Last night I finally got around to watching the debut episode of GIRLS on HBO. I found that I enjoyed the show more than I thought I would, which is not really all that surprising, given that I had pretty much the same reaction to TINY FURNITURE, Lena Dunham's accomplished feature from 2010. For me, TINY FURNITURE was an inspired entry in what's loosely known as the Mumblecore style, which has been kicking around the independent film world since at least the early aughts. Unlike much of the mumblecore canon (an amorphous designation in the first place) Dunham's movie was tightly wrought and well-shot. It's relative polish is part of what got it noticed (including by Judd Apatow, who is one of the executive producers on GIRLS), but it was also clearly the work of a unique creative sensibility.
As I feel obliged to note, there's stuff about it that irks me. Dunham's deadpan schtick can get a little grating at times (especially in the way it spills over into the other characters; there is an appeal to this kind of staginess, but it's limited) and some of the writing is flat and self-conscious, like lines from a stand-up routine (it's easy to see what Apatow liked so much about Dunham's comedic style, which is similar to his: confessional, domestic, wry and self-effacing.) Partly, that's simply a stylistic choice, and it works well for the world she's describing: hyperself-conscious twentysomethings who live in an overcrowded and expensive city. New York City is central to the show; teeming with possibility, but overwhelming and intimidating. Making it, for these girls, is about more than just getting by, but about self-creation, (and, yes, self-validation) and part of that project is the need to discover a reasonable set of parameters by which to "create" themselves. This is the special sauce that makes GIRLS a unique, and, I daresay, even an "important" show. People who've slung mud at Dunham for her apparently cloistered world are missing the simple truth of American culture - elites exist, like it or not, and they are a useful lens through which to view Contemporary US society.
--- Which is not to say that Dunham's project is a vivisection of circa-2012 American Culture. But what is most significant about the scope of the show is it's dramatization of the contemporary need for self-creation, especially with the younger generations. Not long ago, I might have said that this need was another example of the "too much freedom" concept that has seemed to carry some water in cultural-critical circles for some time. But that idea seems to me now as more of a canard, even the obverse of the actual "problem", if we're going to go full-didactic and call it such. Anyway, that's a familiar trope going back at least as far as Gatsby, and I think that the contemporary iteration is something different. As Dunham notes in the first episode, she believes that she could be "a voice...of a generation." What we're seeing - the truth that the joke tells - is a calling into question of such grandiose ideas of "the voice of the generation." Make no mistake, there is burning ambition in Dunham's character, but it's mixed up with all kinds of ambivalence about the generation(s) in question, and the need for them to have any one voice, or the need to speak for anyone other than herself. She's still living, like all of us, in the culture of American achievement, fame, and celebrity. She's still learning about the terrible loneliness at the heart of the cult of individualism, the great price paid for the building-up of the self. But the contemporary scope of celebrity is skewed toward the small-scale; the minor details, the inconsistencies, the pettiness of it all. To be great is to now be worthy of self-deprecation, or deprecation by the culture at large.
So there's more to say about this one, and in truth, I've only seen a couple of the episodes. So far, it does seem as though Dunham is offering a refreshing and contemporary take on the Bildungsroman, accessing fairly common ideas of growing up through a narrow but revealing range of experience.