Tuesday, April 17, 2012

"Girls": A Portrait of Modern Anomie

For this blogger, the hotly anticipated debut episode of Girls fell flat.

Last week I was happy to engage the debate over the anthropological significance of Lena Dunham’s portrait of anomic youth in the Age of Obama.

Anomic young people are bored and disaffected, disconnected to the world they inhabit, and barely connected to other individuals. If they live in the great cosmopolitan metropolis they probably do not know the game or the rules of the game.

They huddle together trying to make something happen in their empty lives. 

Writing in Mother Jones Asawin Suebsaeng aptly describes central character Hannah as:

…an aspiring essayist who's barely written anything, a college graduate who hasn't accomplished anything, and an English major who hasn't earned anything. 

Of course, sitcoms and other fictions do not rise or fall on whether their characters depict reality accurately. They succeed or fail by presenting interesting characters involved in a compelling story.

Perhaps Girls could never have lived up to the hype, but, for me, it didn’t even come close.

We all admire Lena Dunham for trying to portray modern anomie in a sitcom. Yet, you cannot portray boredom by making your characters boring. You cannot portray a life drained of interest by making the characters uninteresting.

When Hannah learns that her family stipend is going to be cut off, it’s a great dramatic moment. And yet, how many people watching the show actually cared about what was going to happen to Hannah.

She herself showed very little real emotion. The actors playing her parents barely seemed to care about what would become of her. It felt like they were all play-acting the scene. It was as though Hannah and her parents knew that the gesture was perfectly empty and perfectly meaningless. The girl was not going to live on the streets and starve.

In principle, Hannah was cut off. She plays the scene as though she has a trust fund.

One imagines that Hannah will pass through any one of a number of adventures, but do you really care about what happens to her?

All things considered, if you were to meet someone who was living Hannah’s empty life you would certainly care about her. You would be seriously worried about her. If you do not feel anything for the character, the show fails.

In my view, Girls suffers from what literary critic Yvor Winters once called: “the fallacy of literary form.”

Winters defined it as:

To say that a poet is justified in employing a disintegrating form in order to express a feeling of disintegration, is merely a sophistical justification for bad poetry, akin to the Whitmanian notion that one must write loose and sprawling poetry to "express" the loose and sprawling American continent. In fact, all feeling, if one gives oneself (that is, one's form) up to it, is a way of disintegration; poetic form is by definition a means to arrest the disintegration and order the feeling; and in so far as any poetry tends toward the formless, it fails to be expressive of anything.

If you are making a show about bored, disaffected, anomic young people, you cannot make it boring, disaffected, and anomic.

When a character is floundering in anomie, you should not, as a viewer, feel completely disconnected from the character.

In the hands of a competent artist the affectless anomie that afflicts young people in the big city should provoke concern and anguish in the audience. If it doesn't you will not be quite so eager to tune in next week. 

In all fairness, I am not this show’s demographic. I have had occasion, however, to encounter more than a handful of young people in similar conditions.

If I did not care what was going to happen to them, I would be insensate. If I had tried to share their numbness I would be forfeiting all judgment. If I did not see cause for concern I would not be able to help them at all. 

I assume that young people, living lives like Hannah and her friends, identified more easily with the characters. They might have seen themselves on the screen and would have cared more about the characters than I did. After all, they find themselves to be exceptionally interesting.

If a show only appeals to those who are living their lives as the characters do, then it has not really reached an audience.

Since I did not trust my reaction to the show I read through a slew of reviews. To my surprise most reviewers found the show to be exactly what I didn’t: funny, engaging, interesting, well-constructed, and well-acted.

With one singular exception, a review by the aforementioned  Asawin Suebsaeng in Mother Jones, of all places.

In his words:

The central character is an unsympathetic victim of First World Problems who mumbles her way through a Brooklynite's perdition of unpaid internships and missed orgasms. 

Suebsaeng is the only reviewer who points out something that was extremely obvious to me: nearly all the actors on the show mumble. They seem never to have learned diction.

On top of that the lead actresses do not know how to act either. Suebsaeng seems to feel that Allison Williams stands out, but I fear that she stands out because the competition is so weak. 

As I was watching the show I started wondering how these actresses ever got cast in their roles. And then I remembered that all four lead actresses all have distinguished pedigrees: they all have famous fathers and/or mothers.

They are the children of privilege, not of corporate privilege, but of creative privilege. They are the children of an artistic aristocracy.

So much for merit. So much for working hard to learn a craft. If yo have famous parents and hang around with the children of other famous parents you will become a television star.

Let us take a closer look at the last scene of the first episode. Hannah has decided that she should confront her parents about their decision to remove her financial support.

So she goes to their hotel room, bearing the gift of the manuscript of her unfinished memoir.

You recall this memoir. When she was interning at a publishing company the editor had told her that when she finished her memoir she could submit it to him.

But, after her request for a paying job was turned down flat, she asked if she could still send him her finished memoir.

He replied with something like: But, without you here, who would read it?

All told, it’s a bad line, too glib and cruel to be interesting. We do not even sympathize with Hannah for having been slapped down because she reacts by repairing is to repair to her boyfriend's for a little post-rejection hookup.

Their sex feels like going through the motions. There is nothing erotic about it. It is difficult to think of it as sex at all.

You can say that the hookup generation has made sex altogether too casual an encounter. Their anomie is such that their sex is not sexy; it barely even qualifies as sex. The characters are almost telling us not to waste our time being interested in anything they do. 

Anyway, Hannah had told her parents of her book when they met at the beginning of the episode. Cleverly, she told them that she had only written the first four chapters, because she had not yet lived the rest.

Well and good.

Later in the evening, when Hannah brings the manuscript for her book, it seems to amount to ten pages or so. Four chapters in ten pages... maybe she was writing haikus.

Her parents are unmoved. Her mother suggests that she would rather spend the money on a lake house. If her parents don’t care, neither do we..

Then we see Hannah waking up alone in her parents' hotel bed the next morning. We start wondering how and where she actually slept. It’s unlikely that she was sharing the bed with her parents. How did it happen that she did not notice them getting up, packing up, and leaving the hotel room.

In other words, the situation is confused. Granted, the writer is young, but more serious people, like producers, should have seen some of these points and suggested changes that would have contributed to narrative coherence. Just because the character is dazed and confused, that does not mean that the plotting should also be dazed and confused. 

As Suebsaeng exclaims: “What the hell was  HBO thinking?”

Of course, there is always room for improvement. But, Suebsaeng has seen the first three episodes and does not leave too much room for hope:

But for all the hopes and good press, the inaugural episodes of Girls amount to little more than inertia disguised as quirkiness, stock narrative masquerading as art, and peskiness paraded as high comedy.


JP said...

You have saved me from wasting my time watching this show.

It sounds like I would get as much out of it as I do reading Tom Friedman.

Keep up the good work!

Stuart Schneiderman said...

You're welcome, of course.

The sad part is, there should be a sitcom showing the lives that young people today are living and the world they are living in. Unfortunately, this sitcom does not do it.

Dennis said...

Am I the only one who sometimes gets very tired of "It is hard to be me" and the other various forms of woman whine? One cannot seem to get away from the constant mewling and machinations of this "ain't it awful" existence women appear to have created for themselves and then have the temerity to blame men for itIs there any moment in their lives where they actually take credit for their on failures and challenges?
I thought men were supposed to be the children, but one could be forgiven for just saying "Women, Please grow up and start taking real responsibility for your lives."
I guess just reading another of the constant barrage of "it so hard to be a woman" has put me in a bad mood.