Saturday, March 16, 2013

My Very Un-Girls-Like Twenties

The HBO show Girls has received both acclaim and criticism for its portrayal of young women of the Millennial Generation.  Whether the acclaim is deserved or the criticism too rough, I don't know or care.  I also don't care about whether Girls captures the essence of the Millennial Generation, because it doesn't.  How can four white urban girls and their friends accurately represent the experiences of millions?  How can four anyone anywhere?  No, the issue I have is how Girls portrays young creative people striving to break into an elite and unforgiving world.

A decade ago, my life looked something like Hannah Horvath's.  After graduating from college and saving money, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a television writer.  I have always loved to write character-driven dramatic stories, and have usually received good feedback.  At the time, cable channels were multiplying and creative, intelligent dramas were being produced at a stunning rate -- The SopranosSix Feet Under, Gilmore Girls, The West Wing.  Surely they would need to restock their stable of writers.  My older sister had friends in "the Industry," and one of them had even found work as a production assistant on a popular show within his first year.  It would take persistence, I knew, but I was sure that I could break through somewhere, somehow.

So I found a cheap apartment in a part of the San Fernando Valley that hovered between "respectable" and "slum."  I also found some cool friends, most of whom were trying to make it in "the Biz" in one way or other.  Then my path diverged from Hannah's -- I went to find a job.

To Hannah's credit, she was working at the beginning of the series -- in an unpaid job that gave her exposure to her chosen field, which disappeared right out from under her when she asked for money.  Yet the first paid job that she landed -- barista in a hip, independent coffee shop -- feels like the sort of day job that writers wish we had rather than the jobs we have.  My first day job was a lot less glamorous than Hannah's.  You know file clerks at mortgage lending companies?  My job was beneath theirs.  My role consisted of carting files back and forth, pulling them from shelves and putting them back all day long.  People like me were so disposable, we weren't even given a desk, let alone an office.  This was the first job I landed after weeks of searching.

But it paid my bills during a time I went on interviews for positions at production companies, where the basic requirements were that I serve coffee, run a copier, and take abuse with good humor.  It was also where I met my best friend, who was looking to become a music producer.  If she had sex with pretentious artists in her spare time, she chose to be discreet about it.  She planned to go to medical school if her Hollywood dreams did not pan out.

I think what bothers me most about Girls is that it fails to capture the sheer monotony and frustration of trying to break into a creative field.  Granted, I had a set goal for a specific industry, while Hannah has vaguer goals for publishing her writing, but the monotony element would be there all the same.  She might send her writing to different publications and get rejected.  She might do lots of free writing for recognition on subjects that didn't excite her.  She might join writing organizations hoping to meet established writers, but instead find the meetings filled with wanna-bes like herself.

Maybe HBO and Lena Dunham thought the above examples would make for a shabby, dull viewing experience.  Yet Dunham seems content to create a different sort of monotony: Hannah and her friends drift from one party to the next, one partner to the next.  These are the sorts of experiences that are supposed to encapsulate "Our Twenties," yet it's more like a television or movie version of what twenty-somethings are like, rather than an accurate portrayal of how creative twenty-somethings behave.

I went to parties, yes, but most of my nights were spent writing.  In Hollywood, to get to the writers' room, you either climb the rungs from production assistant to staff writer, or you go through an agent.  Having failed with the first option, I tried the second.  I began to write "spec" scripts -- original "episodes" of certain popular shows -- that I then entered into contests and peddled to agents.  I churned out hundreds of query letters, most of which went unread.  I was always conscious of when "pilot" season started and when shows "wrapped" for the year.  I finally got a new job that paid a living wage -- a position editing ads for a search engine company.  It was like working on a digital age assembly line.

Yet there was also collaboration and experimentation -- creative experimentation.  I worked on scripts with other writers, experimented with other media, and finally won my first script competition after writing an original pilot episode.  One thing that I have yet to see on Girls is two young artists collaborating.  Hannah goes to meetings with wacky creative heads, but all of her creative experiences are solitary.  (Unless you count the cocaine trip she shared with her roommate, Elijah, which I don't.  Even if they took cocaine together, only Hannah would be tasked with putting the experience on paper.)

