Thursday, February 13, 2014

Hipsters and Slackers: A Conversation About Girls and Spaced

The cast of Girls: Allison Williams (left), Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham and Zosia Mamet.
Over its first three seasons, the HBO comedy Girls, created by and starring Lena Dunham, has quickly established itself as one of the most discussed shows on television. While Girls' combination of hip references, self-reflection and a frank, honest approach to relationships both physical and emotional have set it apart, it's not a wholly unprecedented work. As a snapshot of a particular brand of aimless wandering and pondering, one most readily associated with people in their twenties who are trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives, it shares a number of key similarities, in terms of its plots, character types and general milieu, with the seminal British sitcom Spaced. Like Girls, Spaced - written by and starring Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes (née Stevenson) and directed by Edgar Wright - was about an aimless bunch of twenty-somethings which explored this same crucial age, albeit from a more pop-culture addled perspective, over two seasons which aired from 1999 to 2001.

After my friend, fellow History graduate and fan of both Girls and Spaced, Lewis Davies (no relation) said that he wanted to do a critical comparison of the two shows, I jumped at the chance to discuss two shows that I love, albeit for slightly different reasons. You can find that conversation below and you can follow Lewis on Twitter.

Ed: So, Lewis, I guess the first question would be what do you consider to be the broad similarities between Girls and Spaced, other than that they're both shows about white twenty-somethings who arguably don't have any real problems?

Lewis: I think the main similarity is that both series feature a principal actor from a Graham Linehan sitcom in a recurring guest spot (Bill Bailey on Spaced and Chris O'Dowd in Girls). I guess that was mainly what I was thinking about.

That aside, it's about life not going the way you planned in your early 20s. In the commentary for Spaced, Pegg and Stephenson talk about how one of the ideas behind the show came from being part of the first generation that was going to earn less than their parents'. That's something that's there explicitly in the opening scene of Girls.

On top of that there's the idea that friends replace the role of family. I guess that's also the premise of Friends, but I think that when you blend that with the world of the 'lost' 20s, there's the idea that friendship provides the balm to the career aspirations that are not necessarily going to be realised. But then the portrayal of friendship is one of the big differences in the shows as well.

Ed: There's also a very clear parallel in the particular kind of aimlessness experienced by the characters, which I think is best characterised as one of people knowing sort of what they want to do - both Hannah and Daisy want to be writers, and already consider themselves writers before they've had anything published or made any great effort - but they don't seem to know how to go about it, or have little sense of how much graft is involved in succeeding in a creative career. They also seem resistant to the idea of settling for an unrelated job that pays the bills while they work on their writing around it; they want a kind of instant success which, realistically, won't happen.

(Though there's a certain irony there because both Lena Dunham and Jessica Hynes play characters their own age who struggle to achieve success as writers, while in reality they are both successful writers.)

Lewis: It's like how the best film I've ever seen about being an unemployed actor is In The Bleak Midwinter, which was made by Kenneth Branagh. On that front though, Hannah has the added problem of living in a world where it's easier to pretend that you're a writer because you're good at Twitter posts. The equivalent of the scene where Daisy sits at a typewriter and struggles to write anything is a bit less obviously delusional for Hannah.

Ed: I can easily imagine that, if Spaced were made today, when Tyres asks Daisy what she's working on she would start talking about stuff she was posting on Tumblr.

(Most of) The cast of Spaced. (Front, l-r: Simon Pegg, Jessica Hynes. Back, l-r: Mark Heap, Julia Deakin, Nick Frost.)
Lewis: Do you think Girls is just an up-to-date version of Spaced, then, but told more from the Daisy character's perspective?

Ed: Not necessarily an up-to-date version, but certainly a take on a very similar character from a different perspective, both in terms of its story and society in general. Looking at the two shows, I feel like the "delusional" aspect of Hannah's character is very important; both she and Daisy have aspirations of being a writer which are wildly out of keeping with the actual drive or ability they display on the show (though, to be fair, when Daisy actually does write some things they get published, they're just really insignificant. Apart from the boggling article, which is a key part of the modern canon, obviously.) but their environments are noticeably different in terms of fostering those delusions. Tim clearly loves Daisy and wants what's best for her, but he is also more willing to call her out when she's procrastinating or not doing anything to advance her career, whereas Marnie (who is probably more analogous a character to Tim than Adam is) and the rest of the Girls characters enable each other in their inability to actually do anything to make their situations better.

