Before I start reviewing Girls, I have to express my disappointment in Lena Dunham’s casting decisions. Plenty has been said about how startlingly white the actors are, but that doesn’t excuse the rest of us from continuing to discuss what is a blatantly irresponsible creative choice. Tiny Furniture, Dunham’s breakout indie film, showed audiences that Dunham is familiar enough with gender theory. Each flash of cellulite and glimpse of adult acne was meant to subvert expectations of what a privileged young woman should look and act like. But that same understanding makes it hard to believe that she doesn’t also have some grasp on the media’s failure to provide audiences with racially diverse casts. Brooklyn, even post-liberal arts college Brooklyn, is a racially diverse environment and Dunham has ignored the reality of her setting in favor of casting some Hollywood offspring and a weirdly muscular white guy with a very tiny head. It’s no secret that Dunham is a smart young woman, but by not taking advantage of a huge opportunity to really create media that is subversive (instead of just claiming to be such) she has really let us all down.
In the pilot episode of Girls, we are introduced to Hannah, the only child of two professors with what looks like an internship at indie publisher Melville House. The show opens on Hannah’s intellectual parents’ half-assed attempt at cutting her off financially, a reality that takes a while to set in. Hannah is aghast, saying that she is “Busy trying to become who I am.” Hannah is much different from Tiny Furniture’s Aura, and thus further from Dunham herself; not raised in New York City, not the daughter of a successful conceptual artist, and not as exposed to the camera. Her face is decidedly more made up this time around, depriving viewers of the pitiful intimacy that makes Aura that much more likable (barely) than Hannah.
After Hannah, Girls rolls out brunette trio Marnie (Allison Williams), Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) and Jessa (endearing Tiny Furniture alum, Jemima Kirke). Each girl is drawn with broad strokes and ultimately lacks teeth. Good girl Marnie secretly hates her perfect boyfriend, while bad girl Jessa is knocked up, which is supposed to make her sympathetic and not really bad at all.
Hannah’s flaky love interest Adam (Adam Driver) is a more fully realized character, a depressingly realistic guy playing at woodwork and employing old-timey phrases like “frisky” and “buffoons” to distract from his own plainness. His flip response to Hannah’s request that he use a condom (“I’ll consider it”) suggests that he is of the post-sexual education mindset, not afraid of HIV and STDs because he is completely familiar with the rhetoric, desensitized to the dangers of unprotected sex by sex itself—how postmodern! He is also the kind of guy that probably calls girls’ legs “gams” and refers to ladies as “broads.”
But Dunham is smart, and the pilot episode responds to much of the criticism already leveled at the show. Shoshanna’s comedic aside about Sex and the City is a signifier that Girls is decidedly not Sex and the City. Another white brunette guy (IMDB says his name is Ray and he is played by Tiny Furniture alum Alex Karpovsky) functions as a Greek chorus, asking Hannah “What’s wrong with [working at] McDonalds?” and saying that listening to her pretend to be above food services is like “watching Clueless.” But acknowledging that Girls may be Sex and The City II or about a bunch of spoiled white girls doesn’t prove that it isn’t; instead, it just confirms that the show’s writers are thinking it too.
But Girls is shaped like a comedy about friendship, and I enjoyed the pilot most when it was trying the least—Hannah mixing up the word “twigs” with “Twix,” a Coldplay joke, a very high mumbling boyfriend—and the writing was most real. Hannah telling her parents that an $1100 monthly stipend is “thrifty” is ridiculous and exaggerated, but Hannah stealing the tip meant for hotel housekeeping is fluid and feels true to the character. It’s sad, sure, but in her position, we’d do the same.