Recently, my friend Nick and I discussed HBO’s “Girls” over hamburgers.
“I really like it,” he said, his voice trailing off. “But my parents, they hate it. Any time I watch it with them they go on, like, a 30-minute rant about how it’s not supposed to be that way.”
“Not supposed to be what way?” I asked.
“Your twenties. They’re always talking about how they loved their twenties and how it makes them sad how miserable the people are on that show.” He paused. Then, as though guilty about something, he said, “And then I’ll notice similarities between me and people on ‘Girls’ … man, if I’m ever living like those characters, it’ll be the worst. The absolute worst.”
After a moment of forced laughter where we both likely thought about the dreaded possibility of a post-collegiate life that in any way resembles that of Hannah Horvath, he added, “And my parents’ll kill me.”
I’ve heard that Lena Dunham — series creator and star — is the voice of our generation. Hailed as “raw” and “real,” “Girls” which recently completed its first season, is sort of like “Sex and the City” aged down about 10 years with a cast of characters more likely to make you cringe than ogle at their sexual and romantic exploits. They are, as one critic points out, diametrically opposite to the “sleek eye candy” typically seen on cable television.
While it’s true these characters are at times cerebral to the point of paralysis, I can’t help but wonder if this is really what one’s twenties looks like circa 2012. Do those of us entering the work force today actually belong to a generation so trapped in our heads that something as visceral as sex becomes a platform for over-intellectualization? “Girls” (supposedly) presents life as we truly live it, complete with the job-interview screw-ups, the college friendships that can’t survive past graduation, the endless worry of paying rent. But it seems important, I think, to remember that when talking about such a phenomenon, we’re still looking at heightened reality, albeit one that glorifies the ironic and the absurd over the glamorous.
Though the young Manhattanites’ lives do bear a kind of resemblance to the awkwardness of my own experiences, these characters are still fundamentally cinematic, archetypes drawn to compel, to draw you in and make you feel something toward the people on screen that you also see in yourself. It’s good art, but it’s not the banalities of our day-to-day encounters. Which means this so-called ultra-modern, post-feminist cable show is in fact old fashioned; the stuff that’s always filled our very best dramas.
Take Hannah’s boyfriend Adam (a wonderfully endearing Adam Driver, “J. Edgar”). In many ways he plays like the traditional Hollywood brute with a sensitive heart lodged beneath a hard-edged exterior. In the first episode we find him shirtless in his apartment, working on his carpentry — a profession he describes as “honest.” Between his casual scorn for Hannah and her inexplicable attraction to him, it’s hard not to be reminded of a young Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire” as he toys with a Vivien Leigh who is simultaneously repulsed and entranced by his charm. Adam ignores Hannah’s texts until she arrives at his doorstep, offering herself to him and his creepy bedroom deviances.
Is this how it goes? Possibly. Yet I propose that Lena Dunham could also have us fooled. By creating a look for her show that’s just a bit grainy, and just a bit on the low-budget side — similar to Dunham’s film “Tiny Furniture”, which one critic called a serious film posing as an amateur one; and by writing dialogue that sounds just a bit more natural than the canned aphorisms sometimes heard on television, she has produced powerful realism. Except realism is still a type of fiction, like the difference between a painted portrait and a candid photograph — one is premeditated while the other captures the moment as it truly happened.
In episode eight, when Adam freaks out at a car that almost hits him and Hannah after storming out of his own play rehearsal, I half expected him to yell, “I’m walking here!” invoking Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino before him in “Midnight Cowboy” and “Scarface”, respectively. It’s worth noting that both actors were also playing the outcast in their movies.
But the big difference between a character like Adam and the classic Hollywood misfit is just how explicit he happens to be about his magnetism. “You don’t know me and you don’t know yourself,” he yells at Hannah after a party in Bushwick shortly before getting hit by a car. “I’m a beautiful fucking mystery to you!”
“Girls” dives deeply into the most sensitive and squeamish moments, holds there for a beat too long and then lets its characters talk about what they’re thinking, which is uncomfortable, but probably very honest about our times. So maybe the reason Nick’s parents claim to hate the show is because there’s some sort of generation-divide going on. Maybe when you’re any older than Generation Y you’re just accustomed to letting certain things go unsaid.
Dunham’s story of New York-hipsterdom does in fact ring of modernity — the characters’ lives are lived out loud, like the endless stream of an instant feed generated from friends’ computers. It just so happens that the characters’ and the story’s foundation can be found in characters dating back to our parents’ and grandparents’ generations; the real disparity between then and now is only on the surface.