Television Roundup: Season Six of “Girls” and “David Brent: Life on the Road”.
How do you spend several seasons of television with characters who refuse to change? Perhaps we can look to HBO’s storied past for examples: one of their earliest hits, “Sex & The City,” was a show that prided itself on it’s character’s refusal to abandon each other, even as the show’s heroines carved out separate paths in their respective professional and romantic lives. Ditto for “Entourage,” a kind of “Bros & The City” where it was never in question whether or not Vinny Chase and his Brooklyn homeboys would keep winning, just how hard they would rage before the show lumbered its way to its ineffectual climax. A more recent example would be Jody Hill and Danny McBride’s red state tragedy “Eastbound and Down,” which gave us four hilarious and horrific seasons of mulleted sociopath Kenny Powers burning bridges and stubbornly clinging to his old, toxic ways.
“Girls,” the wildly successful and talked-about Brooklyn sitcom created by Lena Dunham and comedy hitmaker Judd Apatow, is a show that faces this same basic dilemma, particularly in its sixth and final season. The characters of “Girls” — by turns insufferable and scarily recognizable, monstrously selfish and also oblivious to any and all social cues — have experienced a great deal over the course of the show’s six-season run. They’ve fallen in and out of love, ditched promising jobs, gotten married, gotten divorced and yet here still they are, together as one.
The question that Dunham seems to be asking in the show’s newest season is this: have these characters grown at all? Changed in any fundamental way? Is Hannah Horvath still the same narcissistic screw-up she was when we met her, as she shoved pasta into her face and callously pestered her parents for a loan in the season one pilot? Or has the character matured into a kind of untethered, uninhibited 20th century woman? Will timid Shoshanna ever confront her insecurities directly, or will the character continue to invent new problems for herself? Does morose carpenter and sometimes-actor Adam actually have a future as an artist, beyond all the self-pity and meaningless sex that takes up his day-to-day?
Self-pity, meaningless sex… gee, I guess it only took me three paragraphs to get to two of “Girls’” chief preoccupations. Now, my friends with whom I geek out over television know that “Girls” is a show I have a fair number of problems with. However, my qualms with the show are nothing too different then the innumerable other complaints that critics and viewers have lodged at Dunham and her staff. Among the chief laments are that the show’s depiction of modern-day New York is overwhelmingly white (it is), that the show rubs our face in bad behavior and often confuses it for character-building (it does), that it is wildly inconsistent on an episode-by-episode basis (yup, this too). While it’s undeniably true that privileged creatives in their 20’s who live in big, booming metropolises can be self-involved, I’ve never in my life met anyone as poisonously in love with their own experiences as the central characters on Dunham’s show. If I did, I’d run — fast, and as far away as I possibly could.
Of course, narcissistic and/or delusional characters are not entirely uninteresting in and of themselves. Noah Baumbach has made an entire career out of profiling these kinds of intellectually adroit but emotionally stunted people, and his last two films — “While We’re Young” and “Mistress America” — both feel somewhat indebted to the impudent, youthful pluck of “Girls”. However, it is not enough for a character to simply be self-involved: there must be something of substance, some paradox in their makeup, that keeps us coming back after all the appalling behavior.
The slightly rueful tone of the sixth episode premiere of “Girls” seems to suggest that Dunham and Apatow think they’re rounding some sort of victory lap with these characters — that they’ve weathered a journey of tremendous emotional growth together and that this is just one final, fond farewell from an old group of friends we may never see again. If only other showrunners were so supercilious as to give themselves that much credit. For better or worse, nothing’s changed on “Girls”. The fans will still love it, the haters will still hate, and Ms. Dunham’s show will continue to remain a lightning rod for controversy and think pieces alike, probably until its climactic episode. Apart from a vague, half-defined air of irrevocability that now hangs over this final go-round, the song remains very much the same.
Season Six picks up with its characters in various states of disarray. For as little as Hannah has done over these six seasons of television, she’s been rewarded with an almost Vincent Chase level of stupid dumb luck and blind fortune. In the sixth season premiere, “All I Ever Wanted,” Hannah is getting ready to write a story about a surf camp in the Hamptons (Hannah’s claim that she “gives zero fucks about anything, yet I have a strong opinion everything,” is maybe the most Hannah thing that’s ever been said on this show). Marnie (the very good Allison Williams) is still reeling from her divorce to the laughably coiffed would-be folkie Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). Meanwhile, Adam (Adam Driver, wonderful and underused, probably because he’s now being asked to lend his talents to more interesting projects) is now shtupping Jessa (Jemima Kirke), all while Ray (Alex Karpovsky, the closest thing this show has to a character that resembles an actual human being) finds himself despondent and without a place to call home.
The majority of the episode is a flat dirge concerning Hannah turning her work assignment into a sloppy pity party and developing sort-of feelings for her hunky surf instructor (played by “The Night Of’s” Riz Ahmed in a funny instance of bit casting that still can’t shake the scent of the show’s toxic sense of tokenism) who’s really just perpetually living for the weekend. The second episode, the spiky, bitter “Hostage Situation,” improves (just barely) by returning to the show’s more familiar, established rhythms, but it also stumbles in its depiction of Hannah and Marnie attempting to mend fences in their long-since-damaged friendship, not to mention an odd and dark third-act reveal about Desi’s true desires that is handled in the most patently idiotic fashion possible.
