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Girls and the Jump to Judge

By Jason Mittell

I’d decided not to write about the pilot of Girls, the new HBO show that has either been hailed as the channel’s great comedy hope, or a crime against humanity (or maybe some middleground somewhere too). But after reading a lot of the criticism and commentary, and getting into at least four lengthy conversations on Twitter about it, I figured I’d assemble some thoughts to join in the fray beyond 140 characters.

I don’t have much to say about the show itself. I thought it was a very good pilot, establishing a distinctive tone, a couple of compelling characters, and making me laugh a fair amount. It wasn’t perfect — and if you’re comparing such things, I thought that Awake was still the strongest pilot of the year — as it did leave a little too much ambiguity as to how much we’re supposed to be laughing at versus laughing with the characters, and a few of the conversations felt a little stagey. But I liked it enough to keep watching, which is the primary job of a pilot.

But I did want to talk more about was the swirling commentary around the show (see Christine Becker’s roundup), where the critics who love it (based on the first three episodes that HBO sent in advance) might have set the expectation bar a little high. In large part, that’s probably because the next two episodes are reportedly stronger. Additionally, the marketing (which I’ve been ignorant of in Germany) seems to frame it as more of a “statement show” than it is. Hannah’s line about being “the voice of my generation” seems to have been decontextualized in the ads, stripped of the vital framing situation where she’s bullshitting her parents for money and high on opium. I also think the title is so broad as if to suggest that it’s universal, which it is decidedly not. So the show’s paratextual frame probably did Girls little favors in managing expectations, especially based on a single 30 minute episode.

Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham, and Zosia Mamet in Girls. ©2012 Home Box Office, Inc.

However, the backlash seems equally unfair, if not more so. This backlash ranges from the outright misogynistic (mocking the weight and appearance of characters) to closeted sexism (calling Hannah whiny and bitchy for being unhappy, when comedy is full of unhappy leading men). Another strain critiques the show’s focus on privileged, straight white characters living in an unrealistic, non-diverse vision of New York (which could describe many other big city sitcoms as well). To all of those criticizing the show on such grounds, I’d urge a little patience — after all, we’ve only seen 30 minutes of the series.

This is particularly troubling when commenters and critics raise other programs in comparison. I’ve seen people hold it up negatively (as well as positively) to a range of shows, including Louie, Seinfeld, Entourage (yeah, really), and Sex and the City. But all of those programs have had years under their belts and none of them started particularly strong themselves. Comparing a pilot to a long-running series is hazardous terrain, as you need to imagine that you only know its first installment, while still framed by how it develops into a long-running and/or acclaimed series. And, of course, this all echoes my last post about the dangers of trying to assess a program mid-season.

Note that Girls raises the Sex and the City comparison directly in the pilot, and I take that meta-moment as an explicit articulation of the show’s attempt to both update and undercut HBO’s previous take on four sexually active women in the city. The comparison that springs to mind is Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville as a response to The Rolling Stones’s Exile on Main St.. But perhaps that’s only because both Phair and Girls‘s creator/star Lena Dunham both struck it big in high-profile cult realms after graduating Oberlin (a shout-out to Oberlin pride) — succeeding in realms typically reserved for men using a forthright sexuality and highly literate tone.

So how can we judge pilots? I’ve written at length about this — in fact, go to my book Complex TV and read a full chapter all about the poetics of pilots! In that chapter, I suggest that the two goals of a pilot are to educate viewers on what the show is, and inspire us to keep watching. It seems fair to give up on a show if the pilot fails at these two tasks: if you’re left uncertain how to make sense of the tone or storyworld, or if that which you do understand turns you off. If you find the characters on Girls annoying, find the humor unfunny, or find the milieu off-putting, then I’d guess you should stop watching, as that’s unlikely to change. (Of course if the grounds for being put off is thinking that the characters are fat and bitchy, then it’s not the show’s fault that you’re a judgmental prick.) But judging the politics of the show, its inclusion or exclusion of certain types of people or storylines, or its treatment of particular topics seems incredibly limiting based on only one episode. Not to say that the first impression might not be correct, but it’s based on a small sample size, and I’d be loathe to condemn a show (especially publicly) without giving it a chance to fully express and develop its voice.

In any case, I’m sure that the hyperbolic praise, backlash, counter-backlash, and now meta-discussion will all fade. At the end of the season, we’ll have a show that’s distinctive and unlike most of the things it’s been compared to, and perhaps will be immensely pleasurable or painful for many. But it seems far too soon to invest much time in trying to figure out what Girls will be before it has a chance to get there.

On Facebook, somebody asked me if “judging” is the same as criticism/commentary. It’s a great question, and I was certainly sloppy with my wording of the title. Critical analysis is trying to understand what a show is doing, hopefully on its own terms; judging is holding it to an external standard that may or may not be legit. I think that the challenge about a pilot that seems to be innovative (as I believe Girls is) is that figuring out its own terms can be hard based on a single episode. A single episode is designed to launch something longer, and thus deducing what external standards we might apply to it become challenging. Do we read the whole show as ironic and critical of Hannah and her life, or are we supposed to find her actions sympathetic (or some blur between the two)? I don’t know yet.

One example that many people have criticized is the final sequence where Hannah steals the money and sees the homeless guy. It’s a troubling sequence if we take it on face value as the final moment with our protagonist, as she tries to bilk her parents for room service, steals from an unseen housekeeper, and then sees the homeless man as a way to make her feel better about herself. But I view the sequence as steeped in irony, as she’s clearly behaving horribly and the filmmaking style seems almost parodic. The stereotypical homeless guy is so over-the-top as to be a nod to the trope of wealthy white people finding humility and wisdom from poor people of color. The final crane shot and swelling music as a highly conventional device serves to undercut rather than redeem the character. Note the lyrics: “Everyone seems so certain / Everyone knows who they are / Everyone’s got a mother and a father / They all seem so sure, and they’re going far.” Are we really meant to take this seriously?

I don’t know for sure. But since it is the start of the story, not the end, I want to wait to decide how to read the tone. Based on what I’ve seen, I think it’s sly irony, not ham-fisted superiority, but I want to withhold my judgment.

This article originally appeared on JustTV.

Jason Mittell is Associate Professor of American Studies and Film & Media Culture at Middlebury College. He is the author of Television and American Culture, Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture (2004), numerous journal essays and book chapters, the blog “Just TV,” and tweets at @jmittell. He is currently a Fellow at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg at the University of Göttingen, collaborating with the Research Unit on Popular Seriality, where he is writing his newest book project, Complex Television: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling, to be published by New York University Press and available in-process for open peer review via MediaCommons Press.

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