New York, as seen from the ground floor of the Apatower
There is a weird-looking three-story office building on West Pico Boulevard just north of the Santa Monica Freeway in Santa Monica that its denizens call "the Apatower."
In the bottom floor, Lena Dunham, the creator of the new HBO series "Girls," her show-runner Jenni Konner and six writers met frequently over the winter months to sketch out the second season of the show. In the upper floors are the offices of Apatow Productions, the center of Judd Apatow's Hollywood output, including TV shows "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared" and movies like Bridesmaids and Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
It was largely through Apatow's efforts that Dunham had gotten herself a series on HBO, and assembled her team, and wrote 10 episodes in the ground floor of the Apatower.
Throughout the writing of Season 1, Apatow worked very closely with Dunham and Konner on the storylines, and was present while much of the shooting went on, giving advice and calling for changes. Through all of it, Dunham, Konner declared to The Huffington Post, was "made of magic."
But as much as a month before the show aired, critics had seen the first three episodes, and there was some feedback. Most of the published material on "Girls" at that early date had been adoring (and broad). But through back-channels other messages must have resonated with Dunham and her writers. Dunham told The Huffington Post on April 9, almost a week before the first episode aired:
We really tried to be aware and bring in characters whose job it was to go "Hashtag white people problems, guys." I think that's really important to be aware of. Because it can seem really rarefied. When I get a tweet from a girl who's like, "I'd love to watch the show, but I wish there were more women of color." You know what? I do, too, and if we have the opportunity to do a second season, I'll address that.
It's evidence that Dunham and her team were at least somewhat prepared for what would happen after the night of the premiere, April 15; that's when "Girls" became a real thing, a grown-up in the intense and very grown-up world of really existing television, and therefore in a way not magic at all.
I'm so into all the love for #GIRLS and even the hate is kind of awesome. Thank you excellent watchers of tv.— Jenni Konner (@campsucks) April 16, 2012
Two episodes of "Girls" have aired on HBO. But the entire first season of 10 episodes is already in the can; the second, substantially written. (Shooting begins in mid-May.) Many critics have seen the whole first season; many have not. But both camps have been outspoken. Those who have seen all of Season 1 do not seem to be particularly anxious to reassure viewers just to wait, that the show diversifies later on. A post on the website Racialicious by Kendra James (titled "Dear Lena Dunham: I Exist") found the casting-call announcements for "Girls" for April and May of 2011. (See below.)
James argues that the show is unrealistic, in that Dunham's world simply would not be so white: She and her friends live in Brooklyn, which is only a third white; and James herself went to the same small liberal arts school, Oberlin, and came afterward to New York to be a writer.
Where nonwhite people do come in, they do seem like they have little to offer but one to three lines in which they are hanging out on stoops "making a comment on Hannah's appearance," or grandmotherly nannies, or "sexy" young nannies, or "overweight" Jamaican-accented nannies. In the first episode racial diversity comes by way of a cheerful Asian woman who nabs the fulltime position at the book publisher where she and Hannah were both unpaid interns because she knows PhotoShop, and a black man who seems to be homeless and offers some Magic Negro wisdom.
It does seem fairly unrealistic that there would be so few people of color in the worlds in which Lena Dunham's character and her friends move about: Brooklyn and lower Manhattan, literary circles.
Last week, New York Times technology reporter Jenna Wortham wrote about the first episode of the show for the women's website The Hairpin:
My chief beef is not simply that the girls in "Girls" are white. I'm a white girl and not a white girl, identified by other people as black and not black for as long as I can remember – which, in mixed people speak means biracial. But the problem with "Girls" is that while the show reaches — and succeeds, in many ways — to show female characters that are not caricatures, it feels alienating, a party of four engineered to appeal to a very specific subset of the television viewing audience, when the show has the potential to be so much bigger than that. And that is a huge fucking disappointment.
Wortham's essay, titled "Where (My) Girls At?" is generally a rave. But here's the ending:
Because these girls on "Girls" are like us, they are like me and they are like you, they are beautiful, they are ballsy, they are trying to figure it out. They have their entire lives ahead of them and I can’t wait to see what happens next. I just wish I saw a little more of myself on screen, right alongside them.
One of the writers on the show, Leslie Arfin, tweeted later that evening: "What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME." (The tweet was later deleted.)
