Author Archives: pjmaciak

DEAR TELEVISION: Season One

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The first thing Dear TV ever covered was the first season of Girls, to which we shall return this coming week over at the Los Angeles Review of Books. To receive updates on posts, like our Facebook page! In the meantime, enjoy a stroll down memory lane with this index of our own first season. At the beginning, we only roughly tied our posts to episodes, so, be forewarned:

Episode Five

“Act like my life is real, y’know? Because my life is real.” / Jane

“Testing, Testing” / Evan

“American Nervousness, 2012″ / Phil

Episode Six

“Never Don’t Worry: In Which Dunham Kills Horror” / Lili

“There Is No Lena, Only Zuul” / Phil

“How are things in Ohio?” / Evan

“Call Me, Maybe” / Jane

Episode Seven

“A Theory of Crackuracy” / Phil

“Bushwick Bildungsroman” / Evan

“Turn On, Drop In, Drop Out” / Jane

Episode Eight

“Makeovers, Makeunders, and Makeouts” / Lili

“The Economy of Friendship” / Jane

“Risky Business” / Evan

Episode Nine

“The Eyes of Kathryn Hahn” / Phil

“Killing Carrie Bradshaw” / Lili

Episode Ten

“The Marriage Plot” / Jane

“Bottoms Up” / Phil

DearTV @LARB / WEEK 5

This week, your friends at Dear Television covered episodes of New Girl and The Mindy Project, both of which were helpfully titled, “Halloween.” We also began a new tradition for our syndication at The Los Angeles Review of Books: death matches! From now on, we will not only be writing about issues of gender, class, and adorkability, we’ll also be judging these shows as a Battle of the Thirtysomething Lady Sitcoms. Check us out at the LARB to see who took the crown this week…

NEW GIRL, THE MINDY PROJECT, and the HALLOWEEN SPECIAL

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Jane Hu: Shiny Red Lame Special On how The Mindy Project‘s in-costume episode was a gamble that ended up revealing the new show’s strength and depth:

While New Girl waited an entire season before taking on the Halloween special, Mindy Project aired their first last night, with only three episodes preceding it. The fact that it worked — that it was, at least for me, the best episode yet — speaks to Mindy Project’s success in setting out (and setting up) its characters so that they still speak to us even when dressed up as other characters.

And, furthermore, how Halloween Specials show us the profound joys of being recognized:

Given television’s theatrical and metavisual qualities, Halloween seems more suited to the medium than Christmas. Halloween specials remind us that characters are always already remodeled after prior characters — that they are always already in costume. Last week, Leslie Knope dressed up Rosie the Riveter in Parks and Recreation.

If one missed the reference, the costume and its attendant allusions would fall flat. Given that Parks & Rec jokes frequently rely on cultural references, however, one would suspect that its dedicated viewers would have easily recognized Rosie… New Girl and Mindy Project did the same. Jokes about Woody Allen! Jokes about Woody Allen’s tribute to the Marx Brothers! Diane from Cheers! Josh dresses up as Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, since it’s Mindy’s favorite film. But when Mindy quotes from the film, Josh doesn’t recognize it — and Josh is, like, really white.

Oh, Josh.

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Lili Loofbourow: Peanuts and the Perils of the Perfect Costume On how The Mindy Project locked it down this week:

Romantic comedies are like ice-skating (or, you know, any other sport): you know what you’re going to get, but the pleasure lives in the virtuosic disruptions of the format. QUADRUPLE-LUTZ! NO-HITTER! Kaling’s pulling this off, delivering solid formula along with some genuinely impressive moves. The show’s pleasure is as much in its grace notes as in the overfamiliar melody (“the brown Bridget Jones,” as Subashini Navaratnam put it). Scenes that should be throwaways do a little extra work.

And on how one of those throwaway exchanges helped crystallize Mindy Lahiri as a character:

When Mindy puts a jabbering kid on the phone, we all know what the next move is and what this scene is meant to tell us. Mindy will be good or bad with kids and that will show us A) how selfish she is and B) how much she wants kids (and therefore a man). That’s the point of kids in sitcoms about thirty-something women. That is the only way we’ve ever seen these chess pieces move with respect to each other. But no — Mindy actually sees this kid…Mindy’s childishness, her selfishness, her self-centeredness, all have the interesting side effect of letting her be a better friend because she’s not performing goodness. She’s refusing the Goodness Scoreboard. That’s an interesting brand of unlikeability.

