Girls Guilt, Quitting Television and The Wire


This winter, I watched the approach of another season of Girls with a totally mature internal whine of, “Do I have to?” And yes, there’s the obvious answer: “Of course not, you crazy person – television is something you watch for entertainment and fascination with pop culture, so if something isn’t entertaining you, then just stop watching.” That doesn’t completely obviate the guilt I’ve mentioned I’ve had about not liking Girls, partly because I do think that Lena Dunham is extraordinarily talented and the violence of some of the hatred directed her way over Girls has sickened me.

That said, not liking the criticisms of something doesn’t translate into liking the thing itself. And Girls, for whatever reasons, hasn’t worked for me. Part of it is the somewhat-sour general worldview and tone of the show, which has gotten Dunham regularly compared to Larry David and Louis C.K. – two caustic sad sacks who I also find talented but not particularly my jam. I haven’t ever made it through a full season of either of their shows, even though I’ve admired the underlying cleverness and humor that both of those men manage. I made it through a full season of Girls, but then I fell behind on the second, and haven’t mustered the interest to get caught up for the third. So this isn’t a post about how I don’t like Girls; I’m not qualified to write a current version of that. It’s a post about why I’m trying to let myself off the hook for not investing more time trying to like it.

A lot of my Girls guilt is feminist guilt, the idea of wanting to support or at least care about a show that, on paper, cares about so many of the same things I care about in the television I watch. But compared to even just a few years ago, the options aren’t restricted to Girls or nothing. It’s starting to be a lot easier to find good television by and about women, depicting a variety of women’s experiences. And it’s easier to find a variety of kinds of television shows by and about women – so that if the Louis C.K.-style humor of social awkwardness isn’t my thing, there’s actually several other Prestige Dramas (The Good Wife, Orange Is the New Black), or a Serious Spy Show (The Americans), or a Silly Spy Show (Covert Affairs), or a smart sitcom (Parks & Rec), or a couple of outstandingly ambitious, if very different, sci-fi shows with multiple women leads (Orphan Black and Sleepy Hollow). Not to mention the many interesting women protagonists of Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, Nashville, Elementary, Homeland, The Mindy Project, Downton Abbey

Some of my Girls guilt is also pop-culture relevance guilt, the desire to stay current with the TV that sparks all of the interesting criticism going on online. And Girls probably has one of the highest critic-to-viewer ratios out there. It was one of the two shows I immediately thought of when I read Anne Helen Petersen’s terrific “Dear Television” essay in praise of quitting television shows (“We need to be economical: there’s too much out there to love, so why spend time watching what you don’t?”). The other one, somewhat incongruously, was The Wire.

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TV I like: Bunheads, Girls and the chronicles of failure

As an alternative to my griping about The Newsroom, here’s a summer TV series I’m enjoying: Bunheads, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s ABC Family followup to Gilmore Girls. It works more like a prequel — Sutton Foster’s Michelle is what Lorelai Gilmore would have been like unfettered by a teenage pregnancy, or at least before it. (I still expect Michelle to wind up with a pregnancy from her dead stalker husband by the end of next week’s episode the season.)

Bunheads isn’t perfect by any means. Jacob Clifton at Television Without Pity is one of the few writers recapping it regularly, and I totally get and enjoy his mounting hysteria at how nonsensical the show can be. (Though I’ve kind of embraced it and all its crazy, inexplicable Istanbul (Not Constantinople) dance routines.) The pacing is totally off — major plot points often happen as the credits are literally rolling. And I’m disappointed that the show a) killed off Michelle’s stalker husband at the end of the first episode and b) has largely bungled the handling of his death’s aftermath. Michelle’s hysterical breakdown tonight in the bed of her random date was not convincing after several episodes in which the show’s bright colors and strummy Gilmore Girls guitar music and quirky small-town-shenanigans took far more precedence than actual mentions of the death of a longtime resident and son and last-minute husband.

But while I don’t love all of its execution, Bunheads is still one of the most fascinating shows on television right now, largely because it’s a show completely about failure and moving on from failure. Every significant character in the show has failed, and failed big. Fanny abandoned her professional dreams when she became pregnant, building a life around a son who died off-screen. Michelle frittered her ambitions away when she left ballet for the party life of a Vegas showgirl. Boo, the most sympathetic of the younger generation, knows and is regularly told that she doesn’t have the body to succeed in ballet, despite all of her efforts to prove otherwise. Sasha, the least sympathetic of the younger generation, has all the physicality and talent to succeed in ballet but is hell-bent on throwing it away and becoming a second-generation Michelle. 

I’m watching this while I’m trying to get caught up with Girls, which is fine and interesting in some parts and has me largely admiring Lena Dunham, but which still feels like a chore to watch rather than something I look forward to. Girls isn’t ultimately about real stakes to me, because its characters are too young or diffident or uncommitted to have real stakes in play, or at least stakes that I buy into. Girls flirts with the fear of failure rather than its actuality.

