What a Bunch of Guys Think About the New HBO Series Girls

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
April 15 2012 11:00 PM

Guys on Girls

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A still of Alison Williams, Christopher Abbott, and Jemima Kirke on Girls (HBO)

David Haglund: So, Girls premiered tonight on HBO (with an episode that is now available online) and instantly became the best show on TV. That’s right: Like TV critic Emily Nussbaum, I’m “a goner, a convert”; I love this show. Nussbaum compares it to Louis C.K.’s Louie—now, perhaps, the second-best show on TV—as a singular comic vision (Lena Dunham writes, directs, and stars in Girls). Girls is less formally daring than Louie, but feels more radical anyway—thanks largely to its subject matter. Sure, other shows (including a bunch of new ones) have portrayed the post-collegiate lives of young women, but not, as far as I know, with this degree of realism and candor.

Girls is getting a lot of attention for being so frank about sex; it’s also frank about money. The pilot is mostly about how Hannah, the Dunham character, can no longer afford to live in New York; her year-long internship has not turned into a paying job and her parents don’t want to support her anymore. We learn how much another character, Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) pays in rent, how much a third (Ray, played by Alex Karpovsky) owes in student loans, and how much yet another (Adam, played by Adam Driver) gets from his grandmother each month, allowing him to pursue carpentry and acting. All the figures are plausible. And at the end of the show, Dunham takes the $20 her parents left for the housekeeper in a hotel.

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This is typical of the show’s realism, which is key to its quality. Also, it’s hilarious. And yes, it is decidedly from a woman’s point of view, which, despite sexist claims to the contrary, remains disproportionately rare on both TV and film. At one point, as Hannah’s best friend Marnie (Alison Williams) complains about her boyfriend, Hannah says, “you’re sick of eating him out. [Beat.] Because he has a vagina.” Dunham delivers the line perfectly, one that surprises with its meanness and its complicated sexual politics. (It’s so much better than all the other recent vagina jokes on TV.) Marnie’s boyfriend, they agree, is too wimpy; Hannah’s non-committal non-boyfriend Adam, with his domineering approach to sex and his complete self-involvement, is too much the alpha male.

I think both characters are fairly and believably rendered, but I suspect some of you may disagree. What did you think of the men on the show? And did you enjoy it as much as I did?

Dan Kois: I also loved it, more even than I expected to. I liked Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture, but found this funnier, more frank, and more fully realized. And I was looking forward to explaining how the reason we all like it is that we’re nothing like the jerky guys who would surely populate Girls, but now I’m pretty worried I have a vagina like Marnie’s boyfriend. That guy! He’s so nice! It just made my skin crawl!

I did think Ray’s student loans were a little low. Who only has $50,000 in student loans?

J. Bryan Lowder: I’m not as enthusiastic; it’s cute, not great. I appreciated the focus on money—so many shows set in NYC are wildly out of touch with the considerable expenses of being a young person living here—but I wonder how much the economic privilege on display will appeal to viewers (i.e., the majority of people) who don’t live in such a charmed boho situation. I’m basically living a version of these characters’ lives and even I found the whole thing a bit grating.

As for the men, I found them to be caricatures out of a Dan Savage letter. Most of the characters are a touch flat. Hopefully they’ll be fleshed out over time.

Seth Stevenson: Even the older dudes fell into the too-nice/too-dickish dichotomy that appears to define the men on this show. The dad (where have you been, Peter Scolari?) was a neurotic, wishy-washy mess, and the boss at the internship (where have you been, Chris Eigeman?) was a dick. I can forgive the show’s treatment of male characters, though. The women on Entourage were either bikini models or ball-busting Hollywood industry types—and Entourage is the model here, except the aspirational dream is not flashy L.A. excess but romantic Brooklyn angst.

And the show is great fun. Its strengths are Dunham (whose unfazed affect is comedic gold) and Jemima Kirke (who has the soul of a 60-year-old heavy metal roadie trapped inside the body of a lovely young woman).

But no way Shoshanna’s light-flooded lower Manhattan studio cost only $2100.

