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Review: 'Girls' Unfortunately Stumbles Into Sitcom Territory

by Kevin Jagernauth
May 6, 2012 11:00 PM
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Season 1, Episode 4: "Hannah's Diary"

As we mentioned in our review of the season premiere, "Girls" came out of the gate strong, exhibiting a fresh approach and confidence that many shows don't often have in their first season. Navigating the complexities of sex, relationships and friendships between young women in Manhattan, Lena Dunham's effort seemed to sidestep the usual structure and expectations of the half hour format for something a bit more direct and honest. And while we figured "Girls" would stumble at some point, or perhaps deliver an episode below the standard set thus far, we didn't expect it to be so soon, or done so sloppily.

As the title suggests, the plot of this episode surrounds Hannah's diary, and more importantly, what's discovered inside by Charlie (Christopher Abbott) and his friend Ray (Alex Karpovsky). It's a bit of a cheap narrative device, one that has been used in countless other shows, including, it should be noted, executive producer Judd Apatow's "Freaks & Geeks" (though to much better effect). Anyway, the two are at Hannah and Marnie's apartment where Charlie is building his girlfriend a coffee table as a surprise and doing some rudimentary rehearsals for his band's upcoming show, when Ray uses the opportunity of both girls being out of the house to start snooping around. One thing leads to another and soon he's found Hannah's diary....

....meanwhile, Hannah suddenly has a job this episode despite three straight shows chronicling her increasingly frustrating search to find employment. It's in a drab, almost outdated office, and while the position isn't exactly the kind of creative work Hannah would like to be doing, the problem she faces is the wandering hands of her boss, Rich. An older, married man, he likes to hand out massages to the women in his office and grabbing their asses when has a chance, all done in the kind of old fashioned, boys-will-be-boys way that wouldn't be out of place with the dudes on "Mad Men." Hannah's co-workers shrug it off, as Rich is essentially harmless and also, the job provides great benefits.

But before she can even tackle the issue at work, Hannah has a bigger problem on her hands. Adam (Adam Driver) opens the episode by texting Hannah a picture of his penis, only to quickly follow it up with another message saying cryptically, "SRY that wasn't for you." This later leads to a particularly brilliant showdown (one of the best dramatic moments of the series so far), in which Hannah attempts to break up with Adam, explaining quite clearly what she needs out of a relationship. She wants to be loved, to be important to somebody, to be exclusive -- and yet, saying it out loud embarrases her because it makes her seem like a girl "who wants to go to brunch." It's a near-genius encapsulation of the fine line between dating and a relationship. But of course, they end up back together anyway, with Hannah unable to wrest herself free from Adam's charms, as repulsive and attractive as they are.

However, that's the one moment of pure honesty in an episode that feels particularly contrived. Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) get little mini-subplots, with the former losing the kids she's babysitting, while their father Jeff (James LeGros) becomes increasingly attracted to her (yawn). Meanwhile, Shoshanna randomly hooks up with an old friend from camp and just when things are about to get hot and heavy, he backs out when she reveals the news that she's a virgin. The latter scenario would seem like one that would be particularly devastating, but by the climax of the show, she seems more or less fine, meeting with the other girls at the bar where Charlie and Ray's band is playing.

Charlie unveils his "new" song, titled "Hannah's Diary," which is essentially a verbatim excerpt over some sadly strummed guitar: "What is Marnie thinking of. She needs to know what's out there. How does it feel to date a man with a vagina. Doesn't she want to feel an actual penis? Marnie has stop whining and break up with him already. Of course, it will be painful but she's already in so much agony, stuck in a prison of his kindness. Just because someone is kind, doesn't mean they're right. Better to end it now and cut off the limb and let the stump heal. He'll find someone else, someone who appreciates his kind of smothering love." Ouch.

