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Emily Bracken

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Girls Is a Return to Old Comedic Form

Posted: 04/16/2012 1:17 pm

The critics are all mistaken about Girls. Don't get me wrong -- it's a great show. Girls is real, it's funny and earnest, and above all, it's the truth. Lena Dunham's truth. She has a point of view, and a very strong one at that. It shines through in every line of dialogue. Especially the line in the pilot when she says, "I think I'm the voice of my generation." This line has been quoted ad nauseum by TV critics agreeing that Ms. Dunham is, indeed, the voice of her generation. While she does have a very funny and fresh point of view, saying Lena Dunham is the voice of her generation is like saying Woody Allen spoke for men of the 1970s.

Sorry. I just don't buy it.

Like Woody, Lena is Jewish (well, on her mom's side), liberal, and writes and performs her own material. They're both insecure, neurotic, self-deprecating, unattractive, yet kind of cute. They both think a lot about the act of sex, not having sex and wanting to have sex. They both write very nakedly, often darkly, and hilariously about the painful realities and absurdities of, well, just being human. Her fishbowl is Brooklyn. He was always (until recently) Manhattan.

But if you polled men of the 1970s, I don't think they'd say Woody Allen spoke to them as a generation. The life Woody lead and the one he wrote about, as a neurotic outsider living inside New York's intelligentsia cabals, was certainly not indicative or defining of men of the 1970s. Woody's themes of love, rejection, heartbreak and death were certainly defining as universal truths, but they were not generation defining.

Similarly, Lena Dunham's world isn't a generational thing, it's a universal, post-college thing. Who at 24, no matter what the decade, wasn't underemployed and having bad sex and relying on their friends like family? The show isn't terrific because "this is what kids are thinking these days," the show stands out because Ms. Dunham is writing comedically about the human condition in a way we haven't seen for a generation.

The earnestness of Girls is a quality that was lost upon cynical Gen Xers. For twenty years, we've been living under a sitcom iron curtain in which vulnerability-averse comedians have been afraid to expose the truer and darker sides of themselves. While very funny, Friends was a lot of mocking put-downs masking the pain of friends trying to navigate their lives, Sex and the City was basically aspirational (not real), and 30 Rock while hilarious, is always shrouded by a fog of sarcasm and insider self-referentialism. The comedies of the 1990s and 2000s didn't peer into the shadow side of what actually makes comedy funny -- sadness. Being vulnerable to Tina Fey, Jerry Seinfeld, or any character on Friends is to expose weakness. Ms. Dunham has done nothing but be vulnerable, and that is her and the show's strength.

A generation ago there were a whole host of comedies like Girls that wrote as nakedly and hilariously about the human condition. Cheers was about a sober, washed-up baseball player; an aspiring (but she'll never make it) actress; a waitress with six kids and a deadbeat boyfriend -- losers in a bar whose lives weren't getting any better, yet they lived with dignity and humor. Taxi was a show about a bunch of cabbies with dreams that would never be realized, yet hoped for better things in life. Its pilot episode ends jokeless with Judd Hirsh going to the airport to reunite with the daughter he'd abandoned years before. To show vulnerability, to admit weakness, these deep human truths are also what made these old sitcoms so funny. Always in the darkest moment, they'd pull a ray of hope, or a great one liner to wash away the tears.

We lived through a golden age of drama; maybe the golden age of comedy is next. Perhaps we'll see a return to comedy, the kind Ms. Dunham currently writes, that comes from the pain of human struggle and delves into the hard, but universal truth that we're all in this crazy ride together and no one knows what the hell they're doing. Perhaps Ms. Dunham isn't the voice of "a generation" so much as she's the first voice of the next generation.

 

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