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A still of Adam Driver on Girls

Kois: Bryan, you weren’t compelled—or at least repelled—by the thoroughly amazing Adam? I thought he was an astonishing character, between his totally inane woodworking chatter, his warm post-coital conversation, and the “quiet game” he requested in between. He didn’t seem like a Dan Savage caricature; he seemed like a nightmare of a modern guy, but one who—like all nightmares—was assembled from bits and pieces of real life.

John Swansburg: I like your idea of looking at Adam as a franken-nightmare of a modern guy, Dan. But I was mostly repelled—and I don’t really enjoy being repelled. I loved Tiny Furniture too, but the one scene I couldn’t quite stomach was when Dunham’s character has sex with a mean jerk in a large pipe in a vacant lot. Maybe I need to take my skirt off, man-up a little, and try to enjoy some squirmy humor. But I would rather smile than wince.

I find myself somewhat confounded by the overwhelmingly positive response Girls has received. The pilot has some very funny moments (I too liked that cunnilingus joke), and some wonderfully observed notes on Dunham’s generation (like when Hannah tells her parents they should be grateful she isn’t a pill freak). But best show on television? I laughed often, but not a lot more than I do during an episode of Happy Endings. That’s unfair to Girls, which is a more sophisticated undertaking—but I don’t think the show has reinvented comedy, something you could plausibly say about Louie.

And for each of the acidly accurate observations about the life of a twenty-something, there was a clunky attempt at being au courant: the too-easy “get me a coconut water and a Vitamin water” line, or the “the totem of chat” bit, which felt like a bad Barney Stinson riff and unworthy of the better material here (like everything in the amazing exchange between Dunham and Chris Eigeman). My favorite material: Ray on McDonald’s. Not because it was funny, but because it’s totally true!

Haglund: I’m with Dan: Adam is an amazing character. He’s not an out-an-out cad, like, say, Jon Hamm’s amusing but one-note villain from Bridesmaids. He’s self-involved, sure (when Hannah comes to see him, he doesn’t even invite her to sit anywhere), but also (unlike that Hamm villain) honest, which is part of his appeal to Hannah. She knows that he sincerely enjoys being with her and is genuinely attracted to her. When he says, “You’re not that fat anymore,” that probably both stings and, oddly, buoys her (kind of like their relationship in general).

And you know what? Most 24-year-old guys are sort of awful. I’m pretty sure I was a bit like both Marnie’s boyfriend and Hannah’s boyfriend when I was that age (and OK, maybe not just that age).

Swansburg: I refuse to believe that David Haglund was ever like Adam, even in the dark years of his 20s. Although I could see you having a woodworking sidelight, David. Enjoying the honesty of the work.

Daniel Engber: And playing the quiet game. Ray, the opinionated loudmouth with a fondness for opium tea, is the one I identify with. Vagina Guy and Rape-y Guy did seem a bit more like girl-talk creations than real people.

Haglund: You are definitely a Ray. That MacDonald’s riff was a very #slatepitches moment—and Ray strikes me as a guy who likes to explain things. And perhaps likes to “mansplain” things (which, to be fair, I’ve never seen Engber do)—one of the show’s ads suggests Ray has a condescending side.

Kois: The pilot suggests Ray has a condescending side! He is condescending! Also he is played by Alex Karpovsky, an interesting young filmmaker and an actor who’s carving out a spot as his generation’s Chris Eigeman.

Stevenson: Or a generation’s Chris Eigeman...

Lowder: Dan, I didn’t find Adam repulsive—just beyond human comprehension. I have never met anyone resembling Adam, and if I ever did, I’d probably find him equally ridiculous (which is very different from funny).

Swansburg: Well said, Bryan. I couldn’t relate to the idea of wanting to spend time with this asshole. Are all modern guys dicks who get by on checks from their grandmas and whatever their lathing and sanding brings in?

Stevenson: I could see what Hannah liked about him. He’s affectionate, he lives in the moment, and he gives her some goofy, ape-chested good times. I think her only problem with him is that the relationship is all on his terms.

Engber: I’ve met Adams before. In fact, some Adams have had sleazy sex with people I know. The most believable Adam moment, I thought, was when he pulled up the chair and sat in it the wrong way around. Total Adam move!

