Girls - The Next Big Thing, Or Not?
It's a blindingly obvious thing to say, but the choice of which channel airs a television series can really determine how successful it might become, irrespective of the programme's actual overall quality and appeal.
Case in point. Sometime in the not too distant future - September or October I believe - Sky Atlantic will start showing Lena Dunham's HBO series, Girls.
Girls is a half-hour single camera "dramedy" set amongst a group of twenty-something women in New York, painting a picture of their lives, their loves, and their problems.
It seems to have really touched a nerve in the US, where its portrayal of a group of women who struggle to hold down jobs, yet live in reasonable "hip" accommodation, sometimes with financial help, has resonated with a certain demographic. The lives they lead and the friendships they form are perceived as pretty accurate. It's also seen as a very honest portrayal sex lives of those women - the good and the bad.
The programme is both the natural successor to, and the antithesis of, Sex and the City. Although I should say that that's something I'm more familiar with as a book, having perhaps seen only a handful of episodes and quickly determining that it wasn't my cup of tea. But one of the Girls characters even has a Sex and the City poster on her wall to make clear the awareness of that comparison. That too, of course, was an HBO series.
The series is also a Lena Dunham showreel of sorts. Her 2010 independent film, Tiny Furniture, did belatedly get a release in the UK and has just come out on DVD, but this is resolutely Dunham's calling card. She writes, directs, produces and stars in it. She's been called "brave" an awful lot - perhaps because she doesn't have a "perfect" body, and isn't afraid of showing it (Although it must be said, most of her friends do seem to have more traditionally "perfect" TV bodies. Like so much television, and American television especially, most people are "beautiful."). There are no barriers for discussion and inclusion. Abortion, STDs, and parental sex-life are all addressed at various points during the series.
The series has received criticism of being guilty of nepotism, with lots of daughters of famous names in starring roles. It's also been criticised as being too white. The former, I'm not so sure about. Dunham does seem to cast her friends in her work a bit. But I suspect that's true across the industry. The latter, it's probably guilty of. On the other hand, that might be more an indictment of the particular group of people the show's portraying. Are the hip young things of Brooklyn racially insular? I don't know.
In the UK we've had series like Pulling, Him & Her, and perhaps the very first series of Shameless, which do a more accurate job of portraying that kind of life with a resolutely British perspective. But these are set in a more working class environment. Characters are perhaps more likely to work in shops than to be assistants in galleries, or at book publishers as they tend to be in Girls. Make no mistake, despite money concerns occasionally voiced, these are the privileged.
Having now seen the whole of the first series, I both appreciate it as a piece of work, but at the same time, have some serious misgivings about it. In presenting a vaguely realistic portrayal of this group of women, it's probably reasonably accurate. But like most American television, it only portrays the wealthier. True working families are rarely seen.
For me, the critical problem is that I really don't actually like any of the characters.
Jemima Kirke's character - the British cousin of another character - is perhaps the most interesting, but even her, you wouldn't say that you actually like her.
In fact, the programme it most reminds me of is This Life, except they're not all lawyers. Both sets of characters were horribly insular which just annoys me enormously. Their dislikeable traits resolutely outweigh their likeable ones. And that's why I found myself watching in spite of myself rather than out of any sense of actual enjoyment.
Ironically, the penultimate episode actually has a plot point that revolves around this very issue. Dunham's character, asked to read some of her writing at a soirée, decides to change at the last minute from a piece with a fairly frivolous theme, to something more important - death. Clearly this backfires. However my problem is that I can't remotely imagine actually ever wanting to read anything Dunham's fictional character writes! It'd be far too narcissistic and irrelevant.
I do think that the programme improves later on during the series. Obviously by then you have a better understanding of the characters. The episode mostly set in a warehouse party is really very funny. But I'm not sure that's enough. And Chris O'Dowd's star continues to rise in the Hollywood firmament, following his various film performances which include Bridesmaids, he gets a story arc in this too. When did he stop being the "schlubby" Roy from The IT Crowd?
I am, however certain that this series could be a huge hit in the UK.
But it won't be. At least not initially.
I can think of plenty of groups of people who'd watch this. And I've no doubt that in the run up to the UK release, it'll get acres of coverage in the press. Mad Men levels, much as Sky Atlantic has been PR-ing Veep and Alan Patridge like mad. But I don't believe that it'll won't work in audience terms. At least not until the show reaches DVD.
Unfortunately, that's because it's on Sky Atlantic. And while Sky Atlantic is in many ways Sky's best channel, with many of its most interesting programmes, it just doesn't have broad enough reach. It's not available in Virgin Media homes. And it's certainly not on Freeview. (Just speak to someone who was "allowed" to see the first Alan Partridge special when it was re-run on the Virgin Media-carried Sky 1, a channel that won't be carrying the other special or the series).
A show like this does have a natural bedfellow. And that's Channel 4.
If it were to run on Channel 4, it'd be a runaway hit - I'm certain. But aside from Channel 4 perhaps picking up secondary rights, the series will get lost on Sky Atlantic. If I was Sky, I'd make those secondary rights available to a mainstream channel like Channel 4 as a matter of urgency once they've aired it. It'd have the effect of driving audiences to Sky Atlantic when series two arrives in twelve months' time.
DVD could do some of that work, and I suspect that the DVDs will sell well when they arrive. But HBO's DVD strategy is very much of a "use it to promote the next series" variety. Unlike British broadcasters, you can't pick up the DVD boxset on the Monday after the finale aired on TV. HBO wants exclusivity, and it'll add multiple additional airings before a retail boxset, or iTunes downloads are made available. Indeed rather unhelpfully, HBO didn't release series one of Boardwalk Empire until after series two had aired.
Sky has taken a perfectly good marketing decision not to make Sky Atlantic available to Virgin Media customers, and that's entirely their choice. What's more, when they buy up big American series, they have to hope that viewers will rush to subscribe to see these shows. But I've yet to see an imported show reach the "big time" without getting a free to air outing. And with many more secondary and tertiary outlets for watching TV, from DVDs and iTunes to Netflix and, potentially, YouView, I don't see this situation changing.
So Girls could be very popular in the UK. The broadsheets will be full of it and Lena Dunham profiles and interviews. But I just don't think it'll do all that well in ratings terms.
In any case, I really dislike just about everyone in it. But I'll probably continue to watch.