It's been noted that Arfin is a veteran of the Vice publishing empire, a hip magazine that specializes in provocation; its history of political incorrectness on race matters is worth very little of your time or attention, except to say, in the spirit of David Letterman on another topic, "I have a theory about Madonna: I believe she likes to shock us." Benjamin Leo, a fellow traveler of Arfin's and a writer for the similar-minded website Street Carnage, wrote approvingly:
Brilliant.UGGGGG, but now watch as the writers are forced to acquiesce and add some phony token Black Rhodes Scholar to appease these morons. Guys, you’ve kept it SO real—please don’t suck their balls. It’s 2012 and Obama’s in the White House: the McCarthyism 2.0 witch-hunting mob has been disarmed! They have no power over you! TELL YOUR STORY."
ARFIN'S RESPONSE TO THE CRITICISM HAS BEEN ATYPICAL of the show's creative team, but most of what Dunham, and executive producer Judd Apatow, have said about the matter seems to have been either vague or to result in promises to "improve" the show.
Whatever else is true, "Girls" has somehow become an obsession, and for both the old media and the internet, a crucible for forming an idea of what's happening right now. Its ommissions, its failures, its successes are all pointed to as affirmations of greater truths about society, whether its about a new glass ceiling for people of color, the narcissism or troubling sexual mores or troubling digital mediation of the ideas of "today's young people," or the situation for women now (good or bad or whatever).
Watching the first two episodes of the show, I found it much smaller than that; funny, and kind of slight.
But I wanted to get behind all of this a bit and figure out how the show actually works. So I called an old colleague, Deborah Schoeneman, who is one of the writers on the show.
"The thing about [network] TV, what's often happening is you are breaking the story of an episode in the showroom, and you're shooting another episode," she told me over the phone from Los Angeles. "Episodes can air and then you react to it, and it's like, you can be like, 'fans want to see more of this character!' So you decide whether you want to react to that.
"So on 'Revenge' they can see what the fans are saying and if they want to react to it they can react to it. Cable is its own animal, and it very much has a lot more to do with the creative vision of the creator."
An entire season will be bought, written, shot and produced before the first episode airs.
Schoeneman said the writers, Dunham and Konner knew from the start that the show would get talked about.
"We knew that there was going to be a backlash of sorts," Schoeneman said. "It's like some sort of law of gravity: If you get enough attention? Angelina Jolie is really famous and some people love her and some people hate her. That is not surprising that there are people who have lots of positive and lots of negative things to say about the show."
"I think what I am surprised at is the vast diversity of people that are interested in talking about the show," she said. "I knew that women in their 20s and 30s were gonna want to talk about the show, but the diversity of the people who are weighing in surprised me."
Not just her. At this point, it's a real question whether the show can manage mentions in every section of The New York Times. (The show was the subject of an article in the Tuesday science section.)
There are six writers on the show. Arfin is one; she's known mostly for writing for Vice and co-writing books that have introductions by Chloe Sevigny, who as a star of the movie Kids is possibly the original source of the whole Vice-American Apparel aesthetic.
There's Schoeneman, a journalist and writer (and fellow real-estate columnist with me at The New York Observer a little more than a decade ago) who worked on the "reboot" of 90210.
There's screenwriter and cartoonist Bruce Eric Kaplan, whose style under the signature BEK is familiar to readers of The New Yorker but whose behind-the-scenes credits include being a staff writer on "Seinfeld" and a writer and producer of "Six Feet Under."
There's Sarah Heyward, an Iowa Writers' Workshop graduate who tweets under the name "shinyunicorn" and shouts out frequently to Arfin, Maude Apatow and Dunham, as well as writing occasionally for HelloGiggles, Zooey Deschanel's women's entertainment website.
There's Murray Miller, a California native whose credits include "King of the Hill" and "Committed" but who went to New York University.
And presently working on the show, too, is Steve Rubinshteyn, who for the first season was Dunham's assistant.
All are white, Schoeneman said, but all are not typical writers for a hit show.
"I think that what Lena and Jenni were interested in were writers who had a lot of real-life experience," said Schoeneman. "They were not interested in a lot of writers who had lots of credits. They were interested in getting a diverse group of people and people who had a lot of life experience, people who were interested in sharing their life experiences, who were oversharers, if you want."
The writers room at the bottom floor of the Apatower (and the constant email and conference-call system in place when they are not gathered together) are "places where people could be very comfortable telling some secret about themselves that would help write the characters," Schoeneman said.
It's perhaps a little reductive to suggest that one of the reasons the show appears to many to lack diversity is because it is so personal, and because none of the writers have personal experience of being anything but white.
"The majority of most writers rooms are white, the majority of most magazines are white," Schoeneman pointed out.
But, on the other hand, the majority of most writers rooms have not been commissioned to write so forthrightly from personal experience.
