Credit: Courtesy of HBO.
(WOMENSENEWS)-- Other than raindrops, April is showering us with the return of three smart cable comedy/dramas with fascinating female protagonists. HBO's "Veep" (second season) and Showtime's "Nurse Jackie" (fifth season) debut on April 14. HBO's "The Big C" returns for its fourth and final season on April 29.
If only Lena Dunham, the creator/star of HBO's "Girls," which recently ended its second season, considered taking lessons from these other cable shows that present far more compelling, well-written and prismatic looks at the modern woman.
Sure, these heroines are a few decades older than the "Girls." But age isn't the big difference.
In "Veep," Julia Louis-Dreyfus's Vice President Selina Meyer takes on the glass ceiling in Washington, D.C.
In "Nurse Jackie," Edie Falco's nurse Jackie Peyton takes on drug addiction while saving lives.
In "The Big C," Laura Linney's teacher/housewife Cathy Jamison takes on terminal cancer.
And in "Girls," Dunham's college grad Hannah Horvath takes on . . . what? Well, that's the problem. Horvath sort of wants a boyfriend, sort of wants a writing career and sort of needs a job to survive in Brooklyn, N.Y. She wanders around with her three educated girlfriends who are also chasing their respective tails, all making half-hearted stabs at possible love and self-fulfillment.
Joblessness and unpaid internships are obviously a viable concern for this generation of post-college grads. But these characters are so extraordinarily casual about jobs -- when they do get them -- that "Girls" isn't an accurate representation of the frustration of today's young women.
If this show was a satire, or a flat-out comedy, then perhaps the missteps would be humorous, allowing us to relate to the frustrations and socio-economic challenges of the day. But since Dunham frames "Girls" as the honest voice of today's post-collegiate, urban woman (per Dunham's NPR's Fresh Air interview: "It's supposed to feel honest"), the show takes on a sheen of self-importance that is both hyperbolic and inaccurate.
From Dunham's perspective, it's as if every 20-something woman sporting a college degree severely lacks an inner compass on everything from how to choose an appropriate mate to whether snorting copious amounts of cocaine is the best way to research a story.
So much for one skewed perspective. How about looking at others?
As a quick-paced quip fest, "Veep" comes closest to the classic model of a modern comedy such as "30 Rock." The characters' agendas are made manifest by their actions, often playing in perfect counterpoint to their facile verbiage. The outrageous humor is mined from the interweaving of the powerless and the powerful, with a nod toward the ever-challenging role of women in U.S. government.
In "Nurse Jackie," the principal characters' sarcasm belies their hearts of gold. Similar to "Veep," the characters often speak in a rapid-fire patter, as befits a disparate group of medical professionals contending with one crisis after another. But in their off-hours, their crises revolve around love and family, their pain and humanity revealed.
As for "The Big C," Linney is nothing short of superb as a woman grappling with a possibly terminal case of melanoma. Over three seasons, the writers/producers have created a heroine who turns from closeted denial to acceptance to someone on a determined hunt for experimental programs that might extend her time on the planet. The characters in the world of "The Big C" are far from angelic, consisting of a daffy, sometime-adulterous husband, an angry teenage son and a homeless brother. A dramedy about cancer is as rare as surviving stage IV melanoma; with a nod to the exquisite writing (as well as acting and directing), this show is magnificent.
Dragging up the often-naked rear comes "Girls," an embarrassment in shoddy storytelling and character development. In contrast to the tight plotting of the other three shows, "Girls" specializes in missing links. Critical issues in one episode are often ignored in the following show. Horvath's desperate need to get rent money in episode #6 of the first season is all but forgotten until episode #9. A stolen dog is consigned to oblivion; lovers split up inexplicably. While other characters state that Horvath is extraordinarily bright, during a scene in which she attempts to work in an office, she can't figure out how to break down a cardboard box. For God's sake, keep her away from the stapler.
When the three leading ladies of "Veep," "Nurse Jackie" and "The Big C" decide to take on lovers, the women are the ones in charge. Versus the characters in "Girls," who are mired in a sexual passivity that is bewildering in these outspoken times.
Which brings to mind the title of Dunham's 2010 indie film, "Tiny Furniture." In an ironic twist, the name could very well describe Dunham's current quartet. Though not particularly miniscule, the four principal characters often exhibit a wooden passivity, allowing themselves to be used--occupied like furniture, as it were--without voicing any objection. They can be imprisoned in cacophonous audio/visual boxes; they can be left unsure as to whether condoms are being used. They allow themselves to hook up with heroine addicts, unknown doormen and mentally unstable teenage boys.
The message to the "Girls" audience: Accept the male invasion, ask nothing of sexual gratification for yourself and after it's over, feel like you've accomplished something of note. As if partaking in indiscriminate sex is a measure of one's worth.
In a March 14 interview in Playboy, Dunham said: "My goal is to have a sexual verisimilitude that has heretofore not been seen on television." If "Girls" is rife with sexual verisimilitude, then wow, what a bleak future awaits the female population. Better to see what's going on with cable TV's Meyer, Peyton and Jamison.
Kimberly Gadette is a freelance writer who's worked primarily in film for nearly a decade. A member of Online Film Critics Society, her reviews can be found on her Rotten Tomatoes' critic page.
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