And while the moment is emotionally charged, it's not quite believable. Until now, Charlie has been rather meek and the idea that he would take this passive/aggressive route doesn't seem in tune with his character, especially for a guy who is so concerned with talking things out. But really, it's endemic of this episode as a whole, creating situations -- discovery of the diary, the kids getting lost, virginal hookup, sexual harrassment -- and then having the characters react against them, rather than it being built the other way around, out of an organic situation. It's the first time the show has truly let down Hannah and her pals, and looking ahead, this dichotomy will play out over the next couple episodes as well with mixed results. But hopefully before the season is out, the ship will be righted once again. [B-]

Songs in this episode: Juvenile "Who's Ya Daddy; Jake Rabinbach "Same Mistakes"

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  • Cat | May 21, 2013 6:59 AMReply

    I think people give Lena Dunham a lot of crap for nothing. She's talented. You can tell from her early work that she would have made it, if not on tv then as an art house filmmaker. She did struggle and she didn't come out of nowhere. She made a film with no budget and won awards. She's lucky but that's not the only reason she made it. You can see her first film Creative Non-Fiction here:

  • Brad | May 8, 2012 9:13 AMReply

    Just a heads up, James Le Gros characters, who is Jessa's boss, name on the show is Jeff not Charlie.

  • cinematic_high | May 7, 2012 11:18 PMReply

    Stop riding her cooch!

  • Lucy | May 7, 2012 1:54 PMReply

    I don't think the show is horrible but it's not good either. I'm the same age of the characters in the show but I find everyone expect Marnie annoying. Overall it's boring but at least I have Game of Thrones on HBO now just waiting for Homeland on Showtime to come back.

  • Ugh | May 7, 2012 10:25 AMReply

    Maybe it stumbles into sitcom territory is because of what the creators say to the contrary this IS A SITCOM. It may be a well-written Sitcom but it's still a damn sitcom. Situations come up on an episode to episode basis & are solved within the 30 minute running time leaving the characters open for the next episodic problem to come the following week.
    Maybe it feels like a sitcom because it is a goddamn sitcom. At some point in one of the upcoming seasons they'll have the obligatory "Beach Episode", two of the girls will find themselves pursuing the same guy, one of the girls will fall for her boss, etc etc. This show isn't some grandstanding work of art, it's the same tropes always present in sitcom television, just with more 'unintentional anal sex' than usual.

  • Metal | May 7, 2012 3:42 AMReply

    Disagree. This episode was in keeping in the way the show is going. Great episode. This is simply the best new show on TV right now.

  • Fernando | May 7, 2012 2:45 AMReply

    IMO Girls is a "decent" show; and even though it doesn't deserve to be screening in the most coveted time-slot on HBO - and arguably television (the one hour break between the Game of Thrones episodes); it's still much better then VEEP.

  • Mike | May 7, 2012 1:49 AMReply

    Lena Dunham is the epitome of why nepotism hurts the entertainment industry. Untalented people like her are given opportunities left and right when truly talented people never get their own show. She is a horrible, horrible filmmaker than benefits from being a member of the lucky sperm club. Her work deserves to be shown at a midwestern public library screening for amateur filmmakers, not on HBO.

  • 88 | May 7, 2012 8:35 PM

    P.S. You know what's funny? According to most websites, Tiny Furniture cost $50,000.

  • 88 | May 7, 2012 8:31 PM

    I'm not going to argue about the merits of her show, or whether or not she's breaking new ground. To you, everyone who likes it is either "mainstream" or out-of-touch, so why bother? And sorry if I misinterpreted something you said. But yes, people who write good scripts DO sometimes get budgets of $150,000, especially if they've made films before, which Dunham had. Maybe her parents secretly paid for it, or maybe not. Wouldn't explain the reviews she got, would it? Unless her parents paid for those too? Her career path makes sense to me: she wrote, directed, and starred in a (believe it or not) low-budget mumblecore picture to which people responded enthusiastically, found a fan in Judd Apatow, and got to make a pilot for HBO. HBO responded enthusiastically, picked up the series, and now people like the series. I don't see how the trajectory is radically different from the Duplasses' or Daryl Wein'. And I'm well aware that people have made movies for less than what she made hers for. Not sure exactly which point that proves. That she's wasteful? // People can make fun of themselves and be "honest" at the same time. Take Apatow's movies, for instance. In fact, that's sort of his trademark. And it's pretty silly to chalk up Apatow's decision to make Bridesmaids and Girls as solely an attempt to silence accusations of sexism. So he NEVER would have made a movie about women were it not for that? I find that hard to believe, seeing as how he makes a lot of movies. That could have been part of it, but he's clearly not just giving money to random women. He seems to know what he's doing, if the box office/reviews are to be believed. Fair enough about the "notoriously affected by public opinion" thing. As for Louis CK, this is what he said on Twitter the other day: "Hey, @lenadunham, your show is really really good and funny and unique and other things. So keep going. Please."

