Lena Dunhams Girls: the show that turned TV upside down

Posted on Feb 4 2017 - 10:23am by dianejmoss
Lena Dunhams Girls: the show that turned TV upside down

Girls helped reinvent the female ensemble show, but it hasnt been an easy ride. As it approaches its final season before hitting the big screen, we assess its legacy

When Girls premiered in 2012, it made an immediate and long-lasting impression. The declaration by Lena Dunhams character Hannah Horvath to her long-suffering parents, I think I might be the voice of my generation. Or at least the voice of a generation, created the perception that the series would function as an anthropological study of the millennial species.

Later in the same opening episode, Jessa, the intimidatingly jaded, drawling British sophisticate moves into the downtown Manhattan apartment of her naive cousin, Shoshanna, who attempts to find common ground with her relative by telling her: Youre like a Carrie with some Samantha aspects and Charlotte hair. That cemented the notion that Girls was the successor to HBOs previous series about the lives and loves of a quartet of New York women, Sex And The City.

Both of these initial impressions were understandable but, as Girls approaches its sixth and final season, it turns out that neither was correct. Instead, Girls has proven to be the more adventurous, surprising and ultimately more influential TV programme.

Female ensemble shows have traditionally striven for universal appeal. Their casts tended to include instantly recognisable stereotypes: The Sensible One, The Airhead, The Uninhibited One, The Prude. Girls which, says Jenni Konner, the series co-creator and producer, came into being because Lena had gone to HBO and said: I dont see myself or my friends represented on television didnt conform to those rules. Dunhams Horvath the one who in earlier decades, if she was cast at all, would have been shoehorned into the prudish role was instead the character who was most often naked, notching up sexual experiences both satisfying and squalid. Theres people who dont want to see bodies like mine, Dunham has said. Its a very specific body. Even great reviews will be like: chubby, portly, overweight. Sometimes Im like: Ugh, how did I make myself the guinea pig for this?

Horvath was frequently guilty of being entitled, obnoxious, pushy and delusional, but she wasnt just a collection of cliches designed to make sweeping generalisations about an age group. Dunham was painting an often unflattering portrait of a young, educated, artistic, self-obsessed individual existing in a narrow world, something the likes of Larry David and Louis CK both of whom she claims as influences made careers of, but something that was less expected from female creators of TV comedies. Like Carrie Bradshaw, Hannah Horvath mines sex and relationships for material that forms the basis of her literary endeavours.

But the differences between Girls and Sex And The City are greater than their similarities. The characters in Dunhams series are not aspirational. They dont fetishise drinks or footwear. Rather than who theyre wearing, we know what books they read, what music they listen to, what art installations they hail as genius. Even Alison Williamss irritating Marnie values credibility and success as part of an insipid folk-pop duo over material gain. Hannahs greatest moment of triumph came at the climax of the fifth, and best, series when she performed a monologue at Manhattans spoken-word competition, The Moth, about her feelings on discovering her best friend, Jessa, was sleeping with her nightmarish former boyfriend, Adam.

And theres another difference between the two shows. SATCs men were fairly broadly drawn figures: the wealthy Alpha Male, the Decent Guy, the Bitchy But Subservient Gay Accessory. Over the course of five seasons, Adam (played by Adam Driver) was a hair-trigger porn addict, an abusive monster, a loyal and sensitive friend and a fragile soul prone to bouts of rage and destruction, and these were all non-contradictory components of the same person. Alex Karpovskys sourpuss rule-following Ray, who endured doomed flings with both Shoshanna and Marnie, was similarly multi-dimensional. Andrew Rannells Elijah was nobodys gay accessory.

Girls series 3. Photograph: Sky

I presented this observation to Jenni Konner, who did not hesitate to shoot me down. I think youre wrong about that, says Konner. If youre a woman watching Sex And The City, theres a massive difference between Aden and Big. Thats a huge deal to everybody. Yes, we made our men series regulars and followed them on their own, but I actually think there was a lot of dimension to [Sex And The Citys] male characters.

Still, Girls owes its place in culture to its sort-of predecessor. We wouldnt have existed without Sex And The City, says Konner. That was the show we grew up on. It absolutely paved the way for us. But it was about something else. Carrie and everyone, they all became friends as true adults in their own professions. Our girls could become them when they make new friends. Feminist scholar Naomi Wolf said of Sex And The City: It really was a turning point. There hadnt been women at the centre of a quest narrative before. No one had ever thought women were that interesting.

Such a statement minimises the impact of the female-ensemble shows that predated SATC, many of which drew audiences up to three times as large. The Golden Girls (1985) may have been massively popular. Designing Women (1986) was sharply political. The Queen Latifah-starring Living Single (1993) took place in a world not exclusively populated by white women, as did 2000s Girlfriends. But those shows were network sitcoms, hidebound by censorship, marooned in studio sets with the baying sound of the laughter of captive audiences. Sex And The City was a fantasy about freedom. Freedom to have a love affair with a city, with a group of friends who were closer than sisters, freedom to talk dirty, look fabulous and indulge in guilt-free sex.

