It’s a saying of the art world that a strikingly negative review is as good as a rave. Why? Because it shows the artist is a striking a nerve.
So for better or worse, Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow’s HBO comedy GIRLS, which follows four twenty-something white women with artistic aspirations as they bounce and bum around New York City, is a cultural phenomenon to be considered. I had the chance to attend the season premiere screening and after-party and so have already seen the first three shows.
Let me say that I do really like this show for capturing the narcissistic mess created when the over-praised generation meets the callow real world. And, by adding a black character this season (the excellent Donald Glover, of Community), the show has also given us a good way of talking about what it’s like to be the lone black person surrounded by white people.
The second season shows Hannah (Dunham’s character) in a striking and somewhat unexplainable ménage a quatre: she is still attached to her deranged ex-boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver) whose broken leg has given him a rather beguiling neediness. (As a sign of Hannah’s pathological insecurity she literally carries Adam’s piss for him.) But she is also in the throes of a new and emotionally satisfying relationship: no, not her much ballyhooed dalliance with a black Republican named Sandy (played by the actor and rapper Donald Glover). Hannah’s real romance of the first few episodes is with her gay ex-boyfriend Elijah (Andrew Rannells), whom she chose as her new roommate over Adam at the end of last season.
Elijah and Hannah go through all the rites of relationship passage, they sleep in the same bed, decorate and throw a party together. They also get high on cocaine and have a glorious night out in a terrific sequence that comes dangerously close to making you want to try drugs. Of course, the night ends in acrimony and by the end of the third episode Hannah has managed not only to alienate all three of the men in her life, but has made two of their lives appreciably worse.
The quirky Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), now no longer a virgin, keeps her self-respect and may reap a reward for it. The bohemian Jessa (Jemima Kirke) returns from her honeymoon with her impulse husband, and their too-good-to-be-true cocoon is ripe for a breach.
The gorgeous and proper Marnie (Allison Williams) is brought low and we meet her detached mother (Rita Wilson). But Marnie has the advantage of being able to look for a “pretty girl” job, like restaurant hostess. The relative ease that an attractive girl can land a job is contrasted with Hannah’s wretched struggles. After all, pretty girls (and boys) have a leg up in a host of jobs: publicist, NoLIta shop girl, magazine intern… The plain Hannah’s only viable gig in her chosen field is a website that will pay her $200 for an article about trying cocaine for the first time. One hopes the site at least gave her the money to buy the drugs.
The most stinging criticism leveled at Dunham was the show’s all-white cast. She appears to have responded to that charge by adding Glover’s character and addressing race directly. In Glover’s brief time on screen he adoringly makes out with Dunham against a bookshelf, sucks on her nipples, tells her he loves how weird she is, that she writes wonderfully well. He also tells her that he doesn’t like the content of an essay she’s written: “It’s not for me,” he says. Of course, things promptly fall apart as Hannah starts attacking Sandy for being a black Republican: “I would also love to know how you feel that two out of three people on death row are black,” she says.
Their subsequent fight exposes the absurdity of colorblindness and skewers the hipster edition of jungle fever: “This always happens,” Sandy tells Hannah. “I’m a white girl and I moved to New York and I’m having a great time and oh I’ve got a fixed gear bike and I’m gonna date a black guy and we’re gonna go to a dangerous part of town. All that bullshit. I’ve seen it happen. And then they can’t deal with who I am.”
It’s a nice line, but it would be more meaningful if we had actually learned something about Sandy. Like, why is he a Republican? How did the two of them meet? What are his hopes and desires? And Glover’s character has none of the gloriously humanizing bad qualities that make the other Girls guys, like the awful art world character Booth Jonathan (Jorma Taccone), so fun to watch (and loathe). This lack of specificity is what makes watching black characters on mainstream television such a frustrating experience. Glover didn’t attend the show’s premiere and now I think I see why: he wasn’t necessary. Dunham’s character has more than enough men in her life already. Token casting is still just token casting.
Still, it’s unfair to blame Dunham for all this. After all, her mentor and the show’s producer is the great comedic factory Judd Apatow, who is far more powerful than her and his movies are the very essence of all-whiteness. In Apatow’s movies, the women are thin, blond and together and the men are allowed to be fat, blobby and unemployed. Even though it seriously strains credulity to think that a man who looks like Glover would date the plain and plump Hannah, it is thrilling to see her character fully imagined as a desirable, thoughtful, flawed woman. In one of my favorite scenes Hannah enters her lover’s apartment, turns away from the camera and disrobes confidently, leaving on only a nude thong. Tattoos adorn her Grecian body and she looks beautiful. For young people who are still figuring out how women should look, seeing Dunham exposed like could be terrifically influential.
And while Sandy might not have much of a personality, he does have some self-respect. Their conversation ends whenHannah attempts to claim the upper hand by saying: “I never thought about the fact that you were black once.”
This is intolerable and Sandy kicks Hannah out. But Dunham we can let stay, she has shown that she’s at least recognized the problem.
So let’s celebrate what GIRLS gets right, even as we cringe at what it gets wrong.