A “first world problem” by definition, is a frustration or complaint only experienced by privileged individuals in wealthy countries. This phrase is most commonly used as a joke amongst my fellow Generation Y-ers, while we’re moaning about our irrelevant problems on Twitter (i.e. “The soda machine only takes coins and all I have is a five dollar bill! #firstworldproblems”), but I’ve also seen it applied to figures in entertainment, most recently to the characters in season one of HBO’s television series, Girls .
When you really get down to it, the half-hour dramedy is filled with the epitome of first world problems. The show revolves around four young women in their early-to-mid-twenties, all of whom come from wealthy/privileged backgrounds and live a seemingly charmed life. But, the first episode thrusts one of them into reality, when main character Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham), is told by her parents that she has to get a “real job” (instead of just an non-paying internship) and that they will stop paying her bills as they have since she graduated from Oberlin college two years prior.
Even in the world of me and my contemporaries, (which is admittedly filled with first world problems like not having change for the soda machine or being ticked off because our favorite movie is not available for Instant Streaming on Netflix) Horvath’s problems might seem ridiculous and unfounded. No one feels bad for the girl whose parents paid her way through college and paid for her expensive New York apartment for two years. So, she’s finally forced to pay her own way through life and get a job? I’ve been working since I was 15.
Based on its premise alone, it would seem that Girls would be an unrealistic, unlikable show. But somehow, the show’s creator, writer, director, and lead actress, Lena Dunham (who is only 26, and based a lot of the characters and incidents on her own experiences) and executive producers Judd Apatow and Jennifer Konner, do the impossible and create characters that are sympathetic, and situations that are somewhat relatable. And the result is a warm, funny, sometimes awkward- but all times entertaining- look at what being in a female in her twenties is like.
Hannah’s best friend since college and roommate, Marnie Michaels’ (Alison Williams) main storyline revolves around the relationship with her long-term boyfriend, Charlie (Christopher Abbott), whom she’s seemingly become bored with. Marnie spends most of the season trying to decide whether or not to end things with Charlie, as well as realizing that her life may not follow the rigged outline of perfection that she laid out for herself after graduating college. Jessa Jameson (Jemima Kirke), Hannah and Marnie’s eccentric friend from college, starts the season by returning from an extensive travel abroad, and in the first two episodes deals with what ends up being a false pregnancy. Most of her other plots in the season revolve around an inappropriate relationship she develops with the father of the two girls she works as a babysitter for. Meanwhile, 21-year-old Shoshanna Shapiro (Zosia Mamet) has a less developed story- she’s presented as more of a tag-along, mainly because she’s Jessa’s younger cousin- and most of the season is spent with her trying to find someone suitable to lose her virginity to.
Since Hannah is the main protagonist of the series, the majority of the show is focused on her. There is, of course, the aforementioned cut-off from her parent’s finances, but Hannah also has been hit with the realization that her college degree (English) has earned her no credible jobs in the real world. She’s an aspiring novelist, but is having problems even finishing her first novel. Meanwhile, she’s involved in a twisted relationship with her on-again/off-again hookup Adam (Adam Driver) who doesn’t even return her text messages, yet invites her over for strange, demeaning sex.
The main actresses are a big part of what makes the characters so appealing. Dunham is the only one with a “starring role” credit in her acting history (and even then, she’s only starred in her own independently released film, Tiny Furniture) and does a wonderful job portraying Hannah’s (whom is also loosely based on Dunham’s actual personality) neurotic temperament. Even though her character is not universally relatable- because really, how many of us have eaten a cupcake in the bathtub while our best friend is trying to shave her legs?- there’s still parts of Hannah that are relatable and endearing. Everyone’s been “lost” on their path to finding themselves. All of us have felt a bit unsure of what to do with our lives. We’ve all had a gay ex-boyfriend (or wait, maybe that’s just me…never mind). Dunham comes off like a younger, female version of Woody Allen- neurotic, kind of aggravating, funny, sweet, and awkward, and she protrays the tangle of emotions realistically and with plenty of spot-on comedic timing.
Likewise, Jemima Kirke (also in Tiny Furniture) plays the enigmatic role of Jessa perfectly- at times charmingly floating through the series, and other times, displaying great emotional depth and introspection. Though her role is minimized, Zosia Mamet (Mad Men¸ Parenthood) provides a bit of comic relief, perfectly playing the innocent role of Shoshanna in hilariously naive way. Perhaps the only weak link is Alison Williams; this is her first acting credit and it shows- she doesn’t play the role as fluently as her co-stars, and some of her lines are stilted and a few of her scenes are unintentionally cringe-worthy. She does get better as the season progresses (and is significantly better in the show’s second season, which just finished airing), but she’s a bit hard to watch during the first few episodes.
The male actors are also commendable in their roles. Christopher Abbott (Martha Marcy May Marlene ) plays the underdog role of Charlie perfectly; you can’t help but fall for him and subsequently root for him as his relationship with Marnie reaches its demise. Charlie’s friend, Ray, is played by Alex Karpovsky (Tiny Furniture, Red Flag), and he’s amusing as the older, slightly cynical and sarcastic voice of reason in the group. The best of the male counterparts, however, is Adam Driver (Lincoln, J. Edgar), who takes the part of Adam- a thoroughly repulsive character on paper- and fleshes him out into a complex, interesting character- someone you can’t really figure out, but are intrigued by all the same. He even makes Hannah’s fascination with him believable by the end of the series.
Besides the characters, my favorite thing about Girls is the honesty with which the show is written. Though set in New York and revolving around women- this show is nothing like Sex in the City. There’s no stereotypical glamorous women and sexy men- instead, there are normal-looking women with regular bodies (like Hannah, for example, who is closer to a size 10 than a size 0) and flawed, complex guys like Adam and Charlie. There are no lavish parties and cocktails like on Gossip Girl- these characters live normal lives and the highlight of it is a rave in the city where they all feel out of place. This is the show about young people in New York that’s actually realistic- well, as realistic as a half-hour TV show can be.
Lena Dunham and the rest of the producers and cast navigate topics like self-discovery and sexuality with a bluntness and candor that all viewers should appreciate. Sure, the show is filled with first world problems, but they are presented in a realistic, relatable, and entertaining way.