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Phil Maciak: Good Grief On how New Girl is strong on character/weak on plot, and Mindy Project is the opposite:

How on earth is it possible that a 30-year-old woman, growing up in America with an encyclopedic knowledge of romantic comedies and a television addiction — Mindy Kaling, in other words, who just executive produced an episode of television based around the message of It’s a Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown — has never heard of Peanuts? Who is Mindy Lahiri? Who are any of these people?

And on how hard it is for these two shows to create original characters from the set of archetypes and stale formats given to them by television and rom-com history:

The hot doctor. The spinster with no prospects. The man who goes where he wants, when he wants. The cool witty girl who kind of kills it in bed. The douche. The psycho. The dork. In their least interesting moments, the characters on these shows exist as either embodiments or comical inverses of these types. At their best, these characters mama-bird their types — ingesting them and regurgitating them in new forms. (Sorry.)

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Get up in the comments section at LARB as we track more quadruple-lutzes, possible no-hitters, and missed Peanuts references this week!

Electric Ladyland: On Parker Posey

Dear Jane, Lili, and Evan,

First of all, I’d like to say that—with the exception of Jane’s outrageous suggestion that Parker Posey is somehow not hot—I’ve been thrilled, diverted, and delighted by everything that’s gone on on our blog here since I’ve been on temporary hiatus.  That said, I’ve had a bit of a hard time figuring out how to jump back into the fray.  My initial idea was that I might write a kind of early-middle review of Louie’s new season, taking note of the things I’ve noticed hurriedly watching, without writing about, the season so far.  Issues that would have come up in this post might have included: C.K.’s desire, to which he testified on The Daily Show, to “draw attention to” issues like sexual violence paired with what I see as C.K.’s own wonky thinking on such issues; the increasing incidence (particularly in the Miami episode) of C.K.’s stand-up being not-quite-as-good-as the show of which it is a part; the undercutting, in the final stand-up clip of the Miami episode, of the complex, inarticulate portrayal of male friendship by suggesting that the episode could be boiled down to gay panic; how awesome Louie’s kids are on the show, and how much weight they carry even when they are absent from an episode.  I fully intended to write all of this stuff. And then Parker Posey came on the show.

It’s a cliché to call a performance electrifying.  It’s also a cliché to call a performance devastating or earth-shattering.  What all of those clichés have in common, though, and what they have been invented to describe is a kind of performance that fundamentally alters the character of the work in which it appears.  The screen is different when this actor is in view, its basic assumptions and conventions are put into question.  The scope and composition of the work must expand, alter, accommodate in order to feature this performance. Plenty of folks have filled plenty of internet space extolling the many many many virtues of Parker Posey’s electrifying/devastating/earth-shattering performance from these past two episodes. On Vulture this week, Matt Zoller Seitz wrote one of the best short critical appreciations I’ve ever seen about anything, Sady Doyle has a great topical analysis of the second part in relation to the “manic pixie dream girl” phenomenon and the film Ruby Sparks, and Annie Clark (St. Vincent), voicing, as usual, the voice of the people, tweeted that Parker Posey should be awarded an Olympic medal for her two episode-arc. What all of these responses point to is the idea that, not only is Posey’s character Liz something new to the Louieverse, but that Liz is something almost unable to be contained by the brilliantly-drawn but familiar circles of compromised intimacy, humiliation, and self-loathing in which Louie exists.

