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Today I watched the last few episodes of Best Friends Forever while doing some chores, and then I discovered that late last week NBC shelved the show indefinitely. The show premiered about a month ago, and NBC has only aired four of the six episodes that were produced.

As Splitsider pointed out, HBO just renewed Girls for a second season, although it had far fewer viewers than Best Friends Forever. On the other hand, if you Google “‘Girls’ HBO” you get more than 20 million hits, but if you search for “‘Best Friends Forever’ NBC” you only get about 2.5 million. I guess April and/or the Internet only had room for one lady friendship comedy, which is too bad.

BFF (I hate that acronym, but I don’t feel like typing out the full title over and over) shares some issues with Girls. Judging by the t-shirts Lennon Parham’s character wears, the show takes place in Brooklyn. So, great, it’s another show about New Yorkers who live in crazy awesome apartments. BFF bests Girls in the sense that there is a recurring black character, but it’s not really a win, given that she’s a super sassy girl named Queenetta. When she appeared in the pilot, I was like, “Oh, crap, this isn’t good.” But the actress, Daija Owens, is funny and adorable, and she holds her own against the adults. Parham and St. Clair play characters who share their real first names (which not even Lena Dunham does) and which are totally based on their actual friendship and working relationship. For the most part, though, that works, and their chemistry together makes even the pilot pretty strong.

Either despite or because of those points, I love the first four episodes of BFF because it takes off from where we were left with Bridesmaids last year. Like that movie, the show examines women juggling female friendships and romantic relationships with men in a pretty nuanced fashion for a network sitcom. In the pilot, Jessica receives divorce papers from her husband via FedEx and flies back to New York to stay with her old roommate, Lennon, who now has a live-in boyfriend, Joe. The women’s friendship feels genuine, the way Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph’s conversation in the coffee shop at the beginning of Bridesmaids felt like the kind of silly and uncensored discussion that close female friends actually have. Joe is a bit of a man-child (he’s quit his job to finish designing a video game), but his character isn’t a doofus who merely blocks the female friendship. His issues with Jessica are valid (e.g., she keeps barging into his and Lennon’s bedroom when they’re trying to do it), and he’s a good partner to Lennon. The show is generally upbeat compared to the pretty dark satire of Girls, but the characters also have frequent conflicts that arise organically as they adjust to a new living situation. And while BFF might not be tackling any totally uncharted territory about the experience of being a woman (I wouldn’t expect abortion or STD storylines from this show), the humor touches on women’s experiences in a way that’s enjoyable and inoffensive-in-a-good-way. I mean, when there is a joke about boobs, it’s not unnecessarily crass and it’s not a joke made by a man. Instead, it’s about the totally mundane danger of not wearing a bra in the privacy of your home, because heaven forbid women have nipples in polite company. I also think this scene is so lovely and hilarious in its portrayal of close female friends and the ways that weird, platonic intimacy can be infringed upon or made ridiculous by an unexpected witness:

On BFF the only “vagina panic” happens when Lennon falls into the bathtub onto Jessica and squishes her. I’m not saying that the scarier, more serious, more depressing aspects of young-womanhood in Girls are bad. I really like Girls, despite its flaws. But I also appreciate the somewhat more mature, more silly and joyful depiction of female relationships in Best Friends Forever, because sometimes life is like that too, and there’s room for that on TV, even if NBC and the Internet commentariat don’t seem to care or agree. Plus, these ladies are really funny. Best Friends Forever hasn’t been canceled yet, so I hope NBC gives them another chance this summer.

Posted at 10:38pm and tagged with: best friends forever, girlshbo, jessica st clair, lennon parham, nbc, television, one column,.

The state of women in comedy should be taken seriously. But I think the need to be very serious about women in comedy creates problems for how we talk about the work of female comedians. This happened last year with Bridesmaids and it’s happening again with Girls. Shows like New Girl were talked about in the fall, but Zooey Deschanel doesn’t write or produce that show. How you feel about New Girl is perhaps related to how you feel about Deschanel’s celebrity image, but it’s apparently less exciting or fraught than the work of a female writer/star, produced by Judd Apatow.

Apatow’s movies have gotten flack for being sexist, especially after Knocked Up and again with the release of Bridesmaids. There’s the whole thing where Katherine Heigl criticized the female characters in Knocked Up and then had to back-pedal when this made her look like a huge bitch. I agree that Heigl’s and Leslie Mann’s characters are more anxious and more responsible, but I’m not sure that the movie or Apatow himself is necessarily sexist just because it’s humorously depicting a pretty well-worn trope about heterosexual relationship dynamics in an essentially misogynist culture.

I don’t think Seth Rogen’s and Paul Rudd’s characters are unexamined, either. Sure, these guys get to smoke a lot of weed and watch movies just to spot the boobs and secretly attend fantasy baseball league meetings. These things may be fun, but they are also pretty pathetic. Ben (Rogen) and his friends can’t even come up with an original concept for a porn website. How does someone actually fail at Internet porn? That bar must be set pretty low. None of the characters, male or female, is aspirational, even if I guess in some ways it would be easier or more amusing to be one of these guys than one of these ladies. That’s just a fact of the world we live in, though.

I’m not trying to be complacent here. Instead, I am asking, is it wrong to depict—to make fun of—something that is troublesome without offering a solution? And, sure, it would be great if the ending were happier for the women, but I also think genuinely happy endings aren’t really that common, just because English 101 said that tragedy equals death and comedy equals marriage. People getting hitched at the end of a Shakespeare play doesn’t mean everything’s awesome in the town of Belmont. Comedy is not utopian.

My question, of course, applies to comedy by and about women too. Like Apatow’s more dude-centric work, Bridesmaids and Girls have main characters who are struggling. Annie and Hannah are aimless victims of the recession. Annie is old enough to have failed dreams, while Hannah is too young to have realized hers. They are both unaware of their privileges, which are not identical, but they both have or have had the support of generous parents and a network of friends. They both have decent wardrobes despite their un- or underemployment. They are both bougie white women. They are assholes, as Megan in Bridesmaids calls Annie. Like Ben in Knocked Up, Hannah and Annie are in bad places in their lives.

While Girls has received a lot of praise, Dunham’s depiction of early-twenties failure and malaise has also garnered its share criticism, like this grumbling on Tablet that the show “missed a major opportunity for change.”

I have only seen the pilot of Girls but I understand future episodes will involve one character’s abortion and another’s HPV diagnosis. How is the very existence of these storylines not political? Sure, characters have had abortions on television and in movies before, but we still live in a country where abortions and STDs are often viewed as things that happen to other people, to people we don’t know. Probably, most of the people who feel that way won’t be watching Girls. But young women who have had abortions and STD diagnoses might watch the show. These issues aren’t often treated with humor, even though humor is a totally normal way to cope with the crappy parts of life (and because I haven’t seen those episodes yet I don’t know whether Girls has handled them well, but I’ll give the show the benefit of the doubt for now). Girls and other comedies by women do not have to solve the problems of women’s lives, though.

Although I haven’t watched Louie yet, I googled reviews of the show and this is how the first one I clicked on begins:

Mel Brooks famously defined comedy as being when someone else falls down a manhole and dies. Pain and suffering is comedy. Or to be more accurate, the understanding and shedding of light on the pain of life is the basis for comedy. There are yuks to be had with lighthearted jokes about chickens crossing a street, but these things don’t make us laugh. Louis C.K., arguably the best comedian working the standup rounds, has returned to television after a failed attempt four years ago to make us laugh. Also to make us question why we’re laughing, and immediately forget all that deep shit and just enjoy the damn show.

I feel like I’ve read just about every article about Girls that’s been posted online in the last week, and as a result, they’re so mushed together in my brain that I might as well have read none. So maybe I’m mistaken, but I find it difficult to imagine a review of Girls, or any other show by a woman, beginning this way. Because when a comedy depicts the pain of a woman’s life (however privileged that life remains), we suddenly have to worry about what this means for the women. Is this degrading? Is this sending the wrong message?

But unless you’re in kindergarten, comedy isn’t about sending the right message. It’s about laughing at messed-up crap. And messed-up crap happens to women, too. To an extent, comedies will depict that crap “realistically.” But our desire for “realistic” representations of women creates problems when we deal with comedy. Why do we want our comedy to be realistic? Obviously, many real events are humorous. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, our narratives of those events can be humorous. So, I assume that Hannah’s trip to the gynecologist will have recognizable, “realistic” moments. Getting an abortion is a “real” event. But it’s okay if Girls is unrealistically heavy on misadventure and bad decisions and bad relationships. 

Of course, it’s entirely possible not to find Girls funny. It wasn’t the funniest show I’ve ever watched or anything, but I liked it. I laughed at the twigs/Twix joke and probably some other ones, but I don’t remember what they were now, two days later.

It also doesn’t help matters that in Tiny Furniture, Lena Dunham’s actual mother and sister play the same roles in the main character Aura’s life, and that the movie was filmed in their own Tribeca loft (I learned this from Lorrie Moore). Similarly, we seem to expect that the characters of Girls reflect Dunham’s real friends. Maybe they do, and it’s okay if Dunham’s work reflects her life closely (even if personally I think it must have been weird to act out a fictional mother-daughter relationship with one’s actual mother/daughter). But. Last week, again, in my Introduction to Literature class when I assigned “Daddy,” I found myself having to explain that Sylvia Plath’s actual father wasn’t a Nazi. I guess separating female artists’ identities from the voices of their (semi-autobiographical) characters is still something we’re struggling with, regardless of the kinds of work those women have produced. Earlier today, I ranted about Girls and its critics to my boyfriend, and he responded sarcastically, “You’re forgetting: men are universal. Women are particular.”

So, yes, we need to have more funny women making tv shows and movies. We need a wider variety of funny women. We need more funny women of color. Their work may be about their lives, but it won’t be their real lives. Their work will reflect our world in some ways, and in some ways it won’t. Why should we expect otherwise?

No wonder Hannah Horvath is a disappointing human being. We seem to want so much from her.

Posted at 12:17am and tagged with: bridesmaids, girls, girlshbo, hbo, judd apatow, lena dunham, television, women in comedy, one column,.