There’s no doubt that Lena Dunham‘s HBO series Girls is one of the best shows on television. The performances are spot-on, the writing is witty and biting, and the overall direction is confident and assured. Season 3, in particular, highlights the show’s ability to portray characters that are simultaneously endearing and despicable. Still, critical viewers are left wondering why a show about financially struggling twenty-somethings in New York City airs on HBO, one of the most expensive pay television services in the United States.
For the creators of the series, a partnership with HBO guarantees a level of respectability. HBO is known for its sophisticated programming, and any showrunner would dream to be associated with the established brand. Moreover, Dunham maintains creative and artistic freedom with HBO, as she can fill her show with nudity and profanity without fear of censorship. On the surface, HBO is a dream employer.
However, if we probe deeper, we start to realize that the audience who would benefit most from Girls most likely cannot afford to watch it. Although there are exceptions, young adults are more inclined to subscribe to Netflix than cable, and those who do have cable are not likely to have HBO. The exceptions, of course, are wealthier individuals who can spring for the monthly payments. Speaking from personal experience, I see more Facebook status updates from recent graduates about House of Cards than Girls, and these graduates live in the same neighborhoods as Hannah Horvath and company. Further, those who do watch the series typically use their parents’ HBO GO passwords. In any event, there’s clearly a disconnect here.
When critics debate the type of audience Girls is aimed at, and when Dunham herself stresses that she’s developed the series to “illuminate what it feels like to be a young woman in America right now,” one has to wonder if she’s reaching her audience through HBO. Girls, like the recent film Frances Ha, portrays a specific kind of youth culture: the young city-dweller who is highly educated, incredibly narcissistic, and desperately unemployed. Unlike Frances Ha, which is available on Netflix streaming, Girls can only be viewed on HBO or DVD for a much higher price. Dunham acknowledges on Charlie Rose that her show isn’t trying to speak to every woman, but how can it even speak to the struggling twenty-something when most struggling twenty-somethings in America don’t subscribe to HBO?
Girls indeed has a loyal following of fans and critics, but as its ratings indicate, more people in popular culture talk about the show than actually watch it. Some may attribute this to Dunham’s polarizing feminism, and others may suggest that the show’s content and execution aren’t mainstream enough. But neither is House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, or Breaking Bad.
The problem, ultimately, stems from the fact that the type of audience who would enjoy watching Girls the most can’t afford to do so, and unlike Hannah Horvath, they’re willing to sacrifice important artistic and cultural products for food and rent.