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Breaking Understandably Bad

REAL CRIME WAS LARGELY MISSING from Treme, the misguided attempt by The Wire’s creators to take new territory. It wasn’t their fault that the factual setup was so short of juice. Unless you were an ultraorthodox climate change believer, there was no way of blaming the Bush administration for the hurricane that flooded New Orleans, so there was nobody to blame except the New Orleans administration that failed to keep up the levees; which would have meant blaming black people with a specificity that not even The Wire had dared to do. For understandable reasons it was deemed preferable to show us how people in the Treme (pronounced to rhyme with “away”) district went on playing excellent jazz while the city recovered, or failed to. Unfortunately, even for people who love jazz as much as I do, the music has traditionally never held the screen. As Clint Eastwood inadvertently proved with his movie Bird, not even the life of Charlie Parker can be made to look interesting by an actor with a sax sticking out of his mouth. (To be fair to Eastwood, though, his 1984 movie Tightrope had some nice stretches of sweet old jazz in the streets of New Orleans; but a few minutes at a time was plenty.) In Treme, Wendell Pierce, this time called Antoine instead of Bunk, is there again from The Wire, but although he’s lovable even when pretending to play a trombone, he would be more so if he said “fuck” instead. I like watching John Goodman venting his scorn of corrupt authority—it’s like watching an airship emerging from its hangar, a tremendous combination of grace and volume—but he’s better being a temporary president in The West Wing while Bartlet awaits the rescue of his kidnapped daughter. Or so I thought as I went gently to sleep, regularly nudged by Lucinda, who thought the show was pretty good. But she’s a civil servant who knows a lot about housing, and the housing problems of post-Katrina New Orleans left me indifferent. I needed a villain. Give me real crime, not social circumstances.

Real crime was meant to be awarded epic status in Boardwalk Empire, but the show faced unbeatable competition even as it was being born. The Sopranos had already cornered the market in the fascination of an alternative outlaw universe, and The Wire’s black outlaws, with both feet in criminality, had somehow outdistanced the whole tradition of mob movies, whose white inhabitants were hampered by having one foot in respectability. A third factor arises from the question of whether Steve Buscemi, who stars as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, is credible as a poised crime lord. He looks like a poised crime lord’s raving mad subordinate; although admittedly that impression might arise from one’s lingering memory of his arrival at screen prominence in a Coen Brothers context, where almost everyone looks insane. (The Coen Brothers can make you wonder if even George Clooney is quite all there.) Wasn’t Buscemi closer to being himself when, in The Sopranos, after a couple of episodes of striving to look normal, he reverted to homicidal weirdness? An unfair question to ask about an actor, perhaps, because the whole business of an actor is not to get stuck in a single self; but Buscemi invited it every time he bared his teeth, so clearly designed for biting the head off a live chicken. Leaving questions of casting aside, however, the viewer who wants to be absorbed by the show is still stuck with the problem that Nucky’s burgeoning organization burgeons to little purpose and with not much in the way of planning. We need to see the criminal mastermind’s superiority as a strategist. Even Tony Soprano gives us that: it’s how we know he’s picking up tips when he watches History Channel documentaries about Rommel. You get that even in The Borgias, where the aging Roderigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons), while arthritically reveling in his title as Pope Alexander VI and in the Vatican’s lavish supply of aristocratic young women, revels even more in explaining to his son Cesare (François Arnaud) that if the French army can be detained in Naples, the Neapolitan army can advance on Paris. Or is it the Nepalese army advancing on Pasadena? Whatever, this is the thing that Roderigo is best at and that Cesare will inherit: a sense for the mechanism of power. For dramatic purposes, it has to sound intricate even if it isn’t. From Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson you get almost none of that. Nucky has interesting relationships. His handsome but blundering brother Eli (Shea Whigham) is a rich source of embarrassment. Nucky has commendably complex feelings for his decent wife Margaret (Kelly Macdonald, that nice maid from Gosford Park). But Nucky’s relationships are more interesting than he is, and we get little sense of what he is out to build, except perhaps a longer boardwalk. He makes moves to expand his bootlegging operation. The other hoodlums make moves to stop him. Head ’em off at the pass!

Roderigo and Cesare of The Borgias, their mobility confined to the speed of a horse, might envy Boardwalk Empire’s supply of vintage cars and machine guns but would be astounded by little else. The two shows ask to be linked because the set is the most eloquent protagonist in each case. The Borgia ambience looks as good as a panorama by Pinturicchio, and the Atlantic City boardwalk is a triumph of nostalgiaville art direction. But when you get down to the level of personnel, Boardwalk Empire is thin on people. Back from the war and lethally desensitized, the enforcer-for hire Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) is a scary invention. Another war casualty, Jack Huston (Richard Harrow) is even scarier, having left half his face behind somewhere in France before returning to America as the remorseless dispenser of certain death. (Every crime show needs its own Terminator, but the idea is subject to the law of diminishing returns.) The story is weakened, however, through being staffed with walking wounded to run the office, as if the man in charge were insufficiently interesting. Hence the viewer longs for the gangster movies of an earlier day. In the old Richard Wilson movie Al Capone, Rod Steiger did some of his most terrifying work, almost as if the man who took over Chicago were a slightly overweight actor making shapes with his mouth as he blasted his way to center stage. And Ray Danton in the title role of Budd Boetticher’s The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond at least had physical style. Examples could be multiplied (the diminutive Mickey Rooney filled the screen as Baby Face Nelson), but it wouldn’t be fair to Buscemi, whose role is simply underwritten. Nucky isn’t present as a mind. As a result, we are left with an expensive heap of evidence that décor and action aren’t enough.

Sometimes, in a movie, they are, or almost. Martin Scorsese, who directed the pilot, was an informing presence behind the conception of Boardwalk Empire. Scorsese had proved with Casino that a shapeless story about robbers robbing each other could be at least partly redeemed by lovely slow motion shots of a Vegas bombing in which the poker chips float like colored snowflakes. But a TV show is never strong when it reminds you of how a movie made the same motif more beautiful; and Scorsese might have done more to note that the deadly taciturnity of the Boardwalk character who is least like one of his—Lucky Luciano, played by Vincent Piazza with a dead pan that could not be duplicated by Joe Pesci unless he was calmed down by Novocain—was the way to go, toward the sinisterly normal and away from the rococo picturesque. We need to be looking at a man in the middle who represents us in all our frightening secret power. Bernard Berenson said that Raphael reflects back to us the classicism of our yearnings.

Whether the antihero of