Friday, March 29, 2013

Girls and New Girls

In the throes of funemployment, I've been binge-watching TV.

FYI, in case you missed it, binge-watching is the way we watch TV now. We download seasons, we watch 'em on Netflix, we buy them on DVD, and then we sit down and watch seven seasons of The West Wing in a row. This isn't really as crazy as it sounds, unless you're watching network dramas, since a season of HBO sitcom clocks in at about ten hours and a full season of a network sitcom costs you about eight; pay-cable seasons of dramas usually run about ten to fifteen hours. Even if you're being judicious and only watching an hour a day - peanuts, I tell you! - you can burn through a quality season in less than a week.

I did this a few months ago with How I Met Your Mother, which, even under the febrile influence of influenza, turned out to be a mistake. Recently, I've been working through HBO's Girls and network sitcom New Girl, both of which reside in a pop-culture place where your friends might watch it, and they might talk about it at parties, but it's not something that your mom will tune in for. Girls has the advantage here - consistently buzzy, the show is HBO (instant cachet), with controversial storylines crafted by high-profile writing ingenues. But I'm going to make the case for New Girls being the stronger of the two shows, even as they cover similar ground.

At the beginning of season two, New Girl shifted into hashtag-OWS territory: Jess lost her job due to downsizing, and her only professional options seemed to be humiliating gigs at places like the amazingly-named Casserole Shanty. Jess (Zooey Deschanel) was the series's initial draw - a genuine movie star, slumming for network TV! - but the show has always been best as an ensemble. Max Greenfield's Schmidt was last season's breakout star, but New Girl has resisted the urge to Fonzie-ize him; instead, the four roommates have found a lovely balance. I especially love that the criminally underutilized Winston has become the show's arched eyebrow of grounded real-talk in the face of Nick's "get off my lawn" crankiness, Schmidt's cartoonish douchery, and Jess's big-eyed Bambi act.

Where HIMYM's comedy often skews a little soft by working on a character's daddy issues, say, before a punchline, New Girl is nimbler. The recent death of Nick's dad conjured up a nice blend of wet eyes and snorts: the roommates, having just huffed helium balloons, comfort Nick in his loss with the squeaky-yet-earnest voices of cartoon characters. The nice thing is that the moment is completely in character for everyone: Nick, practically swatting his roomies away, and the other three surrounding him Mickey Mouse condolences.

The show is bright, quickly plotted without suffering from convolutions. Deschanel's "adorkability" has been mitigated against everyone else's character nuances, and their chemistry together is palpable. New Girl's aesthetic is  very blue-sky, very Portland-vintage-sweater. Everyone's hair is shiny. Even the hobos demand a 2% latte. And it's a pleasure watching the characters stumble through their late twenties jobs: Schmidt is successful, Winston is ascendant, Jess took a tumble, and Nick can barely get out of his Lay-Z-Boy. I like that the show ventures outside the loft to their workplaces; that we get shown, not told, about how a sticky job interview went down or how a promotion was earned.

Which brings me to Girls. I was chatting recently with a smart friend, who pointed out that, even if the popular conception is that there's only a degree or two of difference between Lena Dunham and Hannah, the character she plays on TV, there is at least one important divergence: unlike Hannah, Dunham has never been the kind of girl to fumble her professional game. At the age of 26, she's writing, producing, directing, and starring in a highly-acclaimed show on a well-respected network. She has a book deal worth millions. Girlfriend has it figure out.

Girls is one of those shows that's tough to watch impassively. The characters often do unlikable things, and while I can handle a despicable character or six in a show, I do enjoy having at least one person to root for. Ostensibly, that should be Hannah: she's the center of the show, the sun around which the other characters turn. But Hannah, as it turns out, is deeply banal, incredibly trite, and militant about how much emotional work she's doing even as she remains a little girl.

One of the show's more controversial second-season episodes revolved around Hannah's weekend-long encounter with a handsome older doctor. The half-hour episode felt like a play: Hannah meets her tryst when she confesses to dumping her garbage in his cans, and instead of smiling tightly and closing the door in her face, he reciprocates her kiss. Critics of the episode felt that it was wish fulfillment (Dunham may be a genius [or not], but her soft body type is rarely seen on TV), that Hannah didn't "deserve" the recently-separated doctor's attention, and that he was too good looking for Hannah.

To which I reply: shut up, haters, because I've had weekend love affairs with men who are much better looking than I am, and also slummed it with amazing, if slightly odd-looking, compatriots. I had no issues with the doctor's interest in her. But at the end of the episode, after a fainting spell in his steamroom (!!), Hannah realizes, and subsequently confesses in a squirm-inducing monologue, that all she wanted all along is to be loved and feel safe. After a few years of searching out experiences like "having someone punch me in the chest, and then come on the spot they punched me," Hannah recognizes that it feels nice to feel safe. She feels that she is broken, that she lies, and that she seeks out pain, and that seeking haven is shameful, even as she craves it. .

And this is such a snore. Literally every young person goes through a phase of questioning their worth; rarely do we have this presented in neon lights. Hannah's panic over normalcy might be frightening or amusing for people who are far enough away from that feeling, but for those of us who were in our mid-twenties only a couple years ago, my response is, Girl, please. You ain't nothing special. Dunham herself has proved special, but Hanna has yet to do anything of note. And so her multi-season arc of being insufferable as she :finds herself" or whatever young artists do, is unearned. All I'm doing is watching some girl slam against the walls as she figures out what she's supposed to do with her life, and I can do that for free at home.

One the whole, I believe that New Girl does a better job of being a TV show. It's an ensemble where the different characters hang together; this season on Girls has felt very fractured as the group splintered. It's a comedy, with definite beats and jokes and call-backs and flash-forwards; Girls, while funny, isn't LOL-worthy. There's no doubt that the characters on Girls are changing, but are they evolving or regressing? I guess the litmus test is, would I want to hang out with these people? After all, that's what watching a show is: hanging out, week after week, getting into their lives. Good TV makes you wish you were neighbours in real life, which is how I feel about the New Girl gang. But I think I would roll my eyes at Hannah and her Girls, because they need a quick shake and a stern talk, not season after season of it's-all-so-complicated drivel.