This spring there were two big breakout hits on HBO, “Girls” and season two of “Game of Thrones”. While epic fantasy set in the mythical kingdom of Westeros makes for smashing TV in my opinion, it became clear that “Girls” is probably the more controversial of the two shows. Because nobody really goes out and does actual “reporting” on what happens in our world these days on the internet, criticizing “Girls” became something of a cottage industry among bloggers and commentators. It didn’t hurt that the show is set in New York (the most important place in the universe) about a group of highly dysfunctional 20’s something women and is filled with awkward/hilarious sex (the most important subject in the universe) scenes to boot. This made for great commentary about all sorts of hot button subjects in American life; Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coats let loose a typical critique.
But reading these types of arguments I was struck by how narrow their subject matters of identity are. Gender, race and sexuality seem to encapsulate the be all and end all of who a character—dare I say who we—can be. This of course is a profoundly limited way to look and human beings and identity. While Ta-Nehisi might be right that “Girls” doesn’t have a very racially diverse cast, I think that “Girls” brings an element of diversity that is often overlooked: it is filled with unhappy, miserable people. Just think about it, with the exception of a few shows (“Curb Your Enthusiasm” comes to mind) TV is a non-stop parade of happy people with interesting lives, great careers and loads of material security. The ignored group on TV doesn’t strike me as being an ethnic group at all, but people who say hate themselves, or have dead end jobs or are miserable every day. I think this this is a big reason why a movie like “Office Space” or a show like “The Office” became such hits, finally something about people who are profoundly dissatisfied with life and their jobs was made.
When American TV tries to deal with unhappiness it is often forced to simply borrow from other countries. Some of this probably has to do with economics; TV execs probably figure that no one wants to watch a show about some guy who is dissatisfied with his life but can’t make any meaningful changes to it either or someone who starts her morning acting like the protagonist from “A Single Man” (a really good, really sad movie by the way), staring at themselves in the mirror and saying “Just get through the god damn day.” But I think it also has to do with the history of American entertainment, which largely comes of out things like vaudeville and 19th century commercial theater like what’s shown in “Old Man River”. Most American TV shows that deal with unhappiness are adaptations from other countries. “The Office” or course comes from Britain and the only American show I’ve seen that puts unhappiness front and center, “In Treatment”, is a development of an Israeli show, with some sections of dialog simply translated from the original Hebrew script.
When sadness, frustration or misery does get shown in American TV it often takes on an almost petty quality. Izzie gets sad in “Grey’s Anatomy” because the chief of thoracic surgery yelled at her (fyi Izzie this is what chiefs of thoracic surgery at major American hospitals do, they are ornery leaders who yell at people who fuck up, what they aren’t are people who think their role in life is to make you feel better). Izzie also has big existential conundrums, like which gorgeous highly successful doctor she will date, sure is hard being Izzie. “Girls” breaks this mold by serving up miserable characters, going nowhere in life, in terrible relationships doing things like eating cupcakes for breakfast. Now maybe adding an inter-racial lesbian couple to season 2 would diversify things some on the show, but if she was a professor of journalism at Columbia and she was high power executive in the high tech field living some 2 million dollar loft in so-ho while they both find life to be a fun and interesting adventure where everything works out in the end, I think something would be lost as well. Personally I’m glad that one of the most ignored groups in all of American culture, unhappy people, finally gets some screen time.