Remember when sitcoms were just sitcoms? Remember when they were just entertainment? Remember when they didn’t have messages?
If you are not as old as I am, you probably don’t.
Nowadays many sitcoms, to say nothing of dramas, become instant fodder in the culture wars.
They have gone beyond entertainment. They are making a statement. If, God forbid, their statement offends your ideology they are in serious trouble.
Even if they do not have an overt and explicit message culture warriors will happily find one. Considering all the money they spent learning film criticism at Ivy League universities, it’s the least they could do.
Take the latest hot sitcom, about to debut on HBO this Sunday. Yes, I am talking about Girls, produced by heavyweight Judd Apatow, written and directed by neophyte Lena Dunham, and starring four daughters of famous people.
The pre-reviews have been saying that the show presents a cold, realistic view of the lives of young women in today’s New York. They have set it against the famed fairy tale called Sex and the City.
Depending on your ideological predilections, you will either love or hate Girls.
NewYork Magazine finds it original and daring. It offers us page after page of fascinating material about the show and its author.
The Los Angeles Times finds it gritty, realistic, and truthful.
On the other side, MotherJones hated the show. Since the magazine has long championed the political and cultural radical left, this is likely to be a good sign. If there’s one thing that ideologues can’t stand, its reality. They hate it so much that they even take offense at verisimilitude.
The more even-tempered Katie Roiphe finds that the show’s crass portrayal of sexual experience smacks of moralistic Puritanism. Roiphe is offended at the suggestion that hookup generation is not having great sex.
Again, this feels like a good thing.
Advance reviews suggest that Girls is trying to tell us that today's pornified world has not exactly brought sexual fulfillment to the young women who inhabit it.
This should not come as a revelation. Some of us have been saying the same thing for quite some time now. Not because we are Puritanical scolds, but because we wish all young people a lot of good sex.
Girls does not offer an older person's point of view. It gives us a young woman’s point of view. This matters.
First, because young people will find it more credible than an older person’s perspective.
Second, because young people today have developed an unfortunate tendency to model their lives on sitcoms. Perhaps it takes a sitcom to disabuse them of that bad habit.
Third, because it tells young women that if they have strange and unsatisfying and awkward sex they are not alone.
In other words, Girls might well turn out to be another antidote to the hookup culture. All told, that would be a good thing.
Of course, a great deal will depend on how well plotted the show is, how engaging its characters are, and how much fun it will be.
Sex and the City succeeded because it was very well crafted. People cared about what happened to its characters. So much so that they were blinded to the fact that it was really a fairy tale. In particular, it was an updated version of the Cinderella story.
Personally I find it dispiriting that so many young women should have become so infatuated with the show that they came to believe that they should conduct their lives as though they were Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, or Miranda.
One can enjoy a piece of fiction without deciding to transform oneself into a fictional character.
The creators of Girls have protested so much that their show is not a take-off, thus, a realistic version of Sex and the City that one is obliged to conclude that it must be.
As I see it, Girls will show what happens when ideology runs smack dab into reality, that is, when the splendid coach turns into a pumpkin. And that is not a bad story to tell.
It is not a story where young women find fulfilling orgasms. It portrays sex differently.
Katie Roiphe offers an anecdote:
In the New York Times Dunham recounts a telling moment with Judd Apatow when she is filming one of the awkward sex scenes: “He said, ‘I just want one more where you look like you’re enjoying it a little more. We’re going to need that.’ I said, ‘I did enjoy it!’ He said, ‘Lena, you look like you’re being murdered.’ ”
The show also tells young women that they are not alone in having awkward sexual encounters, in feeling used by men, and in feeling ashamed of themselves.
The Los Angeles Times explains:
Dunham's writing fills a gap felt by young women (and some men too) who've come of age with the Internet's confessional overshare culture and long to see the messiness of their lives depicted naturalistically onscreen, whether dealing with sexual embarrassment, drug experimentation, body image issues or career screw-ups.
Roiphe finds that the show is too one-sided, and therefore not very realistic. She ignores the possibility that it might represent an emotional truth. And she forgets completely that the purpose of fiction is not to present a “realistic” view of experience, but to tell a story.
In Roiphe’s words:
Lena Dunham’s stylized celebrations of awkwardness, charming as they may be, are probably no more “realistic” or indicative of a general zeitgeist, than a scene where someone is actually into sex, and not just whimsically observing how ridiculous it is. Critics are calling Dunham brave and revolutionary, but might it actually be braver, or more revolutionary, to portray sex as sometimes without dire consequence, or not totally absurd? To mingle the comic with a deeper investment, the bad parts with the fun parts?
In the end fictions rise and fall for reasons that have very little to do with ideology. An audience will be drawn to the show for the naked flesh, but Girls will ultimately succeed or fail on dramatic terms.