Fittingly, then, Posey’s appearance is also the occasion for Louie’s first real experiment in serial form: the two-part episode.  Louie must adapt formally to the presence of this performance.  Louie, as we all know, is allergic to seriality.  One of the many virtues of this program is its staunch formal adherence to the self-contained episode along with its unconventional and often idiosyncratic management of traditional sitcom beats.  As is often noted, Louie is more a series of short films or vignettes featuring the same protagonist than it is a narrative program.  This constraint forces C.K., like a conceptual poet, to be constantly mindful of the conventions and constructions of the “sitcom” that might otherwise provide a creative crutch.  Viewers cannot be compelled simply by a desire to learn the outcome of a plotline a la Ross-and-Rachel.  This, paired with C.K.’s penchant for one-off guest stars and this season’s disregard for even the demands of continuity, frees Louie of the need to service characters or story-arcs. Even the elements of the series that seem to most approximate a serial narrative—Louie’s unrequited love for Pamela Adlon or even the gradual, almost imperceptible evolution of his stand-up career—feel more like looming presences than weekly dramas.  Louie’s yearning for Pamela only seemed like a plotline because that yearning had an object.  But, functionally, it would be equivalent to saying that Louie’s fear of death or sexual mortification is a story the series is telling.  Louie trafficks in meditations, not stories. This is not to say that Louie has transcended the need for serial narrative or that C.K. is some kind of visionary.  The form is unfamiliar to TV, and C.K. is extraordinarily good at his work, but he did not invent these forms.  Instead, it’s just to say that, by not really caring that much about story, C.K. is free to create a much more ambivalent, messy, and freely-associative show.

In this light, I think it’s more accurate to think of “Daddy’s Girlfriend (Parts I and II)” as a double album than an honest-to-goodness serialized narrative.  If every episode of Louie is about examining a concept rather than telling a part of a story, then this particular conceptual unit needed more than 30 minutes just as Blonde on Blonde or Bitches’ Brew required more than the length of an LP to do what they set out to do.  Usually, on Louie, the goldfish grows relative to the size of the bowl. In this situation, with this particular goldfish, Louis C.K. just needed to get a bigger bowl.

And I think there are two things that made this goldfish bigger than usual: the concept of reciprocal honesty and the actual collaboration between C.K. and Posey.  Louie, not unlike Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm, often gets into scrapes because he insists on being honest about his feelings, even if he’s not terribly careful or self-aware about them.  This was certainly true of the Dane Cook episode.  More often, though, Louie gets into scrapes because he is rendered inarticulate, shocked silent, by the honesty of others.  This was most notable in this season’s early sequence in which Louie is dumped at the diner.  Spurring from a misunderstanding, Louie is literally unable to respond once the soon-to-be ex-girlfriend starts spontaneously truth-telling about their relationship.  This kind of bumbling passivity is one of the things C.K. is best at portraying, but, over three seasons, it’s become almost reflexive, a little too easy to explode a situation by having somebody with the ammunition to do so tell Louie off.  Louie is often humiliated, he’s often brought low, he’s often made to feel cheap.

So a lot of people—especially women­—are brought onto this show to call Louie on his shit.  But rarely has this been done so lovingly, so magnetically as it was done by Posey’s Liz.  To some extent, I think we can look to last season’s Joan Rivers episode as a kind of early version of this interaction. Rivers was rough with Louie, but she treated him with an almost loving concern, a seriousness, that was so foreign to Louie he responded physically.  I think the same is true here.  Liz takes Louie seriously.  She, like we do, understands him as a redeemable person, and she seeks to teach him, to request from him, an honesty that he is ordinarily unable to muster. She demands, in other words, that he participate in a relationship rather than silently watching it self-destruct.

And while Louie remains silent for much of the second part of “Daddy’s Girlfriend” and most of the lines he utters are lines of complaint, frustration, or even genuine anger, they are true, and they are expressed in a way that is uncommon.  Almost every critical appreciation of this series notes that one of its great aspects is that, through the ugliness and awkwardness of its vignettes, Louie showcases the beauty and goodness and possibility of human existence.  Louie is an anti-social mess, but when we as the viewers can detect what’s good in him, we can see what’s good about the world.  It’s the duckling in the pocket or the crippling unwillingness to presume anything about his relationship with Pamela.  Isn’t there something lovable even here?