Swansburg: It’s pretty clear Hannah doesn’t actually enjoy the sex though, right? In addition to not being comfortable with his attempt to try something new (ahem), it seemed like she also was mainly concerned with his experience of the act, not her own. Is that the price of post-coital quasi-affection? Doesn’t seem like a great deal to me.

Kois: I would really like the Girls of Slate to explain to the Guys of Slate why guys like Adam are both unbelievably awful to us and believably appealing to a 24-year-old woman. Because they are.

Swansburg: What did you guys make of the show’s various references to other shows? The pilot seemed at pains to note its influences—or to declare its differences from series that have come before. Hannah and Marnie fall asleep watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show (my favorite sitcom of all time, for those wondering whether this guy can enjoy a show about a girl trying to make it on her own). Eigeman’s presence is a nod to Whit Stillman, Gilmore Girls, or both. And there’s the whole Sex and the City riff.

Haglund: There was also a Clueless reference—and I want to interpret the mention in one episode of a boyfriend’s semester in Prague as a Kicking & Screaming allusion.

Stevenson: I streamed Walking and Talking last night—so many scenes of female friendship marked by low-key intimacy. I think that, with her hyper-realistic focus on money issues, body image, and female camaraderie, Holofcener is the godmother of Girls.

Swansburg: Was the Sex and the City bit acknowledging that Girls is basically borrowing the SATC archetype? Or is it asserting that Girls is up to something different?

Kois: I’d say it’s doing both—and acknowledging that of course Girls’ girls have seen it (arch, British Jessa excluded), and even think of themselves in those terms, even if they, like most young women in New York, recognize the patent absurdity of comparing oneself to fabulously unrealistic fictional characters. It’s too bad there’s no male equivalent. Is there? Are young Manhattan men comparing themselves to the cast of How to Make It in America? “You’re so totally a… [pauses, checks IMDb]… Kappo!”

Swansburg: We’re totally the dudes from Big Bang Theory.

Haglund: Maybe some guys say “You’re clearly a Turtle?”

Stevenson: Dudes do say, “You’re the Turtle.” That’s because some dudes want to live inside Entourage but no one wants to live inside, watch, or basically ever hear another sentence about How to Make it in America.

Swansburg: I liked that Hannah’s parents are professors—wealthy enough that they could float their (only) daughter for two years, but not so wealthy that they’d do it indefinitely. And it was funny to have the mom reveal, at the end of the episode, that this was less about teaching Hannah a lesson, or about tight finances, but about her desire for a lake house—so she can “sit by a fucking lake!”

Kois: As the father of daughters whose “groovy lifestyles” I assume I will one day be supporting, that line hit close to home. I too want to sit by a fucking lake.

Lowder: A friend once told me that modern Williamsburg is a neighborhood built by the parents of the people living there, and Girls does an admirable job pointing that truism out. So many people in my segment of my generation depend on some amount of family support—if they’re lucky enough to have it—and that hidden economy often goes unacknowledged. Really, the appeal of this show is less gender-specific than generation-specific, I think. The overall narrative felt strikingly familiar.

Stevenson: Have we seen this kind of sex on TV before? The long take where Hannah struggles to strip off her tights, prone on the stained couch… I don’t think you see sex portrayed as an utterly squalid act in other shows. And I suspect we’ll be getting a lot more of this as the series rolls on. Maybe this is the defining difference between the young male and the young female perspective: Fans of Entourage can’t imagine sex as anything other than a hot tub/bong hit/supermodel orgy, while fans of Girls imagine themselves inhaling dust-mites while pleading for dudes not to penetrate the wrong hole.

Besides the squalid sex, I think the other truly new thing here is the body image contemplation. Dunham’s first line is “I’m a growing girl,” spoken with a full mouth as she grabs more food off her plate with her hands. (Funny how she gets cut off financially right after being told she eats too fast.) Throughout the show she laments her shape, reveals it to the camera, discusses taking control of it. This may be an aspect of Girls that we are ill-equipped to appreciate on the same emotional level as our female colleagues.

Haglund: Let’s turn things over to Hanna Rosin & co. for more on the female shape, the appeal of squalid sex, and which among us is an Adam, a Ray, or a Turtle.

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

Dan Kois is Slate's culture editor and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.