This week, I’d like to take a break from pouring haterade on films you love to talk about what’s happening on TV. I’m here to talk to you about Girls. At this point during its run, HBO’s Girls (a.k.a. the best show on TV everyone complains about but no one actually watches) has been blamed for almost everything from bringing back apartheid to giving entitled trust fund kids more power (because when you talk about them, it only makes them stronger!) and making Brooklyn think it’s a real place full of people.
The only other people I know who seem to watch this show are my friend, Adam, who actually likes it, and Gawker, which devotes hours on end to convincing me that this show heralds the onslaught of the hipster apocalypse. Look, I’m no stranger to making critical exaggerations for effect. I once had to review an album by an indie folk artist named Jenny Gillespie, and I truly thought it was one of the worst things I had ever heard. And I very colorfully told Gillespie so, suggesting that her music would be better served if she were mute.
Even though I stood by what I wrote and took perverse pleasure in skewing the album, as bashing something is always more fun and easier than praising it, I always felt like a jerk for that review. What made matters worse is that the singer actually contacted me about the piece and how hurt she was by it; she even considered quitting her career afterward. When criticizing, we should use our voice constructively, because our words matter. Peoples’ feelings are involved.
Like Simon Cowell and Armond White before us, relying on negativity for the sake of negativity diminishes the power of our criticism or our ability to be taken seriously. When we find fault or find the hipster apocalypse in everything, when we needlessly dogpile on artists or programs that could benefit from an honest critique, we ensure that our words will not be heeded. This is especially important when discussing a show like Girls, one that is currently in the middle of its run and has the ability to improve week to week. Many great TV shows (of which I think Girls is already one) have taken the criticism of their early episodes to heart and intentionally worked to fix those.
Parks and Recreation, Seinfeld, Happy Endings and the cancelled-too-early CBS sitcom The Class began poorly but got better every single week, and the love-it-or-hate cultural phenomenon Lost was famous for navigating the show based on audience response. Creators Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse even killed off two of their favorite characters at the sustained urging of their fans.
Like Lost, Girls is the type of extremely polarizing entertainment that only comes along once in a blue moon, the cultural lightning rod you must have an opinion on—just so as long as it’s a negative one. Sure, we can talk about its issues until the hipsters come home, but I feel like solely focusing on its perceived faults and lack of inclusivity damages the appreciation of a show that is a comment on that very thing; it’s like arguing with someone you agree with. The problem lies in discerning the nature of that critique.
In creating Girls, Judd Apatow relies on the same strange blend of satire and empathy that his other works are notable for, especially Anchorman and Talladega Nights, which Apatow produced. Taking their cues from Christopher Guest, each film is a gentle mockery of its profession that treats its characters with compassion, rather than just blind scorn. Like Guest and Robert Altman before him, it can be hard to tell if Apatow is critiquing his subjects or celebrating them. The answer is always both, which is a hard tone for many to swallow. As the backlash against the show indicates, savagery is easier.
However, I think this hybrid tone makes the show richer and more interesting, especially when you know that so much of the script is based on Lena Dunham’s own experiences after graduating college. The target of her ribbing isn’t necessarily young people or The Way We Live Now; the script reads as an exploration of her own twenty-something arrogance, self-involvement and trust-fund entitlement. Like Young Adult, the show is so riotously funny only because Hannah (played by Dunham) and her friends are so casually terrible and insensitive, and the scene where Hannah explains why she’s afraid of getting HIV to a gynecologist illustrates her character’s bottomless self-centeredness so well it’s physically painful to watch.
This is why I think that criticism of the show’s diversity misses the point. These girls are so selfish and narrow-minded that I have a hard time believing that they would be friends with anyone who wasn’t like them, and anything more would feel like blatant tokenism. If you’re creating a world that these characters would live in, as Dunham so perfectly does, why would you surround them by a cast of characters that they wouldn’t be friends with? Imagine a Whit Stillman movie (a director known for critiquing the same class of young people) populated by the cast of A Different World. It just doesn’t make sense.
Recently, Dunham and Apatow announced that Donald Glover would be joining the cast next season to help fix the show’s diversity problems. Of course, the decision was met with more of the same internet pushback, alleging that the casting of Glover is a tokenizing move—which it is. Ironically, that move will likely play into the same “hipster racism” critique that staff writer Lesley Arfin was personally (and rightly) skewered over, as Glover is consciously being brought on to be the “black friend.” I hope that Dunham, whose talent I sincerely believe in, takes this moment as an opportunity to prove her critics wrong, but I wonder if they even want that. Her critics don’t want change; they only want to be right.