What’s exceptional about “Daddy’s Girlfriend,” I think, and what makes Louie offer that smile at the end of the episode, is that Liz makes Louie see himself the way we see him.  She calls him on his shit, but she stays.  She recaps his adventures—You’ve tried on a dress! You’ve saved a man’s life!—the way a viewer would. She provokes and then shows him his own courage.  The moment passes at the end—in part because Liz has reached a limit point with her own honesty—but it happens. And, though it seems that she won’t be back this season, this date seems more like a beginning than a typical catastrophic denouement.  If the ordinary thesis of Louie is that Louie can’t have nice things, C.K. has taken the space here to show what it takes to earn, to reciprocate, and to acknowledge something truly, if complicatedly, good.

Which brings us to my second point. That is, the episode has taken the form it’s taken, in part, because it had to expand to fit the size of Posey’s performance. But it’s not just her.  I agree that she should win every Emmy for her turn here, but what I think is really on display in the episode is the collaboration between Posey and C.K. Seitz points out that this is Posey’s best work, but I think it also might be Louis C.K.’s.  Posey’s episode-length monologue is so engaging because of the way she turns her eyes on and off, the way she lunges through space like an Olympic fencer, even the way her voice modulates when she lies, but it’s also so engaging because it’s written so well.  Louis C.K. is one of the best writers working in television, but the occasion of Liz has forced him to do things we’ve never seen. We’ve heard hilarious takedowns and witnessed great comic set-pieces, but we haven’t heard wit this sharp and fast and easy. “All of a sudden, my body’s accepting nutrients and within a month, I’m a healthy 15-year-old girl with a cool punky haircut.”  I’m not saying we haven’t seen Louis C.K. write with wit and fluency, but we haven’t heard this voice before.

In other words, I think the insane quality and explosiveness of Posey’s performance and the almost unbelievably good writing C.K. has done are the occasion for the length of this episode.  The relationship is so strong because the creative process that is visible in this episode is so strong in its own right.  This is, in some sense, an episode about collaboration by an artist justly famous for his auteurism—though the editing that makes this episode’s sparkling rhythms so infectious is the product of C.K.’s newfound collaboration with Susan Morse.  It’s about the joys and terrors of following someone else’s lead, and it’s also about the limits of that kind of collaboration. Louie does not step to the edge, ultimately.  But he almost doesn’t need to.  Louie already has.
Love,

Phil.

Bottoms Up / The Season Finale

Dear Lili, Jane, and Evan,

Jane’s analysis of the Girls marriage plot is spot on, I think.  But I want to think about another related structure Girls is adapting here. One of the things we’ve isolated often in our correspondences has been the way that Girls, in its stylistic hodge-podginess, often positions to offer revisions of familiar modes. This was true of the horror film aesthetic that has popped up on a number of occasions, it’s true of the numerous bizarro SATC moments, and it was true this episode of, not just the marriage plot, but the wedding set-piece.

If you’ve read anything on the internet or anything available in a magazine at the airport over the past year, you’ve been reading about Women in Comedy.  Kristen Wiig, Whitney Cummings, Zooey Deschanel—Lena Dunham showed up late to this parade, but if her show had debuted in February as initially scheduled, we would see her as part and parcel of this glut, and very possibly, she’d have been photographed reclining in a silk chemise with Kerry Washington and Juliana Marguiles on the cover of Vanity Fair.

The reason I bring this up is not because I’m pitching an eight-month-old think-piece, but because the final episode of Girls was set at a wacky wedding, just like the pilot episode of Whitney, the third episode of New Girl, and the entirety of Bridesmaids.  This too is a genre convention, and it’s one that Dunham is predictably excited to make grotesque.  On Whitney, the title character attends the wedding of a friend, and after a series of bungles—she wears the same dress as the bridesmaids or something, and she eats a cupcake not realizing that the cupcakes are part of a wedding cake because she’s never seen Pinterest or been in the checkout line at a Whole Foods, apparently—she realizes that she and her boyfriend need to spice up their relationship. Like everything else on that show, it’s the most boring possible iteration of a familiar scenario, and thus instructive about the conventions of said scenario.