"It's not like each one of us has a character or each one of us has a specialty," Schoeneman said. "It's like each one of us has a background … and it's a crew that she's assembled to figure out what she needs."
Of course it's not entirely personal stories.
Schoeneman, who has been a reporter for The New York Observer, The New York Post and New York magazine, and has run glossy magazines on the Hamptons, and has also been a novelist, feels that her position was a particular one. As a reporter, she was always telling other people's stories, so she had not just her own experiences, but the experiences of people she'd interviewed over time to help her come up with ideas for the show.
"They are not always my own stories but I have a lot of stories to share about other people, because I was very out and about as a journalist," she said. "There are lots of things I saw in New York that … I would never have had access to just being me, but as a journalist I did."
But they are stories with a certain specificity, that the writers bring their personal knowledge of in order to make them fit with the feeling of the show, which is extremely personal. The feeling of being inside Hannah's head, and seeing everything through her eyes—almost of an estrangement one feels from oneself—is perhaps one of the reasons the show's diversity is called out so vigorously, when so many other shows with even more improbable lack of diversity, or offensive deployments of diversity ("30 Rock" is mentioned in many discussion threads about diversity on "Girls," because after all: Tracy Morgan? Subas the janitor? Alec's West Indian nanny? The Jamaican assistants at Liz Lemon's dentists?) that play on stereotypes but somehow do not seem to detonate the shows themselves.
It's also probably part of the reason others, who have not concentrated on the matter of diversity, have used the word "narcissistic" to describe the show.
And why another whole contingent of young women (and some not so young) is enthusiastically embracing the show.
AUTHENTICITY AND GOOD CITIZENSHIP ARE NOT THE SAME THING. It's a reasonable argument to say that this show ought to include more people of color in prominent roles, that doing that would be a tremendous breakthrough. It's also reasonable to say that the show ought to include more people of color purely to meet the standard of realism the show seems to set for itself. Last week in The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates used the distinction between the two to argue that the anger at Dunham and her writers is misplaced:
I think storytellers--first and foremost--must pledge their loyalty to the narrative as it comes to them. I don't believe in creating characters out a of desire to please your audience or even to promote an ostensible social good. I think good writing is essentially a selfish act--story-tellers are charged with crafting the narrative the want to see. I'm not very interested in Lena Dunham reflecting the aspirations of people she may or may not know. I'm interested in her specific and individual vision; in that story she is aching to tell. If that vision is all-white, then so be it. I don't think a story-teller can be guilted into making great characters.
But there's a combination punch, too: Shows like "Girls" ought to include more diversity because, the fact is, the world of Hannah would be more diverse in real life than it appears in the show. Not reflecting that diversity appears to be a positive act of erasure.
It's clear that a great deal of thought goes into the authenticity of the show, but it's a kind of authenticity that we've been hearing about in another context: It's something like the "personal truth" touted by James Frey. And in some ways, the dispute over "Girls" gives the lie to the old idea that if Frey's self-proclaimed "memoir" A Million Little Pieces had simply been called a novel, and proffered as a roman-a-clef, the distortions and misrepresentations of his biography inside would have been unproblematic.
There are practical limitations to the "authenticity" achievable on television, of course.
So Schoeneman says, for example, "We might write a scene at night on the waterfront on a boat, and someone will say, 'We can't do it at night, it's a nightmare, can we make it indoors at a restaurant and we can fake that it is on the water?'"
"If it's really important that it's a boat in the water in the middle of the night, if that is the most important thing that can happen with this character in this episode, then [they'll say], 'We'll do it, but just know it is gonna cost this much out of your budget."
"If I said in the writers room, 'I really think that Hannah has an apartment on the Upper East Side because she wants to walk to work, it doesn't matter. She doesn't go there, she doesn't go to the Upper East Side. She doesn't want to be there."
But in another sense the kind of authenticity the show strives for is absolute: It's an authenticity not to an outside set of facts, but to the lived experience of Lena Dunham, as it is unspooled by her writing staff. And it is objective, or produced objectively, in the sense that the feelings of viewers are also not the main guide as to what happens to the characters or how.
"We don't sit around and think about 'will this feel real to viewers,'" Schoeneman told me. "We're not thinking about the viewer that much. We are thinking about what's the story to tell; how can we tell about the best story we can."
(It's important to note that at this stage of our conversation we were not addressing race. I was just trying to get a gauge of what "authenticity" meant in the writers' room.)
"All of us are New Yorkers, from different parts of New York," Schoeneman said. "We all know a very different New York."
And all of them, though some are men and some are women, were geared to write about New York from a woman's point of view. Dunham has talked before about how many of the people who work on the show are women.