"You squandered a lot of potential."

"I know."

"Are you sorry?"

"Every day of my life."

Bunheads could be grim and devastating on a channel like AMC or HBO, in the hands of a different writer and a cable network devoted to Serious Drama That Says Something About Humanity. ABC Family is anything but — and to be fair to it, grim isn’t in Sherman-Palladino’s paintbox. I’m sorry that Michelle’s brief husband died, because I really wanted to see them navigate a marriage where both knew that she wasn’t in love and had accepted him as an escape rather than a life partner. But that would probably be a different show and a different writer. Somehow, with its cutesy name and awful title sequence and quirky-comedy veneer, Bunheads still manages to come at failure and its consequences sideways, sharply. It’s probably the best, most light-hearted show about tragedy I’ve ever seen.

Aaron Sorkin’s Woman-on-Woman Problem

It’s Jane Fonda’s network CEO dismissing Michele Bachmann as “a hairdo.”

It’s Emily Mortimer praising Alison Pill by offering to take her shopping.

It’s Emily Mortimer offering Olivia Munn a job, having Olivia Munn demure because there are more talented men out there, and having Emily press her case with, “The thing is, they won’t have your legs.”

Women don’t talk to each other this way at work. We don’t bring up each other’s cute shoes on deadline. We don’t decline job offers by calling ourselves unqualified. We don’t tell each other directly, “You’re only getting this job because you’re hot.”

We may think that, we may bitch about it to our friends, we certainly realize that being hot helps - and we certainly don’t have to spell it out for each other. We can be dismissive of Michele Bachmann or interested in each other’s cute work outfits or resentful and catty when the thinner, prettier, blonder woman gets the promotion. That happens. It doesn’t happen like this.

I admit, this is just a sliver of the Aaron-Sorkin-misogynist narrative that came roaring back with The Newsroom, and honestly, it’s not the most important part of it. It’s not the thing that bothered me or most reviewers the most in the first three episodes — it’s hard to get worked up about Sorkin flunking the spirit of the Bechdel test when he’s got his veteran war correspondent melting into a puddle of hysterical-adulterer goo when faced with the deeper mysteries of e-mail, or the passive receptionist being schooled in the Art of Journalism and surviving panic attacks by her all-knowing boss, who also wants to save her from her jerk boyfriend. Sorkin has deep woman problems, and now "Internet Girl" problems, which are all infuriating.

But as a longtime watcher of his work, and someone who still holds out a faint hope for The Newsroom to get better, one of the most jarring problems with the show is how its women speak to and about other women. (Should Jane Fonda really dismiss Michele Bachmann as a hairdo in an election cycle that also gave us the follicle wonders of Ricks Perry and Santorum?)

It’s an irritating tone-deafness from Sorkin, who otherwise can have a wonderful ear for banter and dialogue. His movies and television shows are all sound, words being thrown back and forth in friendly argument or righteous argument or romantic argument. The latter two are more on display so far in The Newsroom, which puts it at a disadvantage - Sports Night and The West Wing, at their best, reveled in the art of the friendly argument between smart people who respected each other. Most of the time those people were men, because it’s Sorkin and that’s who he’s comfortable writing. And when those people are women, like Dana and Natalie on Sports Night, 95% of the time they were talking about their romantic woes and not their work woes.

That’s ultimately what disappoints me the most. Sorkin’s never going to write a romantic relationship that I take seriously, and I’m not expecting him to take lessons from Lena Dunham or Shonda Rhimes or Amy Sherman-Palladino anytime soon. But he cares about workplace drama in a more intellectual, more idealized way than most television writers do, and he devotes most of his shows to the rhythms and relationships of working in an office, in the media business, surrounded by people who are passionate about their jobs. How women talk to each other and work with each other could be and should be a big part of that.

I’m still disappointed with him for The West Wing, for creating the character of C.J. Cregg and having her navigate the boys-club of the Bartlet administration without giving her a female professional equal to commiserate with - not just to have another powerful woman character in the show, but because I was a lot more interested than Sorkin was in how C.J. dealt with being regularly kept out of the White House’s most important discussions. He nodded at the problems for her as the most senior female aide, but wasn’t particularly interested in exploring them. Maureen Ryan pointed out a similar problem with the Mortimer-Munn “legs” discussion in last week’s Newsroom:

This is not news to anyone—the idea that, even more than men, women in broadcast news are judged on their looks. But what was really missing from that scene was a sense of camaraderie between women who recognize this unfortunate truth with a sense of rueful regret. That wasn’t the vibe at all.

Sorkin has written a television show about television news, where the professional stakes for women are amplified by an environment that prizes their physical appearance. I’d love to see him take his own set-up seriously.

Or, all of my reactions to The Thing that is Lena Dunham’s Girls, encapsulated in the 2.5-second kicker.

Via Vulture: Watch ‘Sh*t Girls Say About Girls’.