My guess is that it’s supposed to be funny when a character dimly muses that they’ve been attending Kabbalah classes to feel better about themselves, just as it was probably supposed to be funny in the previous season when we saw lily-white Zosia Mamet sauntering through the streets of Japan, totally unaware to her status as a white, affluent tourist exercising her considerable privilege. The problem is, “Girls” kinda stopped being funny a long time ago. Instead, it’s just kind of whiny and gross and existentialist in the way that douchey kid in your philosophy section used to be. In fact, since the show’s pretty decent third season, “Girls” has almost functioned better as a mildly engaging relationship drama than as a comedy — which wouldn’t be such a problem if the show didn’t have a snarky, distinctively millennial habit of undercutting its own sincerity at every turn.
The reason that I myself have continued to watch “Girls” over the course of its wonky six-season run is simple: Dunham, through no real fault of her own, has been posited as the voice of her generation. For that reason alone, plus her occasional knack for writing clever, revealing dialogue, I will be interested in what she has to say. But like our current president, she’s been appointed to a role I’m not sure she ever really wanted, and as self-absorbed creative in my 20’s, allow me to say definitively: “Girls” does not speak for me. If you find that it does speak to you, reader, then there’s a good chance that you and I wouldn’t have much to talk about at a party.
David Brent, the spectacularly clueless and insecure everyman embodied by Ricky Gervais for the two seasons that comprised the brilliant BBC version of “The Office,” is a character, like Hannah Horvath, who refuses to change. For Mr. Brent, to confront change would mean having to confront his own deficiencies, of which there are no shortage. Apart from his inability to navigate social situations and his habit of peppering his horrible jokes with mistimed instances of racism and sexism, one of David Brent’s defining qualities is his inability to address his own shortcomings as a boss, as a friend and ultimately, as a man. Spending twenty minutes in his company was often skin-crawling, even if “The Office” did contain some of the most screamingly funny set pieces in modern sitcom history, not to mention effectively laying the groundwork for much of today’s cringe-comedy output.
“David Brent: Life On The Road” is a new feature-length effort directed by and starring Gervais, here reprising the role that made him a star. While “Road” is undeniably funny in fits and starts — Gervais has such a firm handle on the character that it often feels like he’s sliding effortlessly back into the classically squirmy persona that catapulted him to stardom — it’s an endeavor that also carries the unmistakable scent of desperation. I suspect only the most ardent “Office” fans will give it the time of the day, and this film might even find a way to test their patience.
When the U.K. “Office” first hit British airwaves, no one had seen anything like it. It was more arid, more humiliating, than anything anyone had ever seen before, skirting closer to genuine mortification than the more comparatively zany one-two punch of “Fawlty Towers” or Monty Python would ever dare to. Gervais has given us several riffs on his essential formula since then, some successful (“Extras,” “Life’s Too Short”) and others less so (“Derek”). The point is, Gervais’ signature brand of cruelty is nothing new by this point, and there’s nothing funny enough in “Life on the Road” to elevate it beyond a one-joke sketch of a movie that barely manages to justify its running time.
What’s the one joke of “David Brent: Life on the Road,” you ask? Why, it’s what a lame, pathetic, socially maladjusted loser its lead character is! While this punching-down school of humor works just fine in twenty to thirty minute doses, it’s a harder balancing act to pull of for ninety-plus minutes. It requires a formal technique (think Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” perhaps the definitive cringe comedy about an unbalanced nobody) that Mr. Gervais is seemingly not interested in. Devoting an hour and a half to the ritualistic undermining a delusional clod seems cheap and unfair, unless there’s something more compelling going on beneath the surface. In the case of “Life on the Road,” there is not.
Things aren’t looking great for David Brent when first we meet him at the start of “Life on the Road”. Fifteen or so years after “The Office,” Brent is now an under-qualified sales rep for Lavichem, a bathroom supply firm whose anemic office spaces look identical to those of Wernhamm Hogg in “The Office” (as with Gervais’ BBC classic, “Life on the Road” unfolds in the utterly uncompelling British trading borough that is Slough). As always, David still gifting his co-workers with his fabulous “sense of humor,” which involves charming bits like him doing a “Chinaman” voice while turning his eyes into tiny, squinty little slits. What a guy.
In his off time, which he seems to have a lot of, David yearns for a life of rock n’ roll superstardom and waxes nostalgic about the time he used to spend with his former band, the admittedly cleverly-named Foregone Conclusion. There’s also the matter of David’s friend Dom, who is a rapper, his unofficial PR consultant and the source of a lot of mistimed and not-particularly-funny racial humor. The one instance where Gervais drunkenly addresses his friend using a certain six-letter epithet made me want to sink into my seat, and not in a good way.
As I said, the movie is intermittently funny, though I did not always feel good about myself for laughing. What ultimately sinks “Life on the Road” is its abrupt and unwarranted detour into third-act sentimentality. It’s as if Gervais was unsure where to take this character after he finally sets off on the adventure that gives the film its title, so he resorts to the antediluvian music-movie clichés that feel borrowed from a late-period Cameron Crowe flick. There’s nothing less appealing then seeing the guy who directed the heartless Hollywood takedown that was “Extras” give into sentimental hogwash. In this case, it almost feels like an admission of defeat.
While it’s amusing enough to see Gervais slide back into this role he’s clearly so comfortable in, I only wish that he had devised or considered a more potentially original or revealing route for his protagonist to travel down. “Life on the Road” is really just ninety or so minutes of David Brent acting embarrassed, embarrassing others or just generally making an ass of himself — which, I suppose, will be enough for the man’s many devoted fans. It’s just more than a little disappointing to see Gervais slumming when he’s clearly capable of so much more. In “Girls,” when Hannah Horvath says “it’s hard to make observations about others when you only care about yourself,” I genuinely wonder if either Dunham or Gervais have actually considered the notion. If this final seasons of “Girls” and the entirety “Life on the Road” are their respective answers to the question, reader, I fear we may never know.
Grades: “Girls,” C-. “David Brent: Life on the Road,” C.