HBO's Girls returns to new episodes Sunday; but is it pulling a Friends-style diversity head fake?
There may be no more buzzed-about TV show this winter than HBO’s Girls, kicking off its second season Sunday with a boatload of good reviews, several hip guest stars and awards galore for star/creator/head writer Lena Dunham – now emerging as a Tina Fey for the Millennial generation.
But after watching the first four episodes of the new season, I have to wonder: Is Dunham pulling a Friends-style head fake here?
Astute fans of the small screen will remember that, much as America loved Friends, the show drew loads of criticism for presenting a seriously whitewashed vision of the country’s most diverse town, New York City.
The barbs about Friends’ lack of racial diversity grew so loud, producers eventually tried adding two different black women as love interests at different times. But the characters were so uninspired, even performers talented as Aisha Tyler and Gabrielle Union couldn’t make them more than awkward tributes to political correctness.
So imagine my surprise when, minutes into Girls’ first episode of its new season, self-described black nerd Donald Glover takes a break from NBC’s Community to play a new beau of Dunham’s Hannah Horvath – a paring which, so far, lasts two episodes.
You see, Girls endured its own criticisms over forgetting racial diversity while creating a world for four twentysomething women in New York City which felt so right in so many other ways. Statistics say youth this age are more likely to have friendships across race than any group, but you wouldn’t have known that from the show’s first season, which had no major characters of color in the cast.
The lack of diversity led to sharp comments everywhere from he New York Times to CNN. (I just wondered why so many people were jumping on Dunham when quite a few other popular TV shows handle diversity almost as badly). Dunham seemed to apologize on NPR’s Fresh Air, saying “this show isn't supposed to feel exclusionary.”
So we get Glover’s character Sandy, an interesting sketch; a black Republican who looks and dresses like a member of Afro-bohemian rap band The Roots, coming into Hannah’s life just as she’s decided to leave a boyfriend who once took her love for granted and used her mostly for sex.
But just as we’re getting to know Sandy, he’s gone; split with Hannah after he criticizes one of her essays and she picks a fight over his political beliefs -- spitting a Missy Elliot lyric at him in anger while he’s railing against white women who fetishize dating black men.
Worse, there still doesn’t seem to be any other characters of color on the show, as if Dunham concluded shoehorning one black character into the action – played by an actor of color beloved by the show’s hipster demographic – answered all those folks who noticed that a vision of New York with virtually no black, Asian or Latino people just feels…wrong.
It’s unfortunate, because Dunham has in many ways created an excellent second season for a personal show which has become a cultural phenomenon.
The challenge here has always been to make stupendously self-centered characters who make loads of bad choices somehow seem sympathetic. And in this new season, everything from New York’s nonsensical art culture to hopelessly mismatched romances are skewered, lampooning the culture of a certain kind of overeducated, underemployed urban twentysomething in the process.
Dunham has suggested the show's lack of diversity stems from the fact that she based the key characters on pieces of herself. But she has done amazing job with many male characters, including Horvath’s often-clueless boyfriend, Adam Sackler – a note-perfect rendering of so many sex-focused, self-obsessed young men.
She does it again with Elijah Krantz, a guy who once dated Hannah in college and since has come out as gay. In the first few episodes, Elijah is Hannah’s perfect roommate, cuddling up to sleep with her (in an totally platonic way, of course), and joining her in wild night out doing doing cocaine for a freelance article she’s writing.
Played by Broadway star Andrew Rannells (NBC’s The New Normal), Elijah is a charismatic delight until his relationship falls apart with Hannah over a most unexpected reason. And he feels like a much more fleshed-out character than her actual boyfriend, Sandy.
So, if Dunham can create great male characters and gay characters, why can’t she write a few people of color into the mix?
If history is any guide, Girls won’t substantially change its cast to be more inclusive, and the show’s biggest fans – who see their lives reflected in its absurdist, urbane stories – won’t care.
But if that happens, Girls will also stand as yet another opportunity missed; yet another reflection of our segregated society instead of a bridge to something better.