Day Sixty-Three: Something About Girls and The Front Bottoms

by Tom Noonan

I don’t want to take on Girls here, at least not as a whole, I really don’t, but I need to start with it.  There’s already been so much coverage of the show, each episode opening up a new debate or point of entry.  There always seems to be some new complication to the show’s place in our national zeitgeist with each episode that airs, but the arguments, both critical and loyal, have pretty much become entrenched, if only going through slight adjustments over time.

There’s really nothing new to be written about the show because, through its second season, Girls is what it is.  In crude terms, the show exists as an alternate universe version of Sex and the City where lifestyles are reigned in and the characters talk like they’re in a David Sedaris essay.  This is not a slight against the show, the set-up works fine, but it also only does the exact amount of work necessary to arrive at this set-up, causing its characters to appear more as Dunham’s truth-seeking avatars than, say, well defined, arc-friendly creations.  As a result, Dunham’s ensemble is often sacrificed to the vision of their creator, who jettisons extended storylines and important plot points for episodes dedicated to critically discussing the idea of a one-night stand.

This set-up, however occasionally frustrating, does actually work most of the time and could be freed from its flaws, and made smoother, if Dunham wasn’t trying to have the show operate out of its range and allowing for the residue of weakly formed story arcs to hang around, hoping they may provide a vague sense of continuity.  Much of this has been written off as Dunham finding exactly how to structure a show, a trial-by-fire process she has been burdened with since the pilot, but it’s becoming more and more obvious that Dunham’s lack of planning is not what keeps the show from coming together linearly; it’s her writing style that does this.  Her episodes are not formed as the moving pieces of a much larger whole but as smaller statements, individually packaged, to be stored in close proximity to the others.

In an article published on the AV Club’s website, dedicated Girls commentator Todd VanDerWerff tried to break down “what we talk about when we talk about Girls”.  The article quickly veered into a masked defense of the show, with VanDerWerff concluding, “So much TV keeps its distance, gives us the space to properly sort out why the characters behave the way they do, or how the plot is going to move forward… Girls removes that space. It feels like a to-scale model of real life, in all its pains and joys and terrors, coming to life inside your TV.”  This seems to be the pervading argument for Girls as an important piece of popular culture, that the show has an honesty, mostly drawn from its creator’s veins, unlike anything else currently being produced.  This argument certainly has merit, and without slipping into another commentary on Lena Dunham’s dedicated nudity, there is a pervading nakedness to the show, both literally and rhetorically.  Dunham’s characters tap directly into their emotions, leaving everything in a scene, and rarely letting anything go unsaid.  Girls is the anti-thesis of the expertly crafted Breaking Bad, a show built on the tension between the cracks of what comes through on the surface.

The most pressing problem with this defense, however, is that it doesn’t directly deal with how problematic Girls becoming a significant pop culture entry is viewed from outside the experience.  What we talk about when we talk about Girls is what perspectives our stories are coming from.  More than that, it’s who gets to tell these stories.  When Mr. VanDerWerff concedes that, yes, Girls is “too white”, he’s only admitting to part of the problem.  Girls would not be fixed by diversifying, in fact that may hurt it, because it would expose its own restrictions.  Girls is a show where dramatic stakes are built, most frustratingly, on whether or not a sociopathic artist considers someone to be his girlfriend or his hook-up.  There is little room, and probably even less tact, for any form of racial tension to exist on the show.

Take, for instance, Donald Glover’s brief stint as Hannah Horvath’s (Lena Dunham) rebound piece of ass at the beginning of the second season.  The only form of racial tension manufactured by Dunham, if it could even be called that, was in Glover’s character’s party-alignment (he’s a Republican).  In the climax of their politically-based arguments, Dunham tried to channel Sorkin, calling out the hypocrisy inherent to being both Republican and black (at least from a white perspective), but ultimately missed the nuances that made the West Wing creator so tactful in his “white guy writing on race” moments.  It is scenes like this one that prove Dunham is simply incapable of taking the show into another gear.

