Why I Love and Loathe HBO’s “Girls”

I’ve never wanted to like or connect with a show as much as HBO’s “Girls.” I thought this would be the perfect show for me. That it would speak to me like nothing else. I watched a handful of interviews with its creator, director and actress, Lena Dunham, and figured that I could relate to a show that a slightly overweight, awkward white girl had created. I interned in New York City three times and know first-hand what it feels like to be young, ambitious and a failure. But all the high expectations I had had for the show are probably why I didn’t end up liking it.

Now, before I launch into my criticisms of the show, I do think it’s solid entertainment. It’s funny, insightful and different. (SPOILER ALERT) For instance, I enjoyed watching the lead character Hannah’s ex come out to her as gay. This has happened to friends of mine, is perfectly normal and an issue worth covering. It also was hysterical. I also loved Shoshanna’s character. Although she is irritating and exaggerated, it’s nice that it shows that not all young people are hook-up obsessed and can be thoughtful.

One of the most common arguments against the show is that Dunham is not your typical starlet and is overweight. This is the dumbest critique of “Girls.” Dunham is maybe ten pounds overweight and apparently this is just too much for people to take. They need to get over that. Fast. With so much of the American population overweight and obese, you’d think viewers would be used to seeing larger Americans, but apparently not. But hopefully “Girls” will change that. I’d love to see more real-looking women on the big and small screens and maybe that will happen. However, although Dunham herself may not look your average Hollywood starlet (plus one for the show’s authenticity factor), the rest of the cast, for the most part, could be models.

When most people attack “Girls” what they usually bring up the fact that the main cast all have famous, well-to-do parents, unlike the characters they are portraying. And what most people are questioning about the show is its authenticity. And they’re right to do so.

“Girls” wants to feel real. And to some extent, it does achieve this. The show portrays fights among friends, an almost-hookup a nanny has with the father of a family and awkward sex sessions with a refreshing take. However, the show is too narrow-minded. The characters almost always pick the most humiliating choices for themselves. That’s why Marnie smears cake all over hers and the man she’s flirting with face during the season finale’s wedding. That’s why Dunham lets herself primarily be shown in the nude having sex, taking topless pics or lying on the gynecologist’s table. However, Dunham was smart enough to realize that humiliation sells. It’s the formula that has lasted reality TV for so long. However, we shouldn’t necessarily call a script that puts its characters in humiliating places as innovative or brave. I don’t hear anyone calling Honey Boo Boo or Snooki brave, but they humiliate themselves regularly to gain attention. Plus, simply showing Dunham’s nude, slightly overweight, not really toned nude body on TV doesn’t make something more real. Sure, it’s different, but it’s not innovative.

But what really bothers me about “Girls” is how it portrays its central cast. If it really does want to have a generational appeal (and judging from the “voice of a generation” joke, it probably does), it fails too short. None of them are shown as being ambitious, driven women (it’s not like everyone is those things or even needs to be, but most post-college young people are looking to further their careers or make one for themselves), but chances are pretty high that Dunham herself is. She’s probably fairly ambitious and savvy to convince HBO to give her her own show after just one fairly successful film. And it’s a shame that she chose to create characters that don’t reflect that. She chose to create bumbling, idiotic, self-centered women. She chose humiliation over reality because that’s what sells.

I have trouble accepting “Girls” as authentic when its obvious that its creator and cast are not leading the lives they are portraying on screen. Dunham is a 26-year-old millionaire who has a mother who once sold work to Jay-Z, went to an expensive high school and college, and, as far as what’s been reported, has never held a job outside of filmmaker. When people bring up the “you shouldn’t criticize children of famous people because that’s the life they were born into,” they always mention people like Sean Penn, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie and say, “You wouldn’t criticize those artists simply because of their backgrounds.” However, the difference between them and Dunham is that none of those aforementioned artists tried to make work that attempts to so accurately capture what it means to be a confused twenty-something navigating the adult world. Now, you might say that it’s not fair to use an artists’ personal background and judge their work against it. However, in the case of “Girls,” I think it would be impossible to ignore Dunham’s own life.

She discusses in interviews how she draws from her own personal experiences and uses it as creative fuel. Most artists do this for a variety of reasons, but one key one is that good art is usually seen as sincere. Something that came from a pure, human experience that many consumers can relate to. “Mad Men” creator Matt Weiner (I realize comparing “Girls” to TV’s most gorgeous, brilliant TV show isn’t fair, but bare with me for the sake of the argument) talks about how he conceived of the idea for “Mad Men” when he “had it all”—a great job as a “Sopranos” screen writer, a wife and family—but still felt unsatisfied with his life and how he cast the show using actors who had been working for years but never achieved mainstream success so they could bring their knowledge of what it means to struggle professionally to the screen. I have no doubt that he shared this to add authenticity to the show. Weiner or any of the actors never worked in advertising in the 60s, but they can bring their own very real emotions to their parts and viewers can, and have, heavily connected with it. Honesty is powerful.