The characters in Spaced don't really make a huge amount of progress a lot of the time either, but they often manage to break out of their routine when their friends point out what is wrong with them, or (in the case of Tim getting a job at Dark Star comics and asking Sophie out) when Daisy actively does something that could hurt him by placing a negative drawing of Tim's potential boss in his portfolio, in the process leads him to a new, fairly healthy relationship.

Lewis: I think all of the friendships in Girls are pretty toxic. A key part of it is that everyone in Girls is actually pretty good looking and from backgrounds that are more privileged than those in Spaced. Brian is far more disgusting than Adam, for example, and the scene where Marnie goes with her mum to a Manhattan street cafe is analogous to Brian and his mum going for marshmallow dunkers in Regents Park.

I honestly don't think that this is just about American vs. UK aesthetics. I think that most of the characters in Girls are confident that someone is going to want to fuck them pretty soon, whereas the ones in Spaced are too awkward to hope for such a thing. Consequently Spaced people are much more dependent on their awkward friendships because none of them work very well on their own. The Girls characters have physical cache to cast one another off and be independent operators. That's not really something you could see Mike doing very easily.

Ed: Well, yeah; the last time he was left to his own devices he stole a tank and tried to invade Paris! The characters in Girls do carry themselves with a constant, possibly unearned confidence that things will probably work out okay for them. At the same time, that's what gets them into trouble. They don't have that nagging self-doubt that stops them doing incredibly stupid things.

It's interesting to me that all the friendships in Spaced come from slightly toxic or weird origins - Mike and Tim are friends because on some level Tim feels guilty over Mike dislocating his retinas when they were kids; Tim and Daisy only move in together as part of a ruse; their friendship with Marcia is entirely predicated on a lie as a result - but they all end up being fairly healthy and well-adjusted. The friendships in Girls, meanwhile, all come from normal places - Hannah and Marnie went to college together; Jessa and Shoshanna are cousins - but wind up as deeply dysfunctional and they constantly cause trouble for each other.

Lewis: I like that parallel. It feels like we're coming down on the side of Spaced here, but I don't think I feel like I find the Girls characters as hateful as we're making out. I think the story of individualists vs. community of friends comes out best in the drugs episodes of both shows. Girls has coke (in the episode 'Bad Friend') which is essentially a drug that increases your sense of your own importance, whilst Spaced (in the episode 'Epiphanies') has implied E, which breaks down barriers between people.

Ed: The way that those two episodes play out also underlines that concept. In Spaced, they all have a really great time - even Brian, who's dreading the idea of going out and fears getting beaten up - while in Girls it all ends up in anger and recrimination (though Hannah does get an article out of it).

I don't find them hateful, but there has been a lot of debate over whether we're meant to like the characters on Girls or not. I get the feeling that Dunham and her writers are very aware that the characters can be insufferable - because they're in their early-20s and everyone is insufferable in their early-20s - but their self-centredness can tip too far into callousness or outright sociopathy at times. I ultimately like the characters and think that they are good people, but they get so wrapped up in their own shit that they lose sight of each other. Or, they go in the opposite direction and are so supportive of each other doing things that they probably should think twice about in terms of their relationships, how to handle their careers etc.

Lewis: What you're saying about fucked-up, weird characters carries through from Spaced to Girls, too, since the most palatable relationship (to a man on episode six of season two) is Shoshanna and Ray.

I think that there is this thing in Girls about the power of adulthood. At one level it's about a bunch of people coping with the fact that no one is going to tell you to come home, or get dressed, or behave properly and they are still dealing with the fact that, as my goddaughter once said, "when you're a grown up, you have to tell yourself what to do." And Hannah is slow to develop the voice that can tell her what will happen if she moves in with a doctor she doesn't know for two days.

