Feb 25, 2013


The same night it won the Golden Globes for Best Sitcom, Girls premiered the first episode of its second season on HBO. That episode perfectly encapsulated the strengths of this unique television comedy, but also the costs.

The biggest strength of Girls is that it purposely breaks the sitcom form. Transcending the genre is one of the main strategies in present-day screenwriting. It is also a great strategy for sitcoms, because you can give the audience the pleasures of the form while also standing out from the crowd.

TV is all about the characters we return to every week. So to see how Girls really works, and how it transcends the sitcom form, we have to begin by looking at the character web of the show. Girls sets up the character web using the technique I call “4-point opposition” (see the Sitcom Audio Class for details), which is the structural foundation of the classic sitcom. With 4-point opposition, you have a minimum of four central characters, each distinctly different from the others. All stories and comedy come from the various interactions of these four characters.

Where Girls twists the normal 4-point opposition is in how it differentiates the characters, and most especially in how it defines their character flaws. Traditional sitcom characters have one trait by which they can quickly be labeled comically, such as the innocent, or the raunchy one. They also have one weakness, which is relatively mild and almost always strictly psychological. A popular sitcom like 2 Broke Girls isn’t about exploring complex characters. It’s about placing two characters with an easily recognized comic shtick in some kind of trouble every week and watching the unique way they get out.

Even a transcendent sitcom like Sex and the City, on which much of Girls is modeled, used a fairly simplistic 4-point opposition and character definition. Miranda was the smart professional, Samantha the sex kitten, Charlotte the pretty innocent. Only Carrie was a complete, complex character, and even she had no moral flaws, with the possible exception of her addiction to shoes (just think how many starving people all that money could have fed).

In contrast, the four main women on Girls have serious character flaws, both psychological and moral. These women are very self-centered, they make lots of mistakes, and they sleep with the wrong people. Sex for these women is very in-your-face, and often painfully pathetic.

The most obvious benefit to a more complex character definition/opposition is that it gives the audience a strong sense that this is probably what women in their early 20s are really doing. That’s followed immediately by the sense that we haven’t seen anywhere close to this kind of reality before. Sure I’ve always known intellectually that the traditional singles sitcom is a fantasy confection. But one episode of watching Girls made it jarringly obvious to me that all other depictions of young women in sitcoms have been simplistic fakes.

This greater “reality” does have its costs. The lead character of Hannah, played by the creator-writer-director of the show, Lena Dunham, seems to have an inordinate desire to shove her naked body in our faces. I for one feel that a little of that goes a long way. In fact, it has already gone way too far. I get that this is a stockier woman who is saying, “I have every right to be proud and honest about my body and my sexuality too.” And she’s more comfortable exposing her body than the classically beautiful Marnie is in showing hers. But it’s just not pleasant. Lena, darling, trust me. Tone it waaaay down.

Notice Hannah’s approach to sex is in sharp contrast to the lead character in Sex and the City. In the entire history of that show, Carrie never had a sex scene where she wasn’t wearing a bra, the whole time! I realize this may have been written into the actress’s contract. But the effect was still a 20s-30s woman, very forward in her thinking, who was extremely embarrassed about her body. To the point of making us doubt that the show was ever about sex and the city.

Another way that Girls structurally flips the normal sitcom form is in the way it handles the characters’ self-revelations, in other words, what they learn from their trials and tribulations. The normal sitcom character has few if any self-revelations. The conventional wisdom has always been: we can’t have the characters undergo any real change or growth, because that would destroy the setup and chemistry of the show.

These girls, especially Hannah, have self-revelations all the time. But their insights have the life of a flea. These girls are constantly analyzing themselves, as if they can make themselves grow up and have happy lives just by thinking about it. They make mistakes and are immediately aware of those mistakes, so they have this strange mix of being highly intelligent and clueless at the same time. Often the contrast is so extreme that it stretches credulity.

But it’s also a big advantage, because this mix not only defines their characters, it is the source of much of the comedy on the show. Notice the constant alternation between self-revelations and blunders is built into the characters from the beginning, in the way the show was originally constructed. And the original construction of a show determines everything that is possible as the show plays out its run.

In this vein, it’s instructive that the name of the show is Girls, not Women. That not only tells you the maturity level of these characters, it is a very conscious reference to the classic feminist line: “We are women, not girls.” These women are well past the feminist struggle of who they can be in a male-dominated society. They don’t even think about it. But they are still girls in how much they screw things up. They have little clue of how to be a woman.

A show with this kind of set-up gives the writers tremendous freedom to explore character and break out of the sitcom straightjacket. But it also creates some serious problems.

For one thing, these women can be deeply annoying. I actually prefer “unlikable” characters. Seinfeld showed us long ago that unlikable characters are more intriguing, especially over the long haul of a series, and are much funnier. But these women are so self-centered no one could stand to be with them for longer than 10 minutes.

But there’s a bigger problem that comes with such complex, self-aware characters: thin plot. The reason it’s called situation comedy is you put the heroes in a predicament and watch them struggle to get free. This predicament structure gives you maximum plot, not just for one episode but for a hundred episodes over many seasons.

In contrast, the girls in Girls are so self-conscious, navel gazing to the point of stupidity, that they don’t tell much of a story. They don’t do anything. For this show to not only last but also to grow, the writers have to create comedy from the contradictions of the characters and from the surprises of the plot.

The people who like this show may not care for “more” plot. They and the show’s creator might argue that they are not interested in the big, predicament plots of most sitcoms. These are plots of living everyday, of becoming adult women with the help, and sometimes the hindrance, of your best friends. And that feels real and satisfying.

But I’m not arguing for that kind of traditional sitcom plot. I think the future path for this show, which the writers have already begun to explore, lies in the moral flaws of the characters. One of the best scenes of last season was a blowout argument between Hannah and Marnie over who was more selfish and who was the better friend.

If the writers can find the right blend between psychological flaws and moral dilemmas, so surprising plot comes from complex characters, this show will be winning awards for a long time to come.