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February 1, 2013

The New Girls

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What's evolved is that TV today simply accommodates not only a wider variety of shapes and backgrounds but a wider variety of sensibilities as well. Dunham, Kaling, Fey, and Poehler are also writers (Dunham is a 20-something franchise, a writer/director/actor/producer/future author; and Kaling's Mindy Project was partly inspired by her mother's career as an OB/GYN), and their personas express personal experiences, attitudes, and physicalities that don't come out of the cookie-cutter joke factory of a bunch of Harvard guys sitting around in a room playing Nerf ball. Although all these women are willing to plunk their characters into the most messy, mortifying situations, consider that a continuation of a comedy tradition, a classic attribute of female clowning from Lucille Ball to Carol Burnett. It's the word games that are different, the miniature power plays involving lovers, coworkers, and frenemies. The jagged dialogue between guys and girls — and (more interestingly) between women — is a passive-aggressive minefield of pauses, no-big-deal shrugs, flippant wisecracks, and ironic deflections that leave everything free-floating, unsettled, festering. Some of this banter is the residue of low-budget mumblecore films, where every other sleepy dude in a T-shirt seems to be in a band. At its most inarticulate, it can resemble a mime routine between the emotionally stunted. Between cell phones, texting, and Facebook checking, no one appears to be paying full-frontal, facial attention to anyone anymore; conversations take place at a slant; and relationships seem to move crabwise.

Because everything is crawling crabwise. The financial collapse of 2008-09, which turned Gossip Girl into a period piece in a flash, left a flattened economic landscape of sideways expectations. (Getting ahead has been demoted to getting by as upward mobility keeps bumping against a low ceiling.) Job insecurity and tuition debt have forced college grads, who a decade ago would be on their own, to put up with roommates whom they can seem stuck with like unwanted relatives. Like 2 Broke Girls, Girls is set in a self-consciously boho Brooklyn, where the foursome is practically sitting on one another laps for lack of leg room, quite a comedown from Sex and the City, whose characters partied in a shopaholic Manhattan paradise syncopated to the clip-clop of Jimmy Choos. Once the series began to marry off the characters and saddle them with kids, the internal dynamics lost immediacy and they all became duller, except for Kim Cattrall's salty Samantha, lusty till the last. Her legacy, and the show's, lives on. On January 14, the day after the Girls season premiere, the CW network debuted The Carrie Diaries, a prequel to Sex and the City set in the heroine's senior year of high school in the 1980s. Given the CW's target demographic, the show appears to be aimed at a young female audience who wasn't even born in the '80s, piquing their nostalgia for a poufy-haired decade they never knew, a return to hot pink. That's another lesson television teaches: Every decade looks more fun than the one you're living in.

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