But with “Girls,” Dunham conveniently leaves out the part where she got so damn successful so fast. She recently bought a half-a-million dollar apartment in Brooklyn, signed a more-than-three-million dollar book deal and has a hit show on HBO. Dunham has triumphed in the adult world and has had more success and made more money than most of its viewers ever will. And somehow I’m supposed to believe she understands what it feels like to be me?

I also find that some of her humor is tasteless. Her “voice of a generation” joke wasn’t funny. A title of generational spokesman is always given, it’s not joked about and not something an artist calls herself. But the jokes that really bothered me were how she portrayed the lead character Hannah in the workplace. If Dunham’s character Hannah really wants to succeed in the workplace, she does a piss-poor job of showing it. And it’s a real shame that she decides to portray young people like this when she herself is probably pretty savvy. Plenty of people my age work hard for what they have. But Dunham’s makes it seem as if the reason why young people have trouble holding jobs is because they’re all idiots—which is downright insulting. As someone who has spent more time crying in office-building bathrooms because of an assignment gone wrong, taking on countless mind-numbing assignments to please an editor and at the age of 23, had seen layoffs, one firing and had been laid off, I feel insulted that she would do this. Especially when she herself is a member of my generation who (probably) does work hard.

As a young twenty-something that this show is clearly targeting, I just can’t accept this as sincere. I just can’t accept it as real when it’s so clearly lacking the authenticity department. It’s defeated by its own success. Dunham and the cast has made it, and I’m not sure that they know how it feels to be me or millions of others like me. “Girls” is a good show. It will never be great.

San Francisco Travel Tips

Since I live blogged my L.A. trip, I thought I’d tackle my San Francisco trip in reverse and write about it a few weeks after I returned. So, here are my tips on successfully navigating San Francisco.

1. Bring cash, specifically $1 bills. The buses will only accept exact change. Oh, they’ll take your $20, even if it only the fare is only $2. Some of the restaurants will only take cash, too.

2. Public transportation is great. It’s everywhere and fairly easy to use. That being said, it’s old and does tend to be delayed. Bus tip: you’ll need to try to figure out what direction the bus will be traveling in so you know what side of the street to be on to catch it. Google maps will tell you what streets you need to be on, but you’ll have to figure out what direction the bus is going in. Note: sometimes the bus stops are only marked by a pole with a yellow mark above it. Be watchful. Even though the cable cars are fun, you’ll have to wait in a long line for a ride and the fare is $6. It’s worth it to do it once, but I wouldn’t do it again.

2. Get ready for your share of crazies. I mostly saw “interesting” characters on the bus. One guy appeared to be totally drug-addled, the other was reading a magazine called Modern Drunkard (with coverlines like, “Go shot for shot with Ernest Hemingway”), I saw a woman with a tiny long-haired chihuahua puppy in her purse (this dog was adorable), and I overheard the most liberal conversation of all time when I was with a friend of mine. Highlights of this conversation included the following, “sperm comes out of a man,” and “animals rape each other, but it’s not like we want to encourage that.” Sigh.

3. San Francisco is the only place I’ve been where I’ve seen so many borderline-looking homeless people. You might see someone in dirty, grungy clothes with dreds and assume they’re homeless, but they might just be a hipster.

4. Haight-Ashbury is so cool and worth your time. It’s fascinating to walk down the street where the hippie movement began, and where it still feels like the 60s–the stores still sell tie-dye T-shirts like they never went out of style and glorify bands of that era including the Grateful Dead. It’s also interesting because it’s surrounded by wealthy Victorian houses that San Fran is known for.

5. San Francisco is a place that feels modern but still maintains its strong ties to the past. Places like Cafe Trieste are the best example of this. Some of the beat writers hung out there, and this is the spot where Francis Ford Coppola penned the screenplay to “The Godfather.”

6. The food in The Exploratorium is horrific. I ate some clam chouder that was more watery than, well, water. Don’t eat there.

7. San Francisco is very, very concerned with everything being organic, local and sustainable. These are all very good things. But it does get old when it’s shoved in your face all the time.

8. They have the best coffee, ever. I fell in love with Blue Bottle was here, and sorry Starbucks, but you just can’t compete. It’s the smoothest coffee I’ve had in the U.S. (the best coffee ever is in Italy). They also put little designs into your beverage which I love. Mocha art, anyone?

I’d say I fell gently in love with San Francisco. It’s a gorgeous city with an artsy vibe, good food and fall-like weather year round. Image

Above, some coffee art courtesy of Blue Bottle.