Sunday, February 24, 2013

TV Watch: Cutting loose from four HBO and Showtime comedies -- I don't want these people in my home!


Now that I've cut the cord, I guess I'll miss Marnie (Allison Williams, right), though not the torture the show puts her through. I won't miss Hannah (series creator-writer-director Lena Dunham, left), and I'm thrilled to be free of the utterly loathsome Jessa (Jemima Kirke).

"You know, I want to like you, but sometimes you make it so hard."
-- Walden (Ashton Kutcher), to Alan (Jon Cryer),
in last week's episode of Two and a Half Men

by Ken

As I mentioned last night, this week I finally took the step of purging a batch of HBO and Showtime comedies from my DVR "Series Manager." They're all shows -- HBO's Girls and Enlightened and Showtimes Californication and House of Lies -- that had ingredients which made me want to like them, and I stuck with them through at least one season (and quite a lot more in the case of Californication).

But after watching the first four episodes of Season 2 of Girls in more or less one fell swoop, and being unable to get through as much as one new episode of Californication or House of Lies, I called it quits. (I couldn't even bear to face another episode of Enlightened.) I'd already started deleting their "scheduled" recordings. Finally I wiped all the already-recorded episodes and purged them from my "Series Manager."

I'm going to start with Girls, and I won't be surprised if that's as much as I can bear to deal with for now. The unifying thread, though, is that whatever appeal the characters of these shows may once have held for me -- and for me TV is without question a character-driven medium -- they have become pretty much repellent to me. I just don't want any of them in my home anymore.

An awful lot has been written about Girls, which is created, co-produced, co-starred and largely written and directed by Lena Dunham, and I've lost most impulse to add to it. Perhaps not surprisingly, women writers have been out in force on the subject, reaching for profundities so stupid, you wonder how the printed pages and/or computer screens don't spontaneously combust -- or perhaps the writers. One piece widely hailed as a landmark in criticism informed us that the large quantity of bad sex depicted is a breakthrough because we hardly ever get to see how much of the world's sex is bad.

It's a basic fact of life that many of us have a certain amount of insight into what's wrong with other people and much, much less about what's wrong with ourselves. In the case of these characters, the first part is there at a low level and the second part drops to near-zero. In one of the HBO bonus features that aired, as I recall, at or near the start of Season 2, Dunham told us that the characters are near the correct versions of themselves." Not that I can tell. By and large these people have lifted cluelessness to an art form. Yes, I understand that "the girls" (and their male friends) are young, but they aren't 12, they're in their mid-20s and up.

There's no question that Dunham has oodles of talent, and there was so much that at first glance was appealing and interesting about the characters that I stuck with the show through Season 1, and then swallowed four episodes of Season 2 in a single gulp. And that was it for me. There's really nothing here.

It would be one thing if Dunham were writing honestly from what she knows at her stage in life. But the whole thing is so blatantly dishonest. She certainly has a viable theme in her preoccupation with her character's (which is to say her own) unspectacular looks; that has to be a significant reality in our culture. Unfortunately she has next to nothing to offer on the subject excep to keep picking at the wound. Similarly, in the Season 2 opener Dunham thought she was fearlessly tackling the unquestionably important subject of race by writing in an African-American boyfriend for Hannah. We know she thought so because she told us so in her video commentary on the episode. But the episode had absolutely nothing to say about the subject, except a half-hearted "Say, what about race?" Race actually seems to me to have been a minor factor in the failure of yet another of Hannah's relationships.

Then there's the matter of Hannah's "calling" -- her burning conviction that she wants to be a writer, but without any indication of what she might want to write or what she might have to say. Considering that Dunham herself has had an almost unbroken streak of stupendous acclaim for everything she has done at her tender age, the reimagining of herself in this would-be writer of no visible claim to literary aspiration seems to me a startling fraud.

And for all the appeal of some of the characters, their creator's obtuseness about who they are, where they're going, and where they think they're going is dumbfounding. How clueless did the "girls" have to be to be in awe of the truly monstrous Jessa (Jemima Kirke), who seems incapable of considering anything in life except her pleasure stretching out over, say, the next half-hour. I suppose it will be argued that we've always had male characters like this in our fiction, but rarely this oblivious to the fact that the people around them are people -- and hardly ever presented to us as free-spirited role models for hero-worshipping peers.

Worse, poor Marnie (Allison Williams), Hannah's longtime best friend, the only one of the regular characters who has made any kind of stab at facing up to the real world, seems to serve mostly as a punching bag for Dunham's frustrations, not least for her obviously winning physical appearance.

It doesn't seem to be Hannah nearly as much as Lena who resents Marnie for her looks, and seems to delight in punishing her for any of her successes. It's not that Marnie doesn't take advantage of her looks. In our culture, it's almost impossible not to (after all, people and opportunities come to attractive people without their even having to do anything), but Marine does so less than you can imagine anyone of her attractiveness doing. The show concedes that she's terrible when she does try it (and this season suffers the indignities, not just of waitressing in a gentlemen's club and having sex with a monstrously horrible sociopathic twit), and what, after all, does she have to show for her looks? Her long experience keeping a pathetically insecure shell of a boyfriend in tow? Toiling away at a not much more than entry-level job at an art gallery, and getting next to nothing except a modest paycheck? And then getting summarily fired by a pretentiously arty monster-bitch (played, queasily, by Dunham's mother).

There was originally some fascination in the relationship between Hannah and Marnie. to establish that Hannah and Marnie have been equally deficient friends to each other. But from what we've been shown, it isn't even close.

Then there are the men. But they're so uniformly appalling -- and again without a clue even where to begin looking for a clue about the real world -- that I can't even see any point in going into it. Again, though, if you wrote female characters like these in a male-centered show, women would be screaming bloody murder (and rightly so!).

As I suspected, this has taken so much out of me that I don't have the heart to proceed to the other three fiascos. But they have some important common threads -- namely their consistent representation of central characters with essentially no redeeming qualities -- that we should probably say something about them. Next week maybe, if I can rally.

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At 11:39 AM, Anonymous Bil said...

LOVE House of Lies (consultant:) and have fingers crossed for Californication this season to be even MORE predictably unpredictable from the daughter 4 sure, Hank's new muse and his old lady's due for a new horse to ride as well- maybe time for a lesbian phase... Excellent.


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