form of Adam (played by Adam Driver), a Brooklyn carpenter and would-be actor who doesn’t seem to own a shirt or leave his apartment?
Of course, the thing with those sexy and unavailable men is, well, that they’re sexy, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that almost every woman I know has dated one at one time or another, and not just when we were in our early 20s and didn’t know better. Hannah’s relationship with Adam, such as it is, is one of the truer parts of Girls, and one of the reasons the show has been called things like “unflinching” and “honest” and “real.”
It’s descriptions like those that have created such hype around the show, when, in essence, it’s nothing more than yet another sitcom about a group of young, white, attractive, and privileged people trying to make it in New York. The characters don’t all hang out in a coffee shop like in Friends or in the same bar every night like in How I Met Your Mother, but I refuse to believe those scenes in those shows are any less realistic than Hannah eating a cupcake in the bathtub or Marnie (played by Allison Williams) masturbating while standing up in a bathroom wearing pantyhose. I mean, what 24-year-old actually owns pantyhose?
And that’s the main problem with Girls. It isn’t just the extreme whiteness of the show’s version of Brooklyn, and it isn’t just the caricatured portrayal of most of the male characters on the show. Dunham clearly wants Girls to be a Woody Allen- or Whit Stillman-esque portrayal of her Millennial pals, but there’s a reason neither director has ever worked in television—the structure of a film and that of a sitcom are essentially different. For a sitcom to work, it has to be both funny and have characters that viewers can identify with. Girls is lacking in both respects.
Girls is occasionally very funny—I have laughed out loud while watching two of the four episodes I’ve seen—but my laughter is often tempered by the awfulness of the characters, who seem completely oblivious to the world around them. (Jemima Kirke’s Jessa, a British nanny, is especially egregious.) The characters are wrapped up in their privilege in a way that, unlike those in Stillman or Allen’s films, doesn’t acknowledge the ridiculousness of their situation. It’s uncomfortable to watch.
I doubt Dunham can really be the voice of her generation, since she speaks for such a small segment of it. I can’t see Girls ever having the wide popularity of SATC, which, despite its depiction of privilege in New York, really did speak to the everywoman in America. However, if I think back to that first season of SATC, I’m reminded of how bad it was—how the characters were pretty much all caricatures, how the laughs were often cheap and at the expense of men. The show matured and got better. It’s possible Girls will do the same. There are flashes of brilliance in the show, like the scene in the third episode in which Hannah meets her college boyfriend to tell him that he has given her an STD, only to discover that he’s now come out of the closet. It’s a classic sitcom situation, but the conversation evolves as a scene in an Allen film might—slowly, cleverly, with pathos and wit. The expressions on Hannah’s face alone are worth watching.
Much has been made of the way in which Dunham as Hannah uses her body as a canvas throughout Girls. No one gets naked more often in a more unflattering manner, possibly in the history of television. But the true test of Girls’ potential cult-classic status will be if Dunham can get past making herself look bad and start trying to make herself look good. It’s called growing up, and we all have to do it at some point. If Girls can ever grow up, it might be as good as all the initial rave reviews said it was.