Tag: Girls

Time of the Season

Cross-posted at Los Angeles Review of Books

 

Dear Television,

 

The title of Girls Season 2 Episode 1 was “It’s About Time” — referring, exactly, to what? What is it we’ve been waiting for? Hannah’s (kind of, sort of) split from Adam? Marnie’s (kind of, sort of) return to Charlie? The return of the show itself? Probably mostly the latter: “It’s About Time” was a pretty conventional season premiere in that it mostly just eased us back into the milieu the last season had already established, concerning itself more with tone than with plot, character development, or theme.

 

Still, time was a theme, of sorts. Dunham has opted for the now-commonplace narrative gambit of skipping over an unspecified period of time (seemingly a couple of months) between seasons, so that a number of important events have occurred in the interim. (How is there not a TV Tropes entry for this practice?) Hannah is now having sex with Sandy (Donald Glover), unbeknownst (presumably) to Adam, who she is (reluctantly) nursing back to health after his accident; her gay ex-boyfriend Elijah has moved into her apartment, and is (platonically) sharing her bed; Shoshanna and Ray made some attempt at a relationship which fizzled out, due in part to her profligacy with emoji; Jessa and Thomas-John have been on a long honeymoon in Mexico (frankly, it would have been fine with me if they’d stayed there). Time marches on!

 

What I noticed most in this episode, though, were not the principals but the disaffected older characters, like Marnie’s embittered, narcissistic mom (Rita Wilson, playing against cutesy-pie type), or Elijah’s older boyfriend George, who has a karaoke-induced meltdown and then chastises the kids at Hannah and Elijah’s housewarming party for not having the right kind of fun (“When I was your age, I was snorting cocaine on twinks and dancing with my tits out!”). It’s interesting that the older people in Girls are frequently either attempting to re-enter the magic circle of twentysomething culture (like Jessa’s boss Jeff from last season) or passing angry judgment on it — or, in George’s case, both.

 

This intensifies a device Girls was already using intermittently last season: introducing older people at the story’s margins (most often parents, teachers, and bosses) in order to admit a corrective self-consciousness — or the possibility of self-consciousness — into the show’s mostly hermetic post-collegiate universe. Sometimes these older characters have some wisdom to dispense, but what we mostly see in them is a longing to return to youth, coupled with a scorn for how the young people of today are wasting it or doing it wrong. (“You look — can I be honest? — 30 years old,” Marnie’s mother tells her; translation: you don’t appreciate what you have, and you’re about to lose it.) It’s to Dunham’s credit that she can write convincingly for people over 30, but it must be said that she also takes a kind of sadistic pleasure in humiliating these characters, or emphasizing their most pathetic aspects: the scene where Hannah locks George out of the party (while still insisting, over his protests, that she’s “a sweet girl”) is both a case in point and a good allegory for the show’s general strategy vis-à-vis grown ups.

 

I wonder if, to some extent, the marginal presence of these voyeuristic, disapproving adults is Dunham’s way of working through the staggering amount of attention she’s received since the first season’s premiere. Much has been made of how popular Girls is with the generation it depicts, but it’s also, clearly, a source of continual fascination for older people as well, many of whom are vaguely (or not so vaguely) perplexed and disapproving. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out over the course of the season. If the last season (or the episodes Dunham directed, anyway) had a preternatural confidence, this one came closer to swagger: the final shot of Dunham stripping felt like a real manifesto moment, since nudity — and particularly Dunham’s nudity — has been the catalyst for so much of the aforementioned perplexity and disapproval. It emphasized something that’s too easily missed: that Dunham shooting herself naked isn’t just an exhibitionistic compulsion, or a sign of millennial shamelessness, or (pace Howard Stern) a “little fat chick trying to get something going,” but a directorial signature.

 

On a shamelessly exhibitionistic note, glad to be back in the fold here at Dear Television! Looking forward to hearing what the rest of you have to say.

 

I talk to my friends way worse than this,

 

Evan

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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

Louie vs. Louis CK: Something Is Wrong (Season 3, Episode 1)

Dear Dear TV,

We left Hannah Horvath eating cake out of tinfoil on a beach in the season finale of Girls just in time to catch Louis CK eating, then gobbling pizza off  a paper plate in the opening title sequence of Louie. Season 3: you’re here.

