The Mountain Times

°F Sat, April 19, 2014

Central Vermont's Most Popular Weekly Newspaper

Young, rich and unfabulous

Back in 2002, there was a movie called "Orange County" that seemed at the time to epitomize Hollywood nepotism: it was a moderately amusing teen comedy about wannabe-writer, played by Colin Hanks (son of Tom Hanks), and his girlfriend, played by Schuyler Fisk (daughter of Sissy Spacek), and it was directed by Jake Kasdan, the son of Lawrence Kasdan, who directed "The Big Chill." The main character, Shaun, despises the brainless wealth of Southern California and dreams of going to Stanford to study under his favorite novelist, but due to a clerical error the school rejects him. The movie is about his quest to have the decision overturned. Ultimately, Shaun's father donates a few million to Stanford, which must, at that point, give in.

Ten years later, "Orange County" has found its East Coast analogue: HBO's new series "Girls" is the epitome of New York nepotism. It was created by its lead actress, 25-year-old Lena Dunham, daughter of the artist Laurie Simmons. Allison Williams, the daughter of NBC news anchor Brian Williams, plays her roommate, and Zosia Mamet, daughter of the playwright David Mamet, plays her cousin. Jemima Kirke, daughter of a British rock star, plays her British friend. This, too, is the story of a wannabe-writer. At the end of the first episode, you hear some music by a singer who sounds a lot like Paul Simon - but if you look up the song, you'll find out that it's actually the product of Preston Simon, Paul's son. At this point, you begin to wonder whether the nepotism thing hasn't become some self-mocking in-joke.

One thing that must be nice about being the progeny of famous people is that, somehow, it creates lower expectations for you. One might think it'd do the opposite - after all, you're probably the spawn of someone talented, and you probably went to the best schools and had your artistic talents nurtured and all that, so you should be pretty great - but the truth is that, when your parents are celebrities, people assume that your parents are the only reason you're on TV and that surely you possess no gifts of your own. So when it turns out that "Girls" has a few funny lines, and the performances are kind of good, it's a total shock.

Which is not to say that "Girls" lives up to its pre-debut hype, which was so excessive as to seem to have been concocted especially to turn people against it. Great, a show about rich, whiny brats halfheartedly pursuing artistic professions in New York City - a culturally underexposed social stratum for sure, right? And of course the New York media is fawning over it - like we don't have enough shows about white people living there.

The curse of the overprivileged, with their poetry-and-ballet childhoods, is that it's they who desire the most to create art - yet it's their voice, above all, that pretty much no one wants to hear: and it's their experience that is the most irrelevant to everyone else's experience of living, it's the least interesting, when represented honestly, and the least profound. This curse is, of course, mitigated by the fact that the tiny population of folks who do want to hear their voices and do relate to them consists almost entirely of critics writing for the New York Times.

Anyway, "Girls" isn't unwatchable, but it's (predictably) one of those shows that's more intent on being relevant - it's always making references to texting, Facebook, the recession - than it is on being funny. Dunham's stated goal is to fill in that vital gap between the teens of "Gossip Girls" and the professional women of "Sex and the City" - as though this were the place where most twentysomethings currently find themselves: in transit between an Upper East Side private school and a downtown cocktail lounge. The difference between her show and its predecessors, though, is that they were unabashedly fabulous, unattainably glamorous fantasies - hence their popularity - whereas "Girls," whose ratings have been so-so, is supposed to depict the (slightly) gritty reality of youth today: unemployment, confusion, bad relationships, STDs - things that, in fact, have their own sort of sort of glamor, when you think about it.

One semi-interesting thing about "Girls" is that it anticipated all the things that people hate about it. Its heroine is silly, self-centered, and overfed, as many have complained, but the show alternates between teasing her (as during the very first scene, in which, at a fancy restaurant, she scarfs a plate of spaghetti with all the delicacy of Garfield eating lasagna) and downright flogging her (as when she's forced to endure, on camera, a round of horrific sex with her disgusting pseudo-boyfriend). Billed as the new "Sex and the City," "Girls" scorns its characters for frivolously comparing themselves to Carrie and Samantha, and despite its obvious ambition to speak for the current crop of college grads, it teases its aspiring-memoirist heroine for possessing the arrogance to proclaim the same goal.

On the other hand, being able to mock yourself on TV is its own privilege, and self-flagellation reveals no less self-obsession than does self-praise. The self-directed acerbity of "Girls" is probably what makes critics think that it's art - it seems honest and introspective - but really the show is an apology: it's Lena Dunham punishing herself for being unable to make art about anything except her own dumb life, which, for all its text-messaging, she ultimately knows is irrelevant. The last great movie about selfish, young, privileged New Yorkers was "Metropolitan," which in a sense was the polar opposite of "Girls" - completely unjudgmental, it loved its characters for their cluelessness and self-absorption. It let them live.

Here's how "Orange County" ends, by the way: Shaun, still desperate to leave his stupidly rich hometown, finally meets his literary idol, who, to his amazement, tells him that he doesn't need to go to Stanford. He can stay in Orange County and write about life there. The only important thing is to love it - to write about it with love.

Tagged: Gen Y