Dancing on My Own: Lena Dunham's "Girls"

Lena Dunham, with her show _Girls_, joins the ranks of Louis C.K. in creating compelling, auteur-driven television.
Adam Cook

Lena Dunham’s Girls, like Louis C.K.’s Louie, represents a new entity in the television landscape. Great TV is a very, very rare thing. It occurs almost exclusively under strong, centralized, creative guidance, by the likes of David Simon and Joss Whedon—but even their shows, especially the former’s, are more often than not left to others to shape their individual parts. Shows like Firefly or The Wire are indeed creator-driven, but it would be difficult to argue that either are truly “auteurist” in the sense that we apply the term to cinema. This is mostly because television form, like any form, is composed of its own specific properties and deserves a distinct set of critical terminology and theory. However, Dunham and Louis C.K. defy this distinction. Their shows seem closer to cinema than they do to the writers' medium that is television. Out of the ten episodes that comprise the first season of Girls, Dunham directed half, and either wrote or co-wrote all of them. And, of course she stars in the lead role as Hannah. Suffice to say, Dunham’s creative direction is as autonomous as most any filmmaker’s, resulting in a show distinctly attuned to a singular personality.

That being said, Dunham is still outmatched by Louis C.K., who directs every episode of his shownot only that, the man even goes as far as to personally select and purchase lenses for use on Louie. But both directors have a distinctly cinematic sensibility—their images aren't second fiddle to the writing, and guide the viewer with the same power of assertion as their dialogue. They are both assured performers who retain a sense of authentic believability in spite of their comical behavior and the comical universe they inhabit. In Louie, a precise choice in composition can often effectively upset what would otherwise be an uninteresting moment, imbuing it with strangeness. Dunham’s direction is neither so precise or peculiar, but knows how to visually attend to the gestures of her characters—glimpses of small pauses or hesitations are usually our best clues to insight into their feelings. 

Dunham has a strong grasp on how to guide mood and displays a versatility in her graceful transitions from decidedly comic to more dramatic sequences, and in particular has a gift for creating a slice of life atmosphere. I can’t think of a better image in television in the last year than that of Hannah and her best friend Marnie, framed in the doorway of her room: the camera tracks back as they dance a bad day away. Dunham captures how, even on the worst night, one can be rescued by a pop song and a friend. The careful compositions—including the most memorable shot/reverse shot with social media since The Social Network—underscore Hannah's shift from depression to Robyn-triggered ecstasy. The palpable comfort between actors—an Apatow inheritance, he does produce the show after all—makes it possible to buy into the spontaneity of the moment, and the sincerity of that hug (pictured above) that feels as if it could not have been written. It’s probably the high point of the entire series, where TV's plot-oriented priorities are set aside in a key emotional moment.

There is of course precedent for strong, authentic female characters in television (see above: Whedon), but they appear rarely. The portrayal of female characters in Girls is empowering, not because they are ideal, but because of their complexity—each is afforded their own set of desires, strengths and imperfections. The neurotic, narcissistic Hannah is flawed but nevertheless beautiful—she is defined by her uniqueness, and the same goes for every character. This is not a show with a pre-packaged set of morals to take away, but rather a catalog of the trial-and-error existence of early adulthood, half-learned lessons and plain old youthful confusion.

It is fairly easy to fixate on the show's progressive portrayals of women, complex individuals defined by creative intelligence, but to do so solely would be unfair to Girls’ many triumphs, including its frank approach to sexuality—in a non-gender specific sense. The obligatory “adult” content inherent in most HBO shows can often feel like just that—“obligatory”—and unnecessarily immature and condescending. In Girls, the sexuality isn’t some fetishized subject, so much as it is a component of the characters’ lives like anything else, and it is treated with great humor and humility. This is conceived in image as much as in writing. Seeing Dunham—whose body type is atypical for television, let alone such a sexualized protagonist—explicitly engaging in various sexcapades in just about every episode, is in itself refreshing, but more impressive is Dunham’s intricate control of rendering each of these encounters with specific connotations, which are alternately empty, playful, humiliating, and passionate. In the Apatow co-written episode "The Return", we even get to see Hannah's parents candidly enjoying bodily pleasures—a welcomed break from the young cast, and TV's status quo. Though there are many such memorable thoughts, perhaps the best comes early in the series, when Hannah is visiting her fuck buddy Adam (played by Adam Driver, a revelation, who along with Dunham and the inimitable Alex Karpovksy, makes up the best of show’s talented performers). During an unusually suspended take for television, we see Hannah framed in wide—accentuating the discomfiture of the moment—lying stomach down on the couch struggling to remove her tights, while Adam fetches lubricant.

Louis C.K. and Lena Dunham have married the properties of television and cinema in a new way. Sure, we’ve seen so-called “cinematic television,” like The Sopranos and Mad Men where aesthetics are a priority, but there is a clear distinction between these and the indisputable authorial control observed in Louie and Girls. Of course, there have been auteurist presences in television—David Lynch and Twin Peaks being a key example—but what sets Louie and Girls apart are that their respective creators' turns at the helm aren't fleeting highlights, as with most shows, but virtually constant.

With Tiny Furniture, Dunham demonstrated some singular flair as well as some indie-derivative traits, but, ironically, in adapting to TV she seems to have matured as a director. In fact, if you look at the pilot of Girls and the finale, it’s apparent that Dunham is rapidly developing as the show goes on, which bodes well for its next season. It's a celebration of women talking to each other in washrooms, of overcoming pettiness and taking the time to learn who people are, of surviving awkward sexual encounters, of music, dancing, being young-ish and figuring out what that means. It’s yet another 21st century quasi-indie appropriation of the Woody Allen model—that of a comically gifted neurotic quasi-intellectual New Yorker with romantic woes—but a surprisingly unpretentious one in which Dunham refuses to vindicate her protagonist for her wit. Compared to him, Dunham is more generous to the other points-of-view and characters that populate her universe. Besides, Lena Dunham may well prove to have a more sophisticated cinematic sensibility than Allen ever did.

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