Not to take one single smidgen of a thing away from Jonah Goldberg, whom I enjoy and respect in equal and enormous measure, but Kevin Williamson is to me the most interesting thinker at National Review. Today he takes on Girls girl Lena Dunham, who he says in one sense
may truly be the voice of her generation: The enormous affluence and indulgence of her upbringing did not sate her sundry hungers — for adoration, for intellectual respect that she has not earned, for the unsurpassable delight of moral preening — but instead amplified and intensified her sense of entitlement. The Brooklyn of Girls is nothing more or less than a 21st-century version of the Malibu Barbie Dreamhouse, with New York City taxis standing in for the pink Corvette. Writers naturally indulge their own autobiographical and social fantasies, from Brideshead Revisited to The Lord of the Rings, but Girls represents a phenomenon distinctly of our time: the fantasy not worth having.
Read, of course, the whole thing.
It’s that last line which really got me thinking about so much of what is supposed to pass for entertainment on TV. Today’s great shows — Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Hannibal — or even the “merely” fun shows — Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Castle — are as great or as fun as anything ever on TV. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the modern age’s great dramas, starting probably with The Sopranos, are the best TV shows ever made.
But we also live in the age of the worst shows ever made — and I don’t mean the mediocre schlock and dreck typical of any (every!) network’s lineup since the Dawn of the TV Age. Ninety percent of everything is crap, after all, and TV shows are no exception. With 570 channels and something on, the vast middle has never been vaster. And it’s a straight, short line from Three’s Company to Just Shoot Me to The Millers. These aren’t the worst shows by any measure. They’re just OK. And that’s OK. No need to shoot anyone.
No, the worst shows are the ones filled with unappealing characters in bad situations of their own design, which we’re somehow supposed to enjoy on some strange “elevated” level because the shows are filled with unappealing characters in bad situations of their own design. Girls is the most visible of the New Pure Awful genre, along with more recents additions like Stalker and Scandal, but the latest offender might be ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder.
I watched the first five or six episodes because the cast was strong and some of the writing was sharp. But I gave up a week or two ago after realizing that there was not one single person to cheer for, not even the murder victim, and there likely never would be. I wasn’t able to recognize a single character who wasn’t on some level a sociopath. We find Hannibal Lecter appetizing because while his standards are not the same as decent people, he does have standards — and is fully cognizant of his own inhumanity. The monsters of HTGAWM have no standards apart from a chilling capacity for self-presevation, and seem to consider themselves the future of humanity. Gross.
That’s still better than Girls, however, which I switched off during the first two minutes of the pilot episode, when I was expected to find Dunham mewling at her parents TO GIVE ME MORE EVERYTHING AND LOVE ME BECAUSE I HATE YOU AND AM AWFUL. Everything I’ve since read about the show — and sadly there’s never a lack of things to read about Girls — confirms my initial impression of awful people being awful for the sake of awfulness.
That’s not entertainment. That’s narcissistic self-loathing, if such a thing isn’t a contradiction in terms, foisted on us by people who loathe themselves only slightly less than they loathe their audience. I like to tell myself that these postmodern Hollywood types loathe me slightly less than they loathe themselves, but I don’t for one minute actually believe it.
If memory serves, it was Lionel Chetwynd who noted that since PG-13 summer blockbusters took over the cineplex, the best writing and acting talent went to TV. As a result, the best dramatic shows accomplish what the best dramatic movies once did — they elevate and enthrall, intelligently and entertainingly. Our worst TV shows are incapable of any of those things, so instead they make themselves ugly and awful on purpose, then demand that we love them because they are ugly and awful on purpose. To anyone who ever complained that Ayn Rand’s villains are mere caricatures, I’d say that it’s the shame of the 21st century that we have made those caricatures into real flesh and blood — and then nominated them for Emmy awards.
Lena Dunham might not be the voice of her generation, but she might well be their primetime lineup.
Please, just shoot me.