The Spaced characters are slightly older. You don't get the sense in Girls that you do from Spaced that they "aren't the youngest generation anymore." The novelty of living in flat shares has long since worn off for Tim and Daisy. Daisy sleeps with a homeless man at a party, but you can see that that sort of mistake, which Hannah also makes, is no longer a result of being out of control but a more routine brand of failing at life choices.

Ed: It's interesting to consider the two shows as snapshots of the two ends of your 20s. While they deal with similar themes and certain kinds of key relationships, the two have very different perspectives since the characters in Girls are all in the 21-23 age range at the start of the series and all the characters in Spaced are in their mid to late-20s. That might not sound like a lot of time, but it's during those years that you experience your first real brush with disappointment and failure, and that has a huge effect on how you view the world and your place in it.

Lewis: One of the differences is in the role of the two cities. New York is actually glamorous. The characters can actually meet impressive artists and go to nice places. I think that's a lot further off in Spaced. Obviously there are media offices and things like that but the London of Spaced is far more scuzzy Camden pubs and awful chicken restaurants than it is trendy coffee shops and brownstones. I suppose it comes back again to the place of the characters in their world. The Spaced characters were not the cool kids at school. The Girls ones were sort of middle-to-bottom of the top of the pecking order.

Ed: That's very true, and also plays into the idea that the characters in Spaced (and Spaced itself) are very pop culture savvy, but they're not trying to be hip. Most of their references - and Spaced is nothing if not intertextual - are of things from the past, whereas Girls' reference points extend as far back as Sex and the City, but not much further. It's very much a show that draws on contemporary culture, whereas Spaced drew on the shared childhoods of its writers and director to comment on contemporary life.

Lewis: The only film I can remember any of the characters referencing is Elijah mentioning Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which he hadn't actually seen. I think the ultimate happiness of Tim and Daisy compared to any of the Girls characters is a great testament to liking a load of bullshit rather than wanting to be something.

Ed: You really get the sense that there's going to be a reckoning for the characters on Girls at some point if they're going to be happy. Something is going to make them realise that they're maybe not the best people in the world and that they need to be a bit more realistic about their abilities and prospects. That, or it'll be like It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia and every instance where someone questions them will just reinforce their worst impulses.

Lewis: Although they don't have the codependency thing of the Sunny characters that allows for the inertia.

Ed: That's true, and that's what makes me think that most of the characters will end up being functional human beings. Probably not Jessa, though, who I fully expect to O.D. in the series finale.

Lewis: In fact that's what's been interesting about the second season is that all of the girls have been operating largely independent of each other. And Jessa is Dark Twist.

Ed: A quick thought on the respective styles of the shows. Do you think that people who dislike Girls because they don't like the characters do so because the series has such a laid back, naturalistic look? Thinking about the two sets of characters, the ones in Spaced display some of the same selfishness and delusion that the characters in Girls do, but because the visuals are so stylised, heightened and self-referential I find that it softens the harshness of the characterisations.

Lewis: Absolutely. It's also that Spaced had jokes for the sake of jokes. Really good ones, but still. It's also an aesthetic thing; I think that it might be easy to look at Girls and think that the characters, with their nice faces and all, are meant to be aspirational in a Sex and the City style. Especially on the DVD boxes.

Ed: There's also a sense that Girls is very non-judgemental and presents its characters as they are, whereas Spaced's style is highly subjective and shows the characters as they view themselves, which gives it the elasticity to do a Matrix pastiche and not completely lose all sense of its own, very specific reality.

Lewis: Yeah, I'm just watching the bit in Spaced where Tim tells Daisy to tell her boyfriend she's been cheating on him and he dumps her, then Tim says he didn't mean it. That could easily be one of those raw episode climaxes in Girls, but ends with Tim yelling, "I'd do it again I tell you!" and jumping out the window.

Ed: Even though I don't think of Spaced as a particularly arch show, I do think it's got just enough self-awareness in its presentation that it remains a lot more palatable. The great strength of Girls, for me, is that it doesn't display any self-awareness on the part of its characters, which makes it feel more real as a depiction of early 20s malaise, but also doesn't give the writers much leeway in terms of smoothing over the edges of its characters.

