HBO has been no stranger to controversy, having aired both the incredibly violent Oz and the borderline pornographic Tell Me You Love Me, but I doubt anyone at the network predicted that their new half-hour dramedy, Girls, would cause such a fuss. Critics almost universally loved it. But viewers? Well, to say they were split would be an understatement.
On the surface, Girls is innocuous; it’s just a show about a group of twentysomething women living in New York City. And really, that’s all it is. But somehow, it managed to set off an entire chain of backlash from different groups of viewers:
- Group 1: They believed that because all the main characters were white twentysomething females, the show’s point of view was too narrow. (Some of them also believed that because creator Lena Dunham is the daughter of an artist, the show owed its existence to nepotism.)
- Group 2: They fought back against group 2, accusing them of racism, sexism, and narrow-mindedness.
- Group 3: They fought back against group 1, group 2, and critics, saying that the show being “too white” or “too feminine” wasn’t the problem. They believed that the show simply wasn’t very good and that critics overhyped it.
Obviously, these groups aren’t that sharply delineated; I just wanted to give a rough sketch of what happened. I don’t much feel like tackling issues of race or gender in this piece, and thoughtful arguments have been presented in other articles, so I’m going to concentrate on Group 3.
In my view, Girls has problems. Many of its attempts at humour fall flat. It has jarring tonal shifts, sometimes shedding its naturalistic vibe for something much more sitcommy. Aside from Dunham, the main cast just isn’t very good. And on top of that, the side characters’ storylines are boring and steeped in cliché. So yes, I can understand where Group 3 is coming from. Why, then, did critics respond so positively to the show?
I have a theory. Critics watch a lot of TV. They watch more television than even the most avid TV viewer could ever hope to watch. After all, that’s what they do for a living. So, being forced to watch a lot of programmes that are similar to each other, they develop a preference for shows that have a unique voice, shows that break the mould. Girls certainly has a unique voice. It’s rare that a show (or at least, the parts of it that centre around Dunham’s character, Hannah), is willing to confront the struggles of a young female college graduate with such frankness and honesty. Seeing this, critics gravitated towards the show and were perfectly willing to overlook its (minor) flaws.
This theory comes with a couple of caveats: 1) It has limitations. Critics won’t like a unique show that is just flat-out bad. Just take a look at their reactions to The Killing, which in some cases were even more vitriolic than the viewers’. 2) This doesn’t make critics “wrong” for liking a show. It just means that sometimes, their opinions will differ from those of the TV-watching populace at large. And that’s fine. Critics respond honestly to what they watch, and then they write honestly about it. (Or so I’d like to believe.)
That second caveat shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. (If critics merely liked what was popular, NCIS and American Idol would be at the top of all of their annual “best of” lists.) What that means for viewers is that they shouldn’t count on critics to be the arbiters of “good taste.” In any case, the notion of “good taste” is too subjective and nebulous to be of any real value. It’s up to each individual viewer to decide whether a particular show is worth his or her time, not critics or fans at large. A recommendation from a critic is not a guarantee of enjoyment.
There’s also the other side of the issue, which is that critics have to take responsibility for their words. They can’t claim that their opinions don’t carry the weight of recommendation and then lend their voices to “should/shouldn’t watch” or “watch/DVR/skip” lists. It’s not up to them to manage or temper viewer expectations, but they still must recognize that what they say can and does have an influence on what gets watched and talked about.
So, in my estimation, critics didn’t “overhype” Girls; they enjoyed it, and they wrote their honest opinions of it. They’re not responsible for its perceived lack of quality. If you think the show sucks, don’t blame them; blame Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow. But I also have a message for the critics who responded negatively to the existence of this backlash, such as Film Crit Hulk: people are talking about the show because critics talked about it. You have some degree of control over what people talk about, but you have much less control over how they talk about it. You’re not at fault for the chatter being positive or negative, but you are responsible for the chatter existing in the first place.
Okay, that about sums it up. Hopefully, that’s the last I’ll ever feel compelled to say about the subject, at least until a show called Women comes on the air.