Girls makes reference to this kind of structure with Shoshanna’s mortification that she’s wearing white.  The joke, though, is not that it’s a hilarious faux pas, but that Shoshanna, who knows her Sex and the City chapter and verse, is so immersed in rom-com logic, that the faux pas throws her into an existential crisis.  I hope that Shosh grows as a character next season and that Dunham gives her a little bit more to do, if only because Zosia Mamet is such an appealingly versatile actress, but, at the same time, it’s been valuable to have her as a kind of psychotic, warped, rom-com Greek Chorus, reminding us at every turn of how Girls is diverging from and playing with those tropes.  In Shoshanna’s mind, Girls IS Sex and the City or Bride Wars or He’s Just Not That Into You.  (I’m imagining a Shoshanna POV dream sequence in which Jessa is played by Katherine Heigl.)

New Girl and Bridesmaids use the scenario as well, though with predictably greater aplomb.  What they share with each other, and with Girls, for that matter, is an interest in the emotional violence of the wedding for other people.  Their take is less about missed protocols than it is about psychic breakdown.  The wedding is the test of relationships other than that of the bride and groom, and thus, it is full of explosive potential. As we’ve discussed earlier, the possibility and anticipation of disaster is one of Dunham’s favorite things to play with.  If last week was the blow-up we expected—between Marnie and Hannah—this week is the return of a blow-up we thought already happened.

I won’t go too far into the nature of Adam and Hannah’s relationship, except to say this: there’s a lot of yelling.  Specifically, there’s a lot of Adam yelling. At Hannah, at cars, at his co-stars, at Hannah again.  In this, Adam is twinned with Thomas-John—who really laid into Jessa and Marnie once he realized he wasn’t going to get laid into, so to speak—and Charlie, whose rather mild voice-raising and table-slamming Hannah took as a foreshadowing of domestic violence.  I guess I’m still not 100% sure why Dunham keeps setting her ladies up to be bawled out by men.  If the racial and class dynamics on this show are suspect—and I think they’re a lot more complicated than they get credit for being—I think the gender dynamics at least are right on the nose. Except in this.

Why are the Girls so frequently dominated and shamed by men, even when they are in the right?  And what is the function of constantly returning to the site of that domination: Jessa marrying Thomas-John or Hannah coming back to Adam or Hannah’s desire to move back in with her Marnie-slapping ex or even Marnie’s half-hearted quest to reproduce the feeling of Lonely Island spitting game at her.  “I may scare you…” Yes please!

It’s one of the more vexing questions about Girls, I think. And one of the messier elements of Dunham’s version of the Marriage Plot.  Critics who felt that Girls was a celebration of blithe irresponsibility, privilege, and pretension might feel a little differently today.  This season has been as harrowing as it has been hilarious. And as Jane’s Graduate analogue makes plain, even the moments of triumph are undercut by ambivalence or even outright trauma.  These are anti-heroines, monsters, as Adam repeats.  But this is a beginning. It is a genesis story. Jessa will not stay married to Thomas-John, Marnie will not feel unmoored forever, Shoshanna will claim her sexuality, and Hannah will make it back to Brooklyn. But that doesn’t mean it feels like any of this will happen. There was a deep feeling, in this episode, of distance. These women have realized, over the course of the season, not that they are in the process of becoming “who they are,” but how far away they are from that.  Hannah’s beach might as well be a desert.

And it is in that mode that I can’t resist one last visual echo:

At the end of the Coen Brothers’ great Barton Fink, Barton—the radical playwright who comes to Hollywood only to be sucked into a maelstrom of madness and failure—travels to the beach.  He holds with him an unidentified box. What’s in it is never explained—it could be a human head, it could be money, it could be somebody’s soul, it could be a telltale heart—but, even after his escape from the immediate danger of the plot, he carries it with him still.  The beach is a space of freedom, beauty, possibility.  The majestic ocean represents the only space in the film that is not claustrophobic, not tainted by evil, not compromised. The box is representative of the anonymous, gaping maw of horror that has nearly destroyed Barton. And so, as Barton sits with his box and a bird dives out of the sky, we are asked to feel hope in the midst of sinister markers. For Barton sees a beautiful woman sitting in front of him. She sits, miraculously, in the exact pose of a painting from Barton’s room, his only source of comfort throughout the film. There is terror, but there is also this.