I’m glad we’re talking about these shows back to back because they share so much despite their obvious differences. Both characters are writers, both writers are characters, and both Louis CK and Lena Dunham are interested in exposing their fictional personae at their ugliest and most appetitive.

I want to flag two important differences, however. The first is structural: Louis CK tends to stitch two different and apparently unrelated stories together through bits of stand-up. It’s not quite right to call them A and B stories (although I’m going to anyway); they’re more like separate vignettes. In the pilot, for example, A is Louie’s field trip with his daughters. The field trip, which is set almost entirely on a school bus, goes wrong and culminates in Louie sending each child home in his or her own limousine. The B story is a disastrous date that begins with Louie knocking too frequently on his date’s door while her neighbor angrily flashes him. It ends with his date literally jumping onto a passing helicopter in order to get away.

The pilot opens with expository stand-up: “I’m 41 and I’m single, uh, not really single, just alone? But I have two children, and that’s the only thing I’m comfortable with in life anymore. I know how to take care of a couple of kids.”

In the A story, Louie talks too much. Whether he takes the initiative or it’s thrust upon him is debatable, but the fact is that he gives the bus driver directions, reproaches him for being irresponsible when they get a flat tire, overrides the teacher when she decides they’re going to walk the kids through Harlem to a subway stop, and sends each kid home in a limousine. In the A story, Louie never stops talking. “Do you realize what you’re teaching them?” the teacher says as he greets the long line of limos.

He does. And we know he does thanks to the stand-up that follows this set piece: “I’m white, my kids are white, which means they can’t screw up too badly, because they get a million chances. My life is really evil. There are people starving in the world, and I drive an Infiniti.”

This is Louis CK’s method: showing his character in action, then obliquely commenting on it, like a sort of Greek chorus to and on himself. The A story is a monstrous version of the stand-up: Louis CK drives an Infiniti and is white like his daughters, but “Louie” rebukes a black man, then hires two dozen limousines to individually escort his daughter’s classmates home rather than have them walk together through a poor black neighborhood to the subway.

The B story knocks the stuffing out of poor Louie. All the initiative he showed in A in his capacity as a parent vanishes when it comes to B, his romantic life. Here, in a theme that gets picked up again in the first episode of Season 3, he can’t communicate. Unspeakable misunderstandings pile up—her crazy neighbor, his desperate lie that he’s wearing a suit because it’s the anniversary of his father’s funeral—all of which contribute to his date’s incredulity when he claims it wasn’t him knocking on the bathroom door shouting that he has to take a dump. In the dead intervals, he smiles at her in a sickening kind of way, and admits, when she asks him to, that he can’t stop.

These, roughly speaking, are Louie’s three dimensions on the show: overreaching Louie, defined by spurts of arrogance and self-righteousness,  mute and self-loathing Louie, most often seen in scenes with women (the season premiere shines a withering spotlight on mute Louie, in case we missed him earlier), and charismatic Louie, usually in stand-up mode, whose habit of commenting on his own flaws has the effect of attenuating them.

We’ve talked a lot here about the extent to which people’s reactions to Girls  seemed to depend on their perception of the show’s self-awareness. It became clear by the end of the season that the show is extremely self-aware, and that self-awareness goes a long way towards mitigating the characters’ apparent monstrosity, their blind spots and their privilege. We can accept those things provisionally if we know they’re being judged by the universe’s God.

Seen from this point of view, Dunham takes bigger risks than Louis CK. She’s young enough that she can (and is) mistaken for her callow character, and she doesn’t have a stand-up version of herself to comment on the action from the sidelines. I was telling Aaron Bady about the sexual harassment encounter in  Girls (by which he was horrified), and he made the point, which hadn’t occurred to me, that unlike Hannah, who is frequently a terrible person on Girls, Louie, in Louie, is essentially good. Sure, there’s a sort of sad-sack pathos to the character, sure, he makes some mistakes, but he’s wracked with guilt over everything. He’s also by definition obsessed with being a good father which, in this day and age, is  the fast-track to sainthood. There’s never a trace of irony when it comes to Louie as dad: the show starts by announcing fatherhood as Louie’s defining character trait in terms I’m going to repeat here again, because it’s amazing how absolutely they drip with emotional appeal: “I’m 41 and I’m single, uh, not really single, just alone? But I have two children, and that’s the only thing I’m comfortable with in life anymore.” Hannah Horvath admits that being a good friend to Marnie isn’t high on her list of priorities. Louie will never, ever, ever, be anything but a dedicated dad. Parenting will partially redeem him from the charges of human selfishness.