Anyone remember Cashmere Mafia? Photograph: Bill Davila/Rex

When the US terrestrial networks tried to churn out copycat versions of SATC, audiences took one look at the fun-free, flesh-free Cashmere Mafia and Lipstick Jungle (both 2008, both forgotten) and spurned them like they were cheap knock-offs of designer originals. The teenage female demographic was fleetingly interested in the origin story of 1980s Carrie Bradshaw as sanitised in 2013s The Carrie Diaries, which lasted two seasons. Being devotees of Sex And The City means being faithful to those four actors and the characters with which they will be for ever synonymous. But while its difficult to detect an SATC influence in contemporary programming, the influence of Girls is everywhere.

Netlflixs Master Of None and Love both exhibit Girls trademark mixture of awkwardness, oversharing and sexual frankness. Jill Soloway got to exert absolute autonomy over the way she ran Transparent because Lena Dunham provided a blueprint in the way she wrote and directed Girls. Jessica Knappers Drifters is Girls through diffident British eyes. Michaela Coels Chewing Gum also owes it a debt. [Its] one of my favourite shows of the year, enthuses Konner. That and Fleabag. The British are kind of ahead of us in showing people who are messes and who are narcissists and do bad things but we like them anyway.

Josh Thomass Please Like Me sees Dunhams influence reflected in the experiences of a gay Australian man. Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Girls success is Broad City, which began in 2009 as a web series with YouTube views in the high hundreds. When it evolved into a full-length cable comedy series in 2014, audiences were already familiar with the universe inhabited by Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. It depicted the world in Girls, of unpaid internships, cramped living conditions, and disastrous sexual experiences. Except Jacobson and Glazer, united by their love of getting high and their love for each other, were funny all the time. The New York they lived in looked like the one inhabited by Lena Dunham but it was free from anxiety, depression and pretension.

Broad Citys Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. Photograph: Comedy Central/Everett/REX Shutterstock

Broad City was also multicultural, a failing of Girls that Dunham and co-creator Konner have admitted to and apologised for. Despite Dunhams oft-stated opposition to the straight white patriarchy, her characters existed in an all-Caucasian version of New York. Her main concession to accusations of under-representing the citys diverse population was to cast Donald Glover in a season two arc as Hannahs black Republican boyfriend. When he voiced his suspicions that she was using him as a prop to show the world her open liberal mind and lack of prejudice, she replied: I dont live in a world where there are divisions like that. I wasnt even thinking that I was sitting next to a black guy. Future episodes would see supporting performances by Jessica Williams and Orange Is The New Blacks Danielle Brooks but wouldnt feature another non-white actor in a prominent role until the recent announcement of Riz Ahmeds participation in season six.

In October 2016, HBO premiered Insecure, the first TV show from Issa Rae, creator of the 2011 web series Awkward Black Girl. It would be reductive to label Insecure the black Girls but, like Dunham, Rae writes, directs and stars in her show. Like Dunhams, her world is specific, mainly set in the Inglewood area of LA. But unlike Dunham, Issa and Molly, the shows two lead characters, also have to navigate another world, one in which the white people they work for constantly undermine and ignore them.

At their hearts, all these shows revolve around relationships. But two series that debuted towards the end of last year take the types of characters and the environment synonymous with Girls and use them to move in a different direction. Search Party effortlessly pulls off a tricky balancing act. Its a barbed critique of twentysomething Brooklyn hipsters and it tells a gripping mystery story, which has a genuinely unsettling conclusion. MTVs Sweet/Vicious, meanwhile, takes two college stereotypes the superficial sorority sister and the slacker-stoner and turns them into masked vigilantes who administer after-hours vengeance on campus rapists. Its certainly nowhere near as accomplished a feat of genre-juggling as Search Party but both point to a way forward for the ensemble female comedy.

Lena Dunham with guest star Riz Ahmed in Girls series six. Photograph: Mark Schafer/HBO

In her real life as an activist, an author, a public personality and a prolific social media presence, Lena Dunham has become an object of ridicule. Shes very live and learn, says Konner. Shes not a person who does something and then walks away from it. She hears the criticism, tried to address it and often apologises. I dont think she gets enough credit for the growth. Its very hard to be a young person exposed to all that fame and to be really, really smart and articulate yourself politically at all junctures. I wish the thing people would admire about her more is how much she is trying to grow publicly.

Dunhams recent jocular declaration in her Women Of The Hour podcast I havent had an abortion but I wish I had is evidence that her public evolution continues to be a painful process. But in her creative life, Dunham has accomplished a great deal in a comparatively short time. Her influence has freed up other performers from the constraints of what a female-driven comedy is expected to look like. Shes taken misogynist criticism of her work and rendered it archaic. Shes an original, empathetic voice that will only get stronger. And once again the fate of Hannah Horvaths future rests in her hands. As much as its called Girls and its about all of them, I think of it as Hannahs show, says Konner.

The Girls audience may not be inspired to dress like Hannah Horvath, live in her neighborhood or drink her favourite cocktails, but theyve made the same bad decisions shes made, theyve fallen into the same terrible relationships, and, finally, theyve grown up with her. But not too much.

Girls series six starts in the US on 12 February at 10pm on HBO and in the UK on 13 February at 10pm on Sky Atlantic/Now TV

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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