Last spring, actor Billy Morrissette was guest starring on Girls and invited me to Steiner Studios in the Brooklyn Navy Yard to watch an episode of the show being filmed. The bad news didn’t come until the day of: due to “tension on set,” Mr. Morrissette had decided it was a bad idea to bring a guest.
And so, rather than meeting Lena Dunham myself, I had to make do with a second-degree connection, along with seemingly everyone else in New York. You see, touting one’s almost-connection to Girls, no matter how tenuous (or even imagined) is de rigueur these days for anyone under 30. Two months ago at a birthday party in Bushwick, for instance, one might have met over the course of the evening—as I did—a blogger whose cousin had been roommates with Ms. Dunham’s sister, a financial analyst from around the corner who remembered seeing Christopher Abbott, the actor who plays Charlie, working at Rockaway Taco and a jewelry designer whose best friend’s boyfriend (aka Mr. Morrissette) is played the boyfriend of Hannah’s ex-boyfriend-cum-gay roommate.
Not only are these almost-connections rampant, but New Yorkers also have a seemingly endless desire to talk about them. The only prompting a stranger usually needs to launch into a detailed description of his or her association with the cast, crew or catering of HBO’s hit show is: “Hi.”
Fame by association is so Hollywood, so what is it about Girls that causes normally celebrity-indifferent New Yorkers to desperately name-drop?
You might say it’s because the show is shot in New York, but so are a lot of shows nobody talks about. When was the last time someone asked you if you saw the latest Damages? Or mused over the dead bodies on Law & Order? Does anyone have a roommate whose sister guest starred on Gossip Girl? Probably. But I’ve never heard anyone talk about it. Louie shoots in New York and is often compared to Girls, since they are both shows whose star is also the producer, writer and director. And yet one rarely hears more about Louie than the requisite “I love it!”
One reason people may feel so comfortable talking about Girls is that many of us think it’s only by a cruel twist of fate—and a whole lot of nepotism—that Lena Dunham created the show and we did not. Knowing someone close to the show is further proof of how close we were/are/could be to having our names in the credits. “What I don’t get is why people act like being bitter toward her isn’t understandable. Why wouldn’t you be bitter toward someone who has everything you want when your life sucks?” said one man who wanted only to be identified as a New York comedian.
This confidence that we could have, should have and eventually would have done what Ms. Dunham did is a delusion, certainly, but it is also a result of the show’s incredibly personal nature. While Girls may be based on Ms. Dunham’s life, the stories are often so familiar that watching them feels like someone else is getting rich off our diary.
Upon seeing the episode where two characters make an ill-fated journey to Staten Island, for instance, Max Barbakow, a 23-year-old filmmaker, exclaimed, “Yeah, I already did that last week,” as though the show owed him money for the story line. Law & Order may be ripped from the headlines, but Girls is ripped from our heads.
And yet, as much as we may feel that we are part of the story, we aren’t. We may identify with Ms. Dunham’s characters, we may even have a friend who has her email address, but most of us don’t know her and probably never will. It’s like looking at the Manhattan skyline from an apartment in Bushwick. You’re basically there, but out-of-towners still think you live in Jersey.
This not-quite-inclusion is why I can’t watch an episode without pointing out to anyone who will listen that that brownstone couldn’t possibly be in Greenpoint. It’s not that I really care whether Girls takes liberties with the geography of Brooklyn, I just need you to know that I know they’re doing it. We use our Girls connections and insider knowledge to assert ownership over a show that we secretly think we should have been paid for anyway.
Girls Also feels personal because there’s so much it gets right. When so many shows about city-dwelling post-collegiate adults miss the mark (see: CBS’s 2 Broke Girls and FOX’s New Girl), Ms. Dunham’s vehicle is at least a realistic representation of what it’s like to be young in New York in 2013, and that’s because the material is culled from real life.
Or so I’ve been told. (An acquaintance assured me that she had it on good authority that Ms. Dunham doesn’t like to drink, and this is why no one on the show is ever drunk and crying.)
But just as the urbanites of the ’90s didn’t know they hated low-talkers until Seinfeld told them so, we had no way to express how fun and simultaneously idiotic warehouse parties could be until Ms. Dunham nailed it in season one. Which perhaps explains why so many people feel let down by the show’s almost total lack of racial diversity. To see a show get your life so right but not see yourself represented would be maddening. As Ali Davis, a Fort Greene-dwelling fashion editor, told The Observer, “I know the show should have black people, because I’m black and I’m in that world.”
(Ms. Davis also confided that one of her classmates from journalism school used to live with series regular Audrey Gelman.)
Another reason people bring Girls into conversation is that it’s easy. Talking about the show has very few barriers to entry. You don’t have to like it, since disliking Girls is actually a respected contrarian position, whereas disliking Louie is not allowed and would never be admitted to.
One reporter I know, who lives on the Upper East Side, gave up on the show after the first season but still sends around a Facebook pictures of himself and Allison Williams from when they were in college together at Yale. He’d do fine in a Girls conversation, because the show’s plot points are only an entrée into discussion, and talking about Girls quickly turns into talking about racism, nepotism, body image, bad sex, good sex, degrading sex, sexy sex and sexism.
The bonus is that the show’s unflinching depiction of normal-looking people having sex means that a casual conversation about TV can quickly turn into a casual conversation about other people’s sex lives, which is the (usually unrealized) goal of all conversation.
The only time it’s really not a good idea to talk about Girls is when you’re with people who don’t live in New York, since there’s nothing like someone with no Girls almost-connections to make your Girls almost-connections look stupid. The problem is that they act like your experiences of watching the show are equal, as though you’re just a fan instead of someone whose roommate grew up with Audrey Gelman (true story!). Being just “a fan” would mean acknowledging that the relationship between ourselves and Girls is necessarily hierarchical. And while we may watch every episode and spend an inordinate amount of time defending it to strangers, we’re not fans of Girls. We’re more like friends, or at least friends of a friend.