To Schoeneman and her co-writers, this was significant.
"Hollywood is still dominated by men, still dominated by white men," she said. "I am sure Nikki Finke has those statistics somewhere."
That's a lot like what Coates argues: That the artistic vision of an individual artist is sacrosanct, but that the curation of those visions, at a higher level, is where diversity needs to come in. I don't quite buy this total exoneration of the writer, especially when a certain kind of realism, a certain kind of "personal truth," has been so completely at the forefront of the creative team's representation of the show to the public.
THE FACT THAT DUNHAM'S SHOW IS SO PERSONAL, so completely a point-of-view piece, has raised interesting questions about reality and representation.
So we've seen how it's been used by her defenders as a way of saying that nobody has the right to insist that anything be in the show that isn't somewhere already latently in Dunham's own imagination, waiting to be made manifest. It's been used by the show's detractors to point out what supposedly accounts for the show's narcissism (which in Coates' point of view is merely the acceptable "selfishness" of the act of artistic creation).
But the race issue brings up something entirely different: The question whether the experiences of a white woman who comes to New York to make something of herself are most authentically internal, unmediated experiences or external ones, ones that happen in the real world.
I've sometimes fantasized that the finale of "30 Rock" shouldn't have Tina Fey in it. What would happen if we suddenly had 22 minutes inside of the "TGS" studios, which the camera, pointing as it does at Fey's character with the same technology as it does on Tracy Morgan, on Subas the janitor, on zany Kenneth the Page, pretends to render objectively, and found that the camera and the mind of Liz Lemon are actually in some out-of-body way engaged in a feedback loop? Jack Donaghy becomes a gruff but finally somewhat boring guy, a little bit of a backslapper but completely without absurdity. Subas' accent is severely lessened, and he's going to night school to re-obtain the law degree he had in his home country; Jenna is very pretty, driven, a little shallow, but utterly un-absurd.
In this version, I think Tracy Morgan's dressing room, the nerve center of a giant movie and television franchise, is full of the bustle of efficient assistants faxing out contracts and brokering his bookings on interview shows. Kenneth, with his slight accent, is still endlessly accommodating, but not at all weird and far less prone to jaw about his backward Appalachian upbringing.
What an exercise like this would disclose is the possibility that the Liz Lemon character's internal life does not itself accurately reflect the world around her. It's not possible to experience the outside world without the filter of one's own imagination. When Dunham's most ardent supporters report that she gets so much right about life for young women in New York City, I suspect they mean she gets so much right about the internal experience of being a young woman in New York City. A very specific kind of young woman.
This is the trouble with "Girls," I think. It's the possibility that it discloses something about the internal imagination of white people in New York City in what we are sometimes told is a post-racial world: That the white imagination renders successful people of color essentially white by a subconscious, internal exercise; those that remain themselves after that operation is complete are stereotypes. If they were not, they would translate as white.
I am not willing to say this is true of Lena Dunham, whom I do not know and have never interviewed, though she has admitted that it's difficult to put herself so completely on the screen in the character of Hannah without exposing herself, her own inner demons and her own flaws, directly to the public. The filter of Hannah is a thin one. And the filter of the camera is, too.
They're flaws I suspect many people would exhibit to one degree or another, if their internal imaginations were this scrupulously laid bare, and which are most often unexplored internally if not on a hit cable show. And that may be why so many who see themselves in Dunham's character have been so quick to throw water all over the race issue, or to try to sweep it away, or to lash out about it.
As Dunham told the Huffington Post, she would in fact use a second season as an opportunity to address the issues raised by her critics about diversity.
But the staff started working on the second season long before the criticism emerged: A few days in October, a week or two in November, and then in January for a few weeks. It was only in January that the staff themselves began to see the last of the first season's episodes.
So if there is a course correction, you can expect a small backlash from those who say the show is pandering.
And if there is a course correction, it may be a bit clumsy, hashed together in the wake of controversy that erupted a month before the second season starts shooting.
But it will be worth it. What I think it will have meant is that Dunham's imagination is evolving, in a way it is as likely to do as a result of the important controversies her show has brought forth as it is some inward, personal journey. Dunham is 25 years old, and her perspective will continue to evolve. She is an artist whose inner life is projected on the screen; the act of putting it there must be among the most powerful shapers of her artistic imagination right now.
It seems a little ridiculous to speak so personally about Dunham herself, but the way the show is being talked about, and indeed the way the show is made, it's the only place you can go. If we see a change in the show, it is just possible it will be because it is becoming more, not less, authentic, both to Dunham's own evolving self-concept and to the realities of contemporary New York.