  • TM | May 7, 2012 5:27 PM

    Not at all. You've misinterpreted about 90% of my post.

    My previous post is a response to Oliver's post which essentially states that whose daughter she is had no impact on her career. That is patently false. She would not have had access to $150,000 to shoot Tiny Furniture were she not part of a privileged New York family. Now, like I said initially, there's nothing wrong with that in itself, some people are granted more opportunities than others, that's life. But to then make a series about 4 young girls (starring your 4 privileged friends) about 'struggling' in New York and being praised for the 'honesty' on display here? Half the audience thinks the joke is that the characters are supposed to be unlikeable and bratty and that's what makes it great, the other half of the audience falls in Dunham's demographic and thinks it's so 'honest' and poignant. It's not. It's just disingenuous and leaves a bad taste in many people's mouths.

    And yes, for the film that Tiny Furniture is (I mean this from a practical point of view, not quality), $150,000 is a LOT of money. The film is often cited as being part of the 'mumblecore' movement- independent films made on the cheap, shot mostly in apartments and bars on shoestring budgets. The main differentiator between TF and these mumblecore films is the cost. The Puffy Chair was made for $15,000. Many of Joe Swanberg's films are made for half that. Daryl's Wein Breaking Upwards, which has a great deal of similarities to Tiny Furniture, and aesthetically is on par with TF if not better- was made for $10,000. The point is that the film she made for $150,000 is not a grand accomplishment. Many before her (and immediately before) have made very similar films for much smaller budgets and their success has been validated (see: Duplass brothers, Wein's new studio film, etc.), but the accolades she's getting are mis-directed. The overwhelmingly positive tv reviews are coming from mainstream television viewers and out-of-touch tv critics who don't realize that what she's doing on television is what many before her already having been doing in films for the last 10 years specifically. This isn't Louie. She's not breaking ground. She made an updated version of Sex and the City and is getting praise for being unattractive and willing to lumber around naked- so what? The reason for all the vitriol that is aimed at Dunham is that she's getting undue praise and credit for what she's done. Girls isn't an awful show, but it's nothing new or particularly interesting and it's highly derivative. Would the show be getting as much ink if it was written by a 25 year old man? Would it even exist?

    And we can all pretend that her career path shouldn't matter, but it plays a factor when the writer-director is also the face of the series. Of course the content comes first, but as ground-breaking as a show Louie is, do you really think his show would be as successful and appreciated if Louis CK didn't have such a great reputation as a hard-worker who's been at it for years and years?

    As for Apatow, just listen to his audio commentaries or read some of the many interviews with him. He admits to reading Rotten Tomatoes obsessively and fretting over negative reviews. If you think he would've greenlit Bridesmaids and a show called "Girls" had there been no negative press accusing him of being sexist, then you're completely clueless.