I would add, parenthetically, that Louis CK as stand-up also redeems the sad-sack Louie we see in the show. It’s easy to buy into Louie’s account of himself as pathetic, cringing, weak, passive, repulsive, and awkward. It’s astonishing, when you stop think about it, that he pulls this off while telling us about it onstage as a stand-up whose onstage presence is unfailingly assertive, self-assured, charismatic and appealing. We’ve asked whether Hannah Horvath is any good as a writer and talked about the pitfalls of showing artistic characters doing their art; Louie sidesteps this by making Louie a successful comedian whose personality onstage differs substantially from his personality off it. The one exception to this I can think of offhand is Episode 6 of Season 1, “Heckler/Cop Movie,” when Louie tells off an attractive heckler.

The other important structural difference between Louie and Girls are Louis CK’s experiments with sporadic continuity. He often has the same apartment, for example, but in some episodes he has a brother, in another two sisters. His mother, a lesbian in one storyline, is played by the same actress who played his date in another. Young Louie is played by a wide range of redheads. Even his daughters are sometimes played by different actresses. It’s a fascinating choice, and it produces a surreal quality that nevertheless feels anchored by the opening credits, which unfailingly show Louie eating pizza and descending into the underworld of the comedy club.  The comedy club is exempt from this constant shuffling of characters: Louie’s stand-up is consistent, his daughters are the only family members ever mentioned in it, and he never stops being exactly what he says he is: the white father of two white girls.

Which brings us to Season 3, which for the first time violates Louie-the-stand-up’s version of things. We see Louie’s ex-wife for the first time, and she gets a name and a race. Janet is black. That means Louie’s children are mixed race. That’s not a trivial change that contributes to the overall surrealism of the show. It’s a big deal, even if his ex-wife is white or Asian in the next episode. It’s the first time I can think of in which the show explicitly contradicts “stand-up Louie,” whose anchoring function as narrator and truth-teller is important. It means the terms he set in the pilot I’ve quoted above, terms to which he frequently returns—the problem of being a white father raising two white daughters in a way that won’t make them assholes, the problem of privilege, in fact—are suddenly inapplicable.

This matters because Louie’s fatherhood, its loneliness and its obstacles, constitutes the show’s backbone. In Season 2 there’s an episode in which Louie  takes his daughters to visit an elderly relative who turns out to be incredibly racist. That scene would scan very differently if his daughters are mixed race. This is less a matter of doing race badly than it is a matter of violating the rules of the show’s universe.  In general, Louis CK is pretty adept at taking on sensitive topics and doing them raunchy justice. Still, I don’t think the show, as it’s existed up to this point, can get away with this. (Nor, strictly speaking, did it try—that his ex-wife is black is a detail, not mentioned in the episode. There is, however, a longish bit of stand-up on replacing or adding on to a used-up dick by getting a transplant, preferably from a brown athlete.)

It’s possible that Louis CK as writer might be trying to create some distance between himself and Louie the stand-up, who has been drifting closer and closer to Louis CK since the show began.  What better way to break up with his narrator than by smashing his stupid car with a bulldozer? (Was it the Infiniti? I hope so, but I couldn’t tell.) Louis CK is big on this kind of spectacle. He’s said in interviews that his biggest expenses, when shooting the pilot, were the limousine scene and the helicopter scene. He talked about the difficulty of even finding that many limousines in New York, and bartering with the helicopter pilot for a rate he could actually afford. Transportation as spectacle—transportation as punchline, transportation as a means of annihilating sympathy—these all date back to the pilot, and it’s interesting to see that theme revived in Episode 1.

I haven’t said anything about the break-up scene and its follow-up scene in Louie’s apartment. Both were astoundingly good. April could have deciphered those cryptic parking signs in a second, that’s how good she is at reading conflicting messages that add up to No. It was so good that I, like Louie, find myself assenting, and with nothing to say.

Before and after midnight,

Lili

American Nervousness, 2012

Dear Jane, Evan, & Lili,

Glad to be here.

