Premise: a female lead, smart, ambitious, hapless and at times narcissistic, is denied the position of her dreams and must contend with relative powerlessness, though still within an exclusive society whose members are keenly aware of its exclusivity and confident that it is the one place to be. Her entourage is self-interested, abrasive, frequently hapless, and prone to their own crises, but this is a comedy, so things always somehow turn out OK.
HBO’s Girls and Veep have both received Emmy nominations for Comedy Series, Comedy Actress, and Casting (Girls also received nominations for Lena Dunham for Writing and Directing for a Comedy Series). Both were renewed relatively early on, after three episodes of Girls and two of Veep. At the time, Veep led in per episode viewership, but Girls yielded five times Veep’s Google results. Not surprisingly—HBO didn’t pitch Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s vice-president Selina Meyer as the voice of her or a generation. Veep hasn’t winked at anything of the sort, and with its obsessions superficially contained within the Beltway, with familiar faces and a more polished, familiar style, at times only a few degrees separated from The West Wing or The Office, it may lend itself less to dissection. Maybe people simply have more and stronger opinions about younger women, and late thirty-somethings and up are more likely to simply like to watch. But I’m struck less by the difference in noise than by the relative silence, as of yet, that these of all shows should be neighbors.
I watched Veep with little foreknowledge of it except that, as The New Yorker profile of showrunner Armando Iannucci warned, there would be a lot of swearing. In many ways it’s a universe apart from Girls. Each show’s characters would likely utterly scorn the other’s. Veep’s characters have signed onto Beltway monomania. The characters in Girls view most work as a last resort, and workplaces as where creativity goes to die. They’re peeved at having to enter the fray; if Veep’s characters are to prevail it will be on the world’s terms or by contriving things so the world accepts theirs. Annoyance with the world for not accommodating them would serve little practical point, and they only have time for what’s practical.
Maybe most significantly for half-hour shows, the two differ drastically in pace and focus. Veep has a bigger ensemble, and rapid-fire external crises determine what characters are occupied with, line-by-line, so that even when characters do let slip those beliefs that all characters have waiting for the appropriate or inappropriate moment, they’re in context, and brief. Attitudes are mostly enacted, not declared, character revealed in tone. The show’s Office-like shooting kept me more attached to the camera than to any one character. That felt right, reflecting and reinforcing Selina’s dependence on her staff, and the drama’s dependence on line-by-line perturbations in power. The show’s pacing and framing are all about flow, what leads to what. Even its best moments—Selina slapping her desk to emphasize, “The level of incompetence in this office is staggering!”—play best in context. Quotable bits are intercut with paused beats, reactions, and the syncopations of people entering and leaving rooms. As writer/producer Simon Blackwell noted in The New Yorker, “You can’t be precious about any line […]. And it’s often when the lines you really love are lost that you know the episode’s working. That one joke doesn’t matter anymore, because the reality of the scene and the relationships are funny.”
After Girls’ third episode an animated GIF photo-set of it made the rounds on Tumblr:
Source: If we burn, you burn with us.
There is less reference in the GIFs’ reblogs to the show’s characters than to Lena, as if the show is the semi-transparent medium by which anyone reading is able to partake in the fact of her being able to make it.
“THIS IS SUCH A GPOY THAT I DON’T EVEN,” added Tumblr user My Search For Self.
“Seriously too in love with Lena Dunham,” said user feet-asleep.
GPOY. Of Lena Dunham as yourself? Of yourself as Lena Dunham? Of yourself ‘curating‘ Lena Dunham, finding in Girls, or in 8-bit, 138 by 245 pixel extractions of Girls, exactly what you would have done if you had at your disposal Time Warner’s millions in promotional campaigns and production?
The scene is a marked departure from Girls’ otherwise remarkably sustained acerbity. Everyone is usually so bothered. Many interactions—buttoned-up Marnie accusing fancy-free Jessa of always setting her up to be a scold—show a fine sensitivity to the textures of friendships and acquaintance, to tensions and hierarchies and how swiftly they’re felt and enacted, but with less sure-footedness about exactly who these people are. New York magazine’s Emily Nussbaum wrote that the show “mines” “the universal” from the lives of “cosseted white New Yorkers from educated backgrounds.” But isn’t Hannah supposed to be from the Midwest? Dunham, too, slips between talking about real-life born and bred New York kids and about her character. Only naïve Shoshanna evinces anything like a (relatively) new arrival’s awe or disbelief at simply being in New York. Instead, media-saturated, characters are keen to show they’re not falling for any of it. Hannah would only deign to mention Coldplay to show that she, for one, is too smart to feel sentiment on cue just because major label power ballads are written in the keys to evoke it—though she’ll appropriate the object of her derision to simultaneously express and mock affection. The line is perfectly pitched for her, smart in the degree she’d be smart, a frame of reference that would occur to her.