  • 88 | May 7, 2012 2:24 PM

    TM, several questions. So you're saying that it's unfair that she, a woman, didn't have to struggle to make it in the industry? Unfair to whom? The man who would've filled that HBO timeslot were Dunham not around? And you actually think $150,000 is a lot to make a movie? Wendy and Lucy cost $300,000. Bernie, the Richard Linklater movie, is considered a low-budget indie and that cost $6 million. Here's a guess as to part of the reason why a 22-year-old got a small budget to make a movie: 1) she wrote a good script 2) she convinced the financiers it would make its money back (which it did). And explain to me how Apatow is "notoriously" affected by public opinion. As far as I can tell, he's helping Dunham the exact same way he's helping out the guy who made Once (which -- what do you know --had a budget of $150,000). As for your last sentence, the fact that you don't like her has nothing to do with anything. Other people do, obviously, so she got good reviews for Tiny Furniture, and as a result, with the help of Apatow, got a show on HBO, and you know what? A lot of people watch that show and it too gets good reviews. So instead of blaming it all on nepotism, you could blame it on the fact that people like her work, which you said yourself. Though I'm sure when her next movie comes out you'll blame that on nepotism too, not on the fact that she wrote, directed, and starred in a hit show. And on and on for the rest of her career...

  • TM | May 7, 2012 1:16 PM

    Re: Oliver:

    The 'low budget' film that propelled her to the attention of Judd Apatow was made for a budget of $150,000. There are better films that preceded Tiny Furniture by a year or two and covered very similar territory that were made for 1/10th of that budget and not released through the Criterion Collection or given similar fanfare. And how does a 22 year old get $150,000 to write/produce/direct/star in a film? Well, I'm sure her family had something to do with that. To be fair, if someone gave me 150k to make a film I'd take it, but the praise that's been lavished on her and that film has more to do with her being a young woman than the work itself. It's as if because she's a young woman, she had to endure some difficult struggle to make it in a male-dominated industry. But she didn't. And paying to have her film released through the Criterion Collection is a reflection of that.

    She has a tv show on HBO for one reason: Judd Apatow. Do you think if Apatow wasn't getting repeatedly criticized for being a sexist that he would have taken Dunham under his wing and produced a show called Girls? Absolutely not. Apatow is notoriously affected by public opinion, and him producing her show is the result of that. Does he think she's talented? Probably, but if you think her abilities and her work ethic were the main reason she is where she is right now, you're out to lunch. Lena Dunham is where she is because she was in the right place at the right time with the right parents that put her on the radar of the right director who was out to make a point. She's not the first person for that to be the case (ie: Whedon, though to a lesser degree) but she's certainly the least talented, producing the most derivative work and yet being lauded for the opposite for God knows what reason.

  • The Playlist | May 7, 2012 12:19 PM

    Well said, Oli. There's a lot of reductive criticism leveled at her because for whatever reason she irritates, but she's talented, smart and more importantly has her own distinct voice. Tiny Furniture is by no means a masterpiece and putting on Criterion obviously ruffled a lot of people's feathers -- maybe because she didn't quote unquote pay her dues? But whatever you think about it (i like it a B), it does announce someone with their own distinctive voice and in the creative field of TV and film that's generally priceless.

    She's not there's generally shades of a unformed, younger Noah Baumbach/Whit Stillman in her work that can only get better.

  • Oliver Lyttelton | May 7, 2012 7:04 AM

    I find this argument immeasurably dickish and wrong-headed whenever it comes up. Particularly when the same objection is never brought up when it comes to, say, third-generation TV writer Joss Whedon (who I love, but presumably had some doors opened for him when he was starting out). Dunham's parents are New York artists with no fucking involvement whatsoever in the movie industry. You think HBO opened the doors to her because they went "oh, you're the daughter of avant-garde photographer Laurie Simmons? Of course we'll give you a ten-episode series, that's money in the bank!" You think the show got made because it stars the daughters of the drummer for Bad Company and David Mamet? David Mamet can't get David Mamet movies made these days. You're within your rights not to like the show, or Dunham, but she's in this position because others, like Judd Apatow, think that she's an original comic voice, not because they thought she might be able to get them some artwork on the cheap.

  • TM | May 6, 2012 11:56 PMReply

    The problems were in the writing. Shepard's just a hired gun.

  • a | May 6, 2012 11:48 PMReply

    Part of the reason might be that Richard Shepard directed it, whereas the last three were directed by Dunham.

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