Hannah on the beach is not so on the nose. Her mystery box is a foil of cake, and we don’t know what she sees.  She has been stripped of everything, as naked as she ever is on the show, and she looks with trepidation but clarity of purpose. The cake, which represents Jessa’s awful wedding and Hannah’s catastrophic argument with Adam, is with her. But she eats it, rather than letting it eat her.  This violence, that waywardness, these bad decisions, they feed and sustain her.  Hannah is far away from everything she could even think to want. And she has no idea how to get where she’s going, let alone how to get home. But the dirty water can wash away her sins, and all the heartbreak and stupidity will make her strong if anything will. This is a beginning, and what a beginning it is.  When Barton first comes to Hollywood, the head of the movie studio, Jack Lipnick, shouts at him:

We’re only interested in one thing, Bart. Can you tell a story? Can you make us laugh? Can you make us cry? Can you make us want to break out in joyous song? Is that more than one thing? Okay!

Okay.

Phil.

The Eyes of Kathryn Hahn (Episode 9)

Dear Lili, Evan, and Jane,

Sorry to have been absent last week. Let’s get back to it! I’m structuring this post as a series of points/topics/questions because I’m all over the place on it right now. In any case, the common theme is support.

1.  Is Hannah’s writing any good?

As is often my wont, I’m picking up this query from the end of Evan’s last posting in which he talks about the show’s funny relationship to artistic production.  Since the first episode, it has been an open question whether Hannah Horvath’s grand masterpiece, her Key to All Mythologies, is, in fact, worth anyone’s time—including her own. It’s even an open question whether she’s writing at all. One of the more underplayed jokes in the pilot is that the manuscript she hands to her parents could not be more than 30 pages long; the story topics we occasionally hear referenced (about her hoarder boyfriend, for instance) seem designed by Dunham to be laughed at; Marnie is tolerant, at best, of her friend’s prose; and we never, ever, see Hannah working on the book that is, presumably, her prime occupation. The only people who compliment her on it are her father, who loves her unconditionally, and Professor Christopher Moltisanti, who, as Marnie points out, may just be macking on her.

Hannah’s book is a classic problem for a show about the creative process.  Do we read the book?  Do we hear what she writes?  That approach worked for The Larry Sanders Show because The Larry Sanders Show within The Larry Sanders Show was great. It didn’t work for Studio 60 because the show within the show was hot garbage.  But Dunham doesn’t let us see her book. She shows us the ripples it makes, the way that it functions as a placeholder for any number of other issues in her life.  Hannah talking about her book is Hannah talking about herself.  And this is partially what throws Marnie over the edge: Hannah’s ability to make everything, including Marnie sometimes, a metonym for herself.  The book is about her life, Marnie’s heartbreak is about her newfound romance, Tally’s recognition is about her lack of recognition.  This has the unique function of allowing Hannah to always be talking about herself, but it also functions to alienate everyone with whom she is close. When is the last time Hannah was in a scene with anyone other than Marnie or Adam for more than a minute?

Despite the fact that both Hannah and the show usually treat her book as a plot device or emotional trigger, Dunham is continuing to pursue the idea of Hannah as an actual writer by having her go to the reading.  And I’m confused.  Is Hannah really a writer?  Or, rather, are we supposed to take Hannah’s writing seriously, or is it a smokescreen? The way I see it, the fight at the end of this episode (spurred by Hannah’s anguish about the reading) exposes Hannah’s writing for what it is: a pretense for every situation and human being in her life to be funneled into a narrative that is about her.  From the hotel room in the pilot to her showdown with Chris Eigeman to this episode’s various refusals, Hannah’s writing is no longer winning her the support it used to.  If her old prof really is just trying to get in her pants, then that leaves nobody supporting her art.  Is Hannah really a writer, or is she, as the phenomenal Kathryn Hahn tells Jessa, “doing it to distract [herself] from becoming the person [she’s] meant to be”?

2.  How good is Kathryn Hahn in this?

So good! Over the past year, Kathryn Hahn has been turning in the kind of boffo guest spots—on this and on Parks and Rec—people do before they hit it big.  Somebody give this woman a series! Her face, the slightly low angle shot of her talking to Jessa, and the way the focus leaves Kirke’s eyes—this scene could have been a major whiff, but it read in the same vein as Hannah’s parents’ anniversary dinner, as one of the most sincere and actually insightful moments on the show. In any case, her monologue about the dream in this episode is both a perfect Dunham line-reading and a kind of valedictory speech on the show’s main themes.

