Life’s tough for a pop culture aficionado. You can’t keep up with everything, and sometimes the buzziest properties aren’t available to you. I’m speaking specifically about HBO, home to a good many quality programs, which until recently I had no access to. The only series I’ve actually watched live on TV in the past three years is Season Five of Breaking Bad; otherwise there’s always plenty to catch up with on DVD or streaming.
But then — along comes a pop culture event so momentous that if you’re not in on it, you’re out in the socially irrelevant cold. And once you’re out, it can be very difficult to find your way back in again.
The level of hype surrounding the HBO series Girls last spring was, quite frankly, insane. And I still don’t understand why, exactly, this series hit the zeitgeist with such fury. Like many, I was a fan of Lena Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture, but it was hardly a big ticket property that had the whole world salivating for her next project. The show’s premise was not exactly novel — a group of girlfriends in New York City talk frankly about dating and sex. How many shows set in New York have been about young, attractive people just hanging out? (Plenty.)
Maybe it had just been awhile since HBO aired such a broadly appealing series. Maybe it was the Judd Apatow pedigree. Maybe Girls was just in the right place, at the right time, to let viewers believe we were seeing an accurate representation of our generation portrayed on the small screen. Whatever it was, Girls achieved a level of hype rare for any show, let alone one with such modest narrative ambitions.
And I’m only catching up with it now. The Girls pilot begins with an intriguing hook, and then nothing happens. I don’t mean that as a criticism — I’m fine with nothing happening, as long as that “nothing” is well-written and character-based. And in a way, “nothing happening” is the point of the show, because that’s exactly the vacuum these recent college grads found themselves in upon emergence into the “real” world. It was explored in similar fashion in Tiny Furniture, with a few of the same cast members, but that was just an exploration of one moment in Dunham’s life. A TV series actually has to go somewhere.
Aspiring memoirist Hannah Horvath is a talented writer and not much else. She’s been an unpaid intern for the past year, mooching off her parents for rent, food, and other necessities, and she’s just fine with that. But when her parents cut her off, it forces a rude awakening — kind of. It doesn’t immediately inspire Hannah to pound the pavement seeking gainful employment at any cost. First she expects to be hired at the publishing house where she interns — because isn’t that how it’s supposed to work? And when that doesn’t happen, she makes an appeal to her parents, agreeing to survive for the next year on “only” $1100 a month. (Pretty frugal in New York.) But they don’t go for that. The rest of the pilot introduces a trio of supporting “girls” (Allison Williams, Zosia Mamet, and Jemima Kirke) who will play the Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte to Dunham’s Carrie. (Sex & The City is referenced for providing the template.) We also get an awkward sex scene with Hannah’s fuck buddy Adam (Adam Driver), who’s pretty much a douche bag.
This is where my affinity for Lena Dunham comes in, as it did with the similarly-themed Tiny Furniture. It’s impossible not to draw parallels between Dunham and the wayward, myopic characters she plays, because so much of her stories are based on her own experiences, and clearly much of what they say stems from her own beliefs. But Dunham is also making fun of Hannah’s narcissism and sense of entitlement in sly ways — even Hannah herself only half-buys into what she’s selling. Hannah believes she may be the voice of her generation (or at least “a voice of a generation”), which is spot-on, actually. Her story is hardly a unique one in these economic times, and even this slightly exaggerated take on the current twenty-something New York City girl speaks volumes of truth.Is the average 24-year-old still financially dependent on their parents, content to intern for the foreseeable future, and begrudgingly unenthusiastic about earning a salary? Not necessarily. But the questions Hannah is asking are still pretty relevant. Why doesn’t having a college degree from a good school mean you can make a living wage in the field you’ve been so expertly educated in? Shouldn’t it? Shouldn’t we be able to afford basic things like food and a place to live without depending on our parents?
Well, in this day and age, it doesn’t always work like that, and even if Hannah thinks she should be able to skate by writing memoirs, Dunham and Girls don’t necessarily share that opinion. They’re interested in the more realistic consequences facing Hannah’s entitled generation, and though we don’t know much about the supporting girls yet, Hannah is a captivating protagonist. On the one hand, she’s a competent and reasonably confident young woman; on the other hand, she lets the guy she’s sleeping with totally debase her, getting seemingly no satisfaction out of it. She’s certainly no feminist icon — except, because of that, she kind of is. Shows about twentysomething life have been mostly nonexistent, unless it’s an ultra-glamorized version like Entourage, so I’m intrigued to see what the future of Girls has in store for Hannah, and how she finds her way through a mess that we’re all-too-familiar with.HBO’s Veep is one with a bit less subtext to read into, but a worthwhile comedy anyway. It stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer, the Vice President (of the United States, to be clear), but one of the series’ most surprising and funny gags is how unimportant she is. (She frequently asks: “Did the President call?” The answer is always no.) It’s basically a zany workplace comedy like The Office or Parks & Recreations, with that same sort of single-cam pseudo-documentary feel, but thankfully not the overdone talk-directly-to-camera element. (It’s a style borrowed from the BBC’s The Thick Of It, also by creator Armando Ianucci.) Selina is a self-centered narcissist the way many leads of such shows are, but she’s always Julia Louis-Dreyfus, so you can’t help but love her.
The supporting cast also plays a big role — most notably Anna Chlumsky, who many cherished in My Girl, now all grown up as Selina’s chief of staff, Amy. Arrested Development‘s Tony Hale plays a character almost incompetent as Buster, Selina’s personal aide. Nearly everyone on the show is incompetent in some way, including Selina, but not to the extent that you can’t believe they’d hold down these prestigious jobs. The pilot deals with political gaffes like using the word “retard” in a speech, while the second episode briefly ups the ante by having the President (who we never see) suffering chest pains. The look of suppressed delight on Selina’s face is priceless.
Interestingly, nothing so far has been made of Selina’s gender (presumably, she’s the first woman in this office). There also isn’t really any connection to the near-miss of Sarah Palin taking this role. The comedy could essentially take place in any office — making even the vice presidency look pretty mundane. It’s an amusing take on the subject matter. Along with Girls, I’ll keep up with the Emmy-nominated Veep, which has only aired eight episodes thus far… now that I’m no longer a social pariah without HBO.