So in short, I was constantly working, even though I had little to show for it.  This always befuddles people when I tell them about my experiences.  "You were there for that long, yet you didn't even sell one script?"  How could I make them understand that selling a television script was not like having your letter published in the newspaper?  That the television world was cloistered and difficult to penetrate, and even freelance opportunities were rare?  That my victories had to be measured in the number of agent meetings I took, or the finalist and semi-finalist placements in competition?  Anyway I did earn some money -- $500 for winning the pilot competition.  It paid one month's rent... almost.

Maybe HBO and Dunham thought it would be boring to show Hannah constantly working at her craft, making red scribbles on her drafts, jumping up from the table and taking a deep breath when the words on her laptop were not the ones she wanted to express.  I realize that you cannot make a whole show about writing, but surely a few scenes wouldn't hurt in place of yet another bored, weird sex scene?  When Hannah sits down to write her eBook, it's like the first time she ever sat down to write anything, even though that obviously would not have been the case.  Showing a little more of the writing process could go a long way toward making Hannah a relatable character -- someone with concrete ambitions who is willing to work for them.  Would it have been too much for Girls to admit that being a twenty-something isn't a daily adventure, but as tedious and hard as any other decade of living?  

I won't hold my breath waiting for Hannah to reach a point where she realizes that her goals won't be met and it's time to reassess.  It took me about five years to reach that point.  Girls may not even last five seasons.  And if it does, no doubt Hannah will meet the right people just in time, who will give her all the chances she needs to succeed.

When I first heard of Girls, I was ready to embrace it.  From the pilot episode, it looked as though Hannah would need to sacrifice to afford living in the city that she loved, pursuing the work that she loved.  I rarely see that portrayed accurately, and it seemed like Girls would finally be the series to do it.  But two seasons have passed, and that early promise has faded. Hannah and her friends are less serious and less interesting than everyone I knew during my Hollywood "adventure."  It's not that I need Hannah to fail in order for her to be interesting -- I just need to see her try.  Not "TV" try, where the character is shown pounding on a laptop for two scenes and then never again, but really try.  When all of the characters on Girls are shown to be drifting, it says that creative twenty-somethings are poseurs who lack the same work ethic and ambitions of people in other fields.  That they need to be "rescued" and placed in a structured environment, like graduate school or corporate America.

On the other hand, couldn't it be argued that just like the Millennial Generation, Girls does not -- cannot -- represent all creative twenty-somethings?  It's set in New York, for one thing, not Los Angeles.  That's true, but I guess the difference is that you could point to plenty of series where Millennials are having completely different experiences, and thus take the claim that Girls represents an entire generation lightly.  Yet there aren't too many series about young people pursuing creative dreams.  Each series that shows a "writer" who never writes, or an "artist" who never creates, makes it easier for viewers to reach the conclusion that creative people don't do real work.  It's especially problematic when the series claims to be "real."     

While there are things that I regret about my six years in Hollywood, I don't regret doing it and I don't regret leaving.  I can admit now what I couldn't then: that Hollywood is unstable even for those who "make" it.  People with achievements that I envied might bounce from show to show each year, even multiple times a year.  While I could have stayed on the same path forever, I did not find it fulfilling.  My life was spent working a tedious job by day and writing "episodes" for other people's shows at night.  I wanted a career that would bring me satisfaction even when my writing wasn't selling, and to spend evenings on my own plots and characters.  Now, in my thirties, I won't pretend that I have everything I want, but I have made definite progress.


  1. Let's just face the truth, Kara: most shows today don't just suck rocks--they suck entire mountain ranges. If it isn't chock full of bordering on dirty jokes or full of sex scenes, it doesn't cut it.

    This is largely why I've largely gravitated towards watching the classic TV shows I grew up with on TV Land and MeTV like "M*A*S*H" and "All in the Family". Furthermore, the good quality shows that are on often get brutally canceled before they get a chance to get a fan base as in the recent case of Cartoon Network giving "Green Lantern: The Animated Series" and "Young Justice: Invasion" their walking papers. When two cartoons like that have better writing than most of the so-called Prime Time shows or "un-reality" shows out there, it tells you something.

    About the only Prime Time show I'm interested in nowadays is the new version of "Dallas" but you just know that show's days are going to be numbered now that Larry Hagman's gone.

    At this point, I want to put myself in cryogenic stasis and wake up when they bring back "Star Trek" in some form or even new versions of "All in the Family" and "M*A*S*H". :-(

  2. Well, I think that "Girls" actually has a decent premise and in a couple more seasons, it's possible the characters (like the writer) will mature.