The line I quoted above recalls Hannah from the cold open to the pilot saying that she’s “busy trying to become who I am.”  If this series is about growing up to some extent, then the model of growing up it endorses has a lot to do with pragmatic self-understanding.  College is over. Charlie is a college boyfriend.  Understand what you can do, understand what you need. Katherine, in this scene, needs a good babysitter more than she needs a faithful husband.  But Dunham doesn’t mock her the way she mocks her ladies sometimes.  Jessa telling Shoshanna that she needs to “make some changes” and then saying that she’s starting by re-arranging the furniture in the apartment is a perfect example of this.  Jessa understands that she needs something, that her life is, more or less, a shambles, but her instinctual move is to displace.  Why reflect when you can re-decorate? Jessa tells Katherine that she doesn’t need her help, but that’s not strictly true, emotionally or financially.  As Lili and I have both noted, Hannah’s mother has been perhaps the most supernaturally understanding person on this show, and I think Katherine just joined that club.  There’s something about this gorgeously shot scene that transcends all the second-guessing and anxiety and reassures us that, even though life may continue to a mess for Jessa and co.—as it is for Katherine herself—there is hope in the idea that, one day, they will understand exactly what it is they are doing.

3.  This…

Love,

Phil.

A Theory of Crackuracy

Dear Lili, Evan, and Jane,

So, obviously since we last corresponded, the biggest news in Dunhamania is that James Franco, our generation’s James Dean, has finally weighed in on the show that’s been rudely Bogarting the zeitgeist for the past couple of weeks.  I won’t quote too much  from his article.  Vulture has already done a lovely job extracting it.  But suffice it to say that Franco, our generation’s Harold Bloom, utilized the lofty perch of his HuffPo blog to address Dunham’s haters, defend his own particular brand of millennial masculinity against different haters, and manage to wrestle with his inability to draw real connections between the story of Hannah Horvath and the story of James Franco, our generation’s Jean-Michel Basquiat.

What leads me to bring up JF is that the idea of recognizing or not-recognizing oneself in Girls (which has been both a problem and a selling point for the show since several weeks before its debut) has popped back up in my mind over the past few episodes. And this has as much to do with the identification of characters as the identification of place.  As Evan pointed out last week, episode six was Dunham’s first “off-model” experiment.  There were some issues, it turned out, when this show about New York became, for a minute, a show about Michigan.  While episode seven saw Hannah reunited with her fly posse in the city that never sleeps, this was also, to some extent, an off-model excursion in and of itself. “Welcome to Bushwick,” the title declares.  And while Bushwick may only be an annoyingly difficult trainride or an awkward cab fare away from where the Ladies keep their accidentally crotchless underpants, everything about this episode suggested that Bushwick was a foreign country.

My question to you all, however, is how much does accuracy matter?  How much should it matter?  It’s been a common cry of Dunham apologists—including those of us on this site—that Girls is not an ode to this group of people but, instead, an ethnography. The implication is critical distance over attachment, self-examination over self-involvement, realism over romance.  And, to that end, many viewings of Girls certainly are anchored in a kind of obsessive detail and hilarious specificity of person and place—“I totally know Shoshanna” or “That is just like a party I was at” or “That is exactly how I was fired from my internship at a literary magazine.”  These are by no means the only responses, though. My parents, for instance, know roughly 0% of the Brooklyn hipsters that I know, but they love the show, laugh at the jokes, and understand the characters in terms of their emotionality. (This is opposed to something like Portlandia, which works, to some small extent, as a broad comedy, but is really only accessible, I would argue, if you get the references.) In light of this, in light of Franco’s goofily ambivalent self-recognition, and after these two vacation episodes—especially what Evan called the Ghost World style of the Michigan episode—I’m wondering how much ethnography actually does anchor the show.  Is it an aesthetic or an actual practice?