However, the premiere’s Magical Negro and Smart Asian stereotypes? Those are the show speaking, not its characters.
Drama—and fiction; any art with characters—needs to be smarter than its characters, aware of their failings, especially if we’re positioned close to the lead character. Lolita, with an extreme case of this dilemma (beautiful first-person prose that absolutely must not persuade us), works because however much its (fake) introduction misses the point, Nabokov makes it clear from page one that Humbert is on trial and feels such a need to defend himself that he (Humbert) relates an entire novel to do it. Characters need to believe what they believe and say what they’ll say to be genuine and individual, but the outer world—events, other characters—is there to call them on it. In stage and screenplays, with no narrator or diction outside of dialogue, it’s a writer’s only way to cast a cold eye.
In Veep, events, and Selina’s response to them, suggest she would likely be a terrible president; when her sycophantic soon-to-be aide tells her the two mistakes (only two!) she made on the campaign trail, as if to explain away her failure, and, afterward, she asks her staff what they think her two biggest mistakes were, we’ve already seen enough to guess that her shortcomings were thorough and congenital. In Girls the outer world gives Hannah plausible justifiability. Her parents are so snide, so materialistic in the way they cut off her funding, that the memoir she needs to live before she can write it ends up seeming at least idealistic; naïve rather than selfish or deluded. In 2012 America, the writers could have made her parents want not a lake house but basic financial security or health insurance. The hybrid space of HBO half hours—billed as comedies, but with no laugh track—could bear the weight.
Late in Veep’s first episode, Selina’s chief of staff, Amy, objects to being forced into a date with an obnoxious White House aide in return for the aide’s help in extricating the office from Amy’s flub.
“Oh, get a grip,” Selina says. “It’s a—date and no sex. For me that was twelve years of marriage.”
I can hear the line in the Johnny Backslap tones of office men congratulating themselves on their wit and daring, inviting one and all to join in congratulating them (because why wouldn’t you; aren’t you a team player?). I can hear several of my female bosses saying it, the pause to make sure it registers, the smile at it doing so much fast damage. Selina’s dismissiveness (Amy doesn’t want the date? It’ll be unpleasant? Not good enough reasons!) would be believably D.C. and office-like on its own. Her own history adds a twist that could equally be scorn or doubt that Amy will obey. Veep is written by (British) men, but in Louis-Dreyfus’s rendering of the line, it gets something exactly right about workplace power, how women experience and wield it.
I’m sure happenstance figured in these two shows coming to HBO at the same time, but in running them back-to-back HBO starkly draws the very line the girls in Girls are struggling to cross (or not). How do you get from where the fact of being twenty-three or five is everything to where you’re satisfied with what you’re doing or what you’ve done? More than likely, you compromise and defer, take the shitty job, make coffee, answer phones, look out for lucky breaks, take whatever comes your way, not because you can see where it’s going to lead but because you can’t see any way better.
When I graduated from college I was sure of very little except that I wanted to write. I was an awful receptionist, among other gal Friday tasks, and bristled at being treated as though as I was fit for no more than taking calls for people no smarter (I thought) than I was but with experience I would never get as long as I was dropping their calls and messing up their lunch orders because—oops, call on another line. I have been happier, much happier, nearly every year since, but I don’t know if I’ve ever been so often surprised by delight as the summer I walked fifty blocks to work and back to save subway money for lunch I often didn’t have time to scarf down until four or five o’clock. I knew few people in the city then. When I got home at seven or eight I leaned out my un-screened window into the sound of drinks and dinners I couldn’t afford, until in July or August there was the pleasure of thinking how at one time I’d found my view foreign, and that I no longer did.
It’s difficult to imagine Veep pulling off or even being interested in such moments without having events or other characters cut them down. Veep has taught us what to expect and a good portion of its point is that its universe allows little leeway. But Girls’ universe does. It’s viewed from close enough to Hannah to be a refraction of her view. It can change with her. And with some distance, and refinement to what it lets her get away with, it just might change her.
Photos: HBO (Girls: Jojo Whilden; Veep: Bill Gray)