Lewis: It's also about it being at the point in your life after you've had your first long-term relationship, after you finish your education and you realise you'll never have a school holiday again. They do constantly refer to themselves as not being grown up, but I think that lack of awareness is exactly a result of feeling like you've finished being a child but having done exactly nothing as an adult yet.

Ed: Exactly. It's that weird combination of being an adult as far as society is concerned - you can drink, vote, have earned a degree - but not yet realising all that stuff means relatively little. In Spaced, you get the sense that the characters haven't got a handle on adulthood yet, but they've been knocked down a few times and are becoming more aware of what it takes to get by, or are gradually realising what they actually need to do in order to be happy, which largely comes in the form of getting over past hurt and letting go of baggage. In Girls, everyone is still accumulating baggage.

Lewis: Also: no Jurassic Park references.

Except at least two of the characters in Girls have had pretty fucked-up childhoods, so we are looking at a group who have accumulated baggage earlier on. (Although it's worth remembering that Tim's step dad is Keith Allen doing Jack Nicholson from The Shining.)

Ed: Maybe it's just, from my perspective, that they have baggage but aren't willing to engage with it? Jessa's childhood certainly seems like it was pretty terrible, but she makes it part of her whole bohemian thing, rather than realising that it's the very thing that is messing up her life.

Ed: Are there any other aspects of the two shows you want to comment on that we haven't talked about yet?

Lewis: We've managed to have a discussion about Girls without talking about the phenomenon of seeing a not very thin woman naked, which doesn't seem right. I've also been glad to watch Spaced again. I think it's something that the rest of the world has caught up with and done a shit version of - or Community, as I like to call it - but I think what I've been reminded of, and what actually ties it to Girls in a big way, is the strength of the performances. There's a lot of subtlety to both show's acting styles, and I think it is that which makes Spaced so rewatchable and the horrible annoying people in Girls so bearable.

Ed: The subtlety of Spaced's acting does get lost, I feel, because it came out at around the same time as The Office, which was much more acclaimed and was so much more low-key in the choices its performers made. But it's also because we're now so used to single-camera sitcoms, which were a lot rarer at the time, that it doesn't feel as unique as it was in 1999. I guess that speaks to the influence that Spaced had, in parallel with The Office. Both presented a novel way of telling a comedic story that resonated and influenced a lot of other writers who would go on to create more successful and influential shows.

In terms of Dunham's nudity in Girls, I think it is notable and brave of her, but there isn't really a parallel between it and Spaced. I guess both are interesting as sitcoms anchored by a female star who is not rake thin, and who doesn't look glamourous. Both Hannah and Daisy look like real women, rather than idealised women.

Lewis: What show do you think has made the biggest impact?

Ed: I think that Girls has had the bigger initial impact, definitely. It's made Lena Dunham a star and personality in a way that never happened for Pegg or Hynes, and has inspired and continues to inspire debates about the show and the culture it depicts. You can also see shows like Looking following its example by being  a show which is low on traditional plotting, but with a heavy emphasis on depicting the ins-and-outs of a particular subculture. Spaced's impact seems more limited to the continued, flourishing careers of its creators, primarily because its unique combination of soul-searching and pop culture references is so hard to replicate. Maybe Community is its only true progeny at this point.

Lewis: Although it's also one of the stepping stones that led to the current craze for superhero franchises and all the other adaptations of comic books. I think it's easy to forget that Spaced and Clerks made big waves in obscure pulp referencing in a world where we drown in the reference effluence of Family Guy. I sort of hate Community because it just feels like it's arrived so late to the party. I raise this because whilst Girls has definitely had an impact, we have to wait and see if it and Bridesmaids will eventually spawn something that is to them what The Avengers is to Spaced and Clerks. We wouldn't have all these wisecracking, self-aware superheroes if there hadn't been a reaction to films in which people comment in a self-aware fashion on superheroes and their ilk.