Michigan was certainly detailed, but was it accurate?  The conversation I wish I’d gotten into last week here was about how uncanny Dunham’s suburbia was, how much it felt like a cartoon version of a reality.  As a suburban transplant myself, I recognized a lot of the mise-en-scene, but there were also things that looked true but rang false. Is the same true of Bushwick?  In other words, it’s tempting to say that Michigan functioned as a kind of extended dream sequence, a vision of a place rooted in reality but warped and inverted by the psychology of the dreamer.  Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich.  But, back to back, are we this week invited to think the same thing of the Bushwick party?  The uncanniness of Bushwick, I think, is supposed to make us question a lot of what we take for granted as straight-ahead representation.  There is a lot of emphasis in the episode, for instance, on recognition and accuracy.  Jessa and Ray strive to precisely diagnose Shosh’s particular trip. (CRACK!)  Jessa gets into what is essentially a semantic fight with the crust punks: “You’re going to reduce us to a subculture and then not accurately name the subculture?” And Marnie gets into trouble with Jonah for failing to accurately understand her own particular friend dynamic (Hannah is the selfish one, right?)

Then there’s Hannah’s comeuppance with Adam.  For six episodes, Adam has been one of the most evocatively and consistently detailed characters on the show.  Shirtless, brutish, the child of privilege, the elected representative of a kind of post-Marx, post-Thoreau, working-class, boho masculinity.  He’s into getting bossed around and he’s got daddy issues.  He cooks fresh game, he doesn’t text, and, above all, he’s a narcissist who refuses Hannah’s attempts at intimacy. This episode, we see Adam wearing a plaid shirt and juggling lesbians like a circus act.  We also learn that he’s a recovering alcoholic. This doesn’t automatically ennoble him, but it humanizes him and, most of all, makes Hannah feel both ensorcelled and betrayed.  After being thrown from Adam’s bike, Hannah calls Adam to task for not opening up to her.  But no, cries Adam, it’s she who never asked, she who was not interested in a mutual intimacy, SHE who, as Marnie independently confirms, is the narcissist.

Whether Adam is right in this situation or whether something in between is true, I’m not yet sure. I’m certainly not eager to have this strapping hulk with a sixteen-year-old boy’s rat moustache be the righteous force, literally and figuratively throwing our “girls” around.  But, for now, it seems like Dunham is saying something about the very aesthetic practice we often use to defend her show.  Nobody on this show is more thoroughly characterized than Adam, but, it turns out, he’s also the character about whom we actually know the least.  We have a lot of information about Adam, but very little of it is accurate—or at least it’s misleading.  But it’s not just us. The show portrayed Adam in this way.  We have scenes of Ray and Charlie alone. Even scenes of Jessa’s Highlander-looking unemployed employer with his buds.  But we never see Adam alone.  The show wanted us to have the wrong idea about him because Hannah may have the wrong idea about him.

I’m sorry to continue to end these posts with the sentiment that Dunham is some kind of heroic auteur, defying expectations, shattering paradigms, evincing a godlike self-awareness every Sunday evening. But if the bloody, stupid Game of Thrones episode that preceded “Welcome to Bushwick” can be called a triumph, so too can I apply that designation to this episode.  The world of Girls has, to some extent, splintered from Michigan to Bushwick.  The cracks are showing.  As with all ethnographies, this one is not the truth. Its accuracy is not a guarantor of its realism. And whatever realism it achieves has limits.  With her taxicab smile at the end, Hannah seems to see this revelation as a big step forward—people have likened it to that of Melora Walters at the end of Magnolia—but she’s flanked by two flat affects. Adam and Marnie are the happy couple at the end of The Graduate: free, but feeling the weight of their choice.  The good news is that we have a few more episodes left to deal with what we’ve uncovered.  As the Bard (James Franco) says, “If you really want to have experiences to write about, go to work.” I hope I’m not naïve to imagine that the experience Dunham wants to write about is the one Hannah is about to have and that the work our hero will be doing is that of untangling the world she imagines in detail but knows very little about.

Also, one more time, ladies and gentlemen, Mr. James Franco!

Malkovich, Malkovich,

Phil Maciak.