It’s this lack of malleability, at least so far, that makes the debate on Girls so frustrating.  A Sunday night HBO time slot automatically assumes the role of “important television”, a new, more serious and adult-oriented version of NBC’s glory day Thursday nights.  This has given Girls an unfair context for consumption, marking it as generation-defining before it even hit the air.  None of this, of course, is creator Lena Dunham’s fault, but it also wouldn’t seem so pressing if she hadn’t somewhat explicitly accepted her status via her most autobiographical avatar (“I want to be the voice of my generation, or, a voice.” – Hannah Horvath)  Dunham has a rare opportunity here to play both the victim and the bard.

None of this is to say that Girls is a bad show.  It’s not.  It’s actually a very good show that is very good at its form of staging the personal essay.  The problem is that it will never be great, or as important, as the space carved out in the zeitgeist requires.  The show’s characters will never be more than Dunham’s avatars*, and that’s fine, but we need to stop letting her perspective be made into something it’s not.  There’s honesty in the show, but there’s also a very narrow scope to it.  You can’t have one without the other.

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“Please fall asleep so I can take pictures of you and hang them in my room/So when I wake up I’ll feel like everything is alright.”  So starts New Jersey’s The Front Bottom’s open-wounds bearing self-titled debut.  It’s been out about a year and a half, but it feels like a lot of the wrong people missed it the first time around**.  Tentatively nestled in the very non-existent acoustic-dance-indie-folk-punk scene, The Front Bottoms construct songs like jet streams of consciousness, building around simple melodies (or even two horn notes played with the skill of a junior high band member) to eventually form intricate confessionals.  These are songs you’ve never heard before.

What’s so jarring about the album is not the form as much as it is the content.  Brian Sella’s lyrics seem to have been written on the spot.  On first listen, the songs can feel unfocused and even completely random until you realize that they are literally Sella’s totally uncut thoughts set to music.  They aren’t parsed or distilled but dense and without psychological counsel.  The particularly stunning track “Father” unsubtly marries dreams of patricide to a failed relationship, employing shifting perspectives to fit everything in.  Listening to this album is like being exposed to the voices inside someone else’s head.

The pervading feeling of the album, one that’s magnified by what sound like real voicemails placed within songs of friends and family checking in on Sella or taking issue with his evasiveness, is that our narrator is troubled in the real world, that these songs, in their discomforting relation of events, are not too far removed from Sella’s reality.  Each one feels like a concentrated, mostly controlled meltdown.  The experience of the album is similar to watching Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild, witnessing someone who is not fully aware of what exactly is occurring around them or what it all means so they give into their nature.

The power of the record lies in unfinished thoughts, unresolved conflicts, and the small details that seem to pull Sella through the madness.  There’s a great moment on the standout, “Maps”, where Sella attempts to insult someone who seems to be his ex*** and is struggling to make it as artist.  He delivers the line in his uber-sensitive Tom Delonge-standard snark, “One day you’ll be washing yourself with hand soap in a public bathroom.”  It’s a particularly biting line, one that could be repurposed for Hannah Horvath’s use, but even at his most caustic, Sella retains an unshakable empathy that betrays directly the insult’s venom.  This is what remains with you about the album after listening: a palpable, all-permeating warmth, behind the vinegar, that makes up its heart.  Within the chaos, Sella is sure to provide a sense of shelter, and the record thrives on this paradox: that we can be both troubled and comforting, that we can be both honest and human.

*It is interesting to note here that the most exciting characters exist on the fringes of the show or are only be found when the show is at its weirdest.  The two that spring to mind are Adam and Jessa, two characters that make you wonder how they possibly exist outside of the claustrophobic setting of the show, when they step onto the street.  I would watch 14 different shows just about Adam Driver.

**The album wasn’t even reviewed on Pitchfork which is a site built exclusively for bands like this one.  I also didn’t start giving it too much love until very recently.

***There is a striking familiarity that Sella shows his listener, assuming a personal relationship with them.  There are rarely names given in songs.  It’s as if he assumes you know who he’s talking about.  Either that, or it doesn’t really matter who exactly it is.

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