I too have been thinking a lot about terrible things happening to the cast of Girls.  Evan just mentioned this as a thought experiment. What if things went woefully and irrevocably awry for The Ladies on Girls? Before that, Jane drew our attention to the threat of violence in her discussion of what Hannah identifies as Charlie’s domestic abuse spectrum behavior. And Elaine Blair, before us again, spoke eloquently about the idea that part of what is extraordinary about Girls, and what has been so infuriating to critics, is that Hannah and her friends live in a kind of bumper bowling version of Manhattan.  Nothing bad would, nothing bad could ever happen to these privileged people. Nobody’s going to die in a gutter, because, in this world, there’s no such thing as a gutter. La di da, hakuna matata.

Like Evan, though, I think this is all part of the plan.  Lena Dunham, whether she shares this mindset with her character or not, seems very interested in the idea of the luxury of anxiety, a kind of twenty-first century heir to neurasthenia.  Don DeLillo has a line in Underworld: “It’s the special skill of an adolescent to imagine the end of the world as an adjunct to his own discontent.”  DeLillo, of course, is not just speaking about adolescents or boys here, and it seems to me that this is equally applicable to Hannah Horvath and her sisters.  Traumatic events only serve to displace anxieties about other, more mundane, or at least less global, concerns. The idea of Charlie lifting a hand to Hannah displaces her guilt over betraying(?) her bestie; the idea of contracting AIDS displaces Hannah’s anxiety about the emotional toll of her polymorphously unrequited affair with Adam; the idea of dying in a gutter like Flaubert displaces Hannah’s anxiety that her writing might not be worth dying in a gutter over.

So that, I think, is the perspective of the show to a certain degree. If Girls is an ethnography of a very circumscribed class of person, then this kind of apocalypticism is a big part of what defines Dunham’s subjects. But, to come back to what everybody always has to come back to with this show, just because Dunham has trained her eye on this kind of magical thinking doesn’t mean she’s not reproducing it to a certain extent. Now, I believe enough in Dunham’s self-consciousness about her work that I also can believe that this is all leading somewhere, but that’s not a sure thing.  Why, for instance, doesn’t anything bad happen to these people? To take an example from last week’s episode 5, why doesn’t Hannah get fired for coming on to and then berating her boss?  On most HBO series, all you have to do is wake up in the morning to warrant an axe in your brain, but Hannah Horvath’s intentional and energetically performed self-destruction simply won’t stick.  The same goes for Jessa’s immaculate lack of conception.   Hannah and her friends are engaging in a kind of recreational anxiety that is only possible because, deep down, they believe that their fears are unfounded. This is a phenomenon certainly worth looking into, a panic widespread enough to be a notable feature of modern life. Trouble is, Hannah and her friends are right. They don’t really seem to have anything to worry about.

But, again, Dunham is doing a pretty humane job lovingly articulating all the ins and outs of a particular kind of delusion, and I don’t want to begrudge her empathy.  Marnie doesn’t need to die of Roman Fever like Daisy Miller in order for Dunham to effectively critique her behavior.  Likewise, TV showrunners needn’t behave like the Old Testament God, meting out justice to the sinners down on earth, to be responsible social critics.  If Tony Soprano always got what was coming to him, there wouldn’t have been a show, and, thanks to Matthew Weiner’s merciless skewering of Betty Draper, I think we’re all sufficiently familiar with exactly how grimy it can feel to see a television writer punish a character for all of her bourgeois vanities and transgressions. Girls doesn’t need to be a Jeremiad to be a valuable work of social fiction.

Dunham, for her part, seems to be laying the groundwork for something, and I’m excited to see what.  Jessa’s relationship with the father of the kids she babysits is a bit of a time bomb, and one that could have actual consequences if it goes off.  And, even though she didn’t get fired, Hannah’s whimsical forfeiture of her job could come back to haunt her in fiscally real ways.  But what will happen then? To amend Evan’s question, can something bad happen on this show that does not lead to a moment of self-discovery?  In other words, is Girls beholden to the Apatow rule that trauma begets wisdom, reckless stupidity begets enlightenment for the worthy?  Or is Lena Dunham committed to shielding her characters from disaster?  What if neither nightmares nor dreams ever come true?

As usual,

Phil.