by Patrick Delgado
An interesting thing happens whenever I talk to someone about HBO’s new half-hour comedies Girls andVeep, currently airing alongside each other at 10PM and 10:30PM on Sundays. “Oh, I don’t think that show is for me,” I hear, and “I’m not the audience for that.” It’s easy to understand – with both shows, HBO seems to be going for a specific audience. But what’s most striking about both shows is that despite their niche approaches, there’s a lot to admire in two of the season’s best new comedies that might surprise even the most reluctant audience members.
Of the two, Girls would seem to be the one most designated for this complaint. With a title so blunt, indie fixture Lena Dunham’s examination of a group of twenty-something college graduates living in the big city is not exactly striving for broad appeal. But there’s something fascinating in the way Ms. Dunham, who works as creator, writer, lead actress and frequent director, makes these characters surprisingly relatable to even the most foreign viewers. Girls plays off the most fundamental insecurities of us all: the struggle to figure it all out – be it employment, relationships, or the people around us. Much of the show focuses on their romantic exploits, career pursuits, and how ill prepared they are becoming “adults”. Hannah, the show’s protagonist, is simultaneously naïve and over-confident, and surrounds herself with friends who are mostly the same. Dunham is not afraid to make her characters unlikable, but the show’s greatest strength is that she rarely makes them unbelievable.
Girls takes the most uncomfortable moments of these characters and makes them blisteringly real. In one of its most vividly awkward scenes, Dunham goes on a job interview, and immediately wins the employer over with her quick wit and effortless charm. Then an off-color rape joke immediately turns the proceedings sour. The scene is at-once hilarious and impossibly hard to watch. Coincidentally, this is the defining characteristic of many of Girls’best scenes. The scene is cringe-worthy, like so many others, but Dunham has bottled up an essence of embarrassment that goes farther than virtually anything else on television. This practice carries itself into the bedroom; the show’s main source of contention has been its explicit sex scenes. Hannah’s on-again-off-again scumbag hookup, Adam attempts to bed her in his very first scene on the show. In another, he grabs her belly fat, as they lay half-naked in bed. Dunham bares all, figuratively and literally, and imbues her scenes with mortifying detail. But Girls goes to brave lengths to explore its characters, daring you to laugh at it all as you simultaneously cover your eyes in horror.
Anyone can understand, if not relate, to many of the issues Girls explores. Some have accused the show’s four protagonists of too easily representing stereotypes. Hannah’s roommate Marnie (Allison Williams, the show’s greatest find) is a beautiful girl trapped in an unfulfilling relationship. Their mutual friend Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) is an admitted virgin, and her cousin Jessa (Jemima Kirke) is a self-described Bohemian. They’re not stereotypes so much as things people actually are, and by employing them, Girls works around them and eventually finds a way to push beyond their limitations. Many of the show’s plot points surround issues that are immediately familiar: money struggles, workplace concerns, and the pointlessness of it all. You don’t need to look like one of the characters onGirls to get them.
There’s a similar assumption made about Veep, the political satire about a fictional Vice President of the United States and her staff as they navigate a term in office. The series was conceived by the creative minds behind 2009’s indie hit In The Loop (do yourself a favor and rent it): Armando Iannucci and Simon Blackwell. That film examined the behind-the-scenes action of the US and UK’s decision to begin war in the Middle East. Veepfollows in a similar vein, exploring Vice President Selina Meyer’s daily workplace issues: campaigning to pass bills, stemming support for the President, and most importantly, maintaining her public image despite constant scrutiny. That image often takes a deep hit as the woman behind the man running the free world regularly finds herself stuck in embarrassing blunders.
If Girls buries its comedy beneath a level of seriousness, Veep pulls it up beyond that into glorious absurdity. Meyer is a vulgar and brazen woman, whose ladylike image is often contrasted with her quick temper and penchant for cursing. Meyer is played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the First Lady of the modern sitcom, who ensures that every character quirk will be played to a tee. Even if Veep’s writing weren’t so on-point, Dreyfus has the ability to sell almost any bit, including a sequence in which the team visits the hospital after a major accident. “Well you seem just fine,” she murmurs to a patient, who responds letting her know her injuries are internal. She then stumbles over to a set of parents waiting to hear the news on their critically injured son, as cameras swarm around the group and the situation quickly escalates into the world’s most unfortunate PR moment.
Veep’s greatest moments are when it embraces the workplace comedy format of other shows and applies it to a more high concept setting. Meyer is aided by a team that is equal parts savant and buffoon. Most notably, Anna Chlumsky plays Amy, Meyer’s rough and dry Chief of Staff, who is the perfect foil to Dreyfus. Tony Hale is Gary, Meyer’s dunderheaded personal aide who plays well off Matt Walsh and Reid Scott, the Communications Directors who must keep Meyer grounded as the media spins her into a cartoon. The ensemble, aided by the deft skills of their creators, melds into an irresistible comedic team, whose wry interchanges are some of the most blissfully entertaining as you’ll find on TV right now. As many high stakes as this world has, the dynamics withinVeep are as recognizable as anything you would find on The Office, with an added boost of relevant political commentary that ingenuously speaks to our time.
Both programs illustrate different but wholly understandable worlds. Girls tries to examine a specific post-college age set; one defined by a self-conscious need to live a life worthy of the most interesting blog post. Veep, on the other hand, examines a similarly self-conscious political world that we often only view on CNN, but one that is characterized by the need to map out every inch of life within the public sphere. The audience does not need to be a part of either’s core demographic to see the show’s worldview or to enjoy the rich laughs.
With both shows, HBO has created a primetime TV block that is as richly satisfying as it is entertaining. We’re in good hands with a network that builds such unconventional programming around women as strong as Dreyfus and Dunham, and manages to live up to such lofty expectations. There’s unmistakable wit and a strong current of uncomfortable tension that runs through both Veep and Girls and sets them apart from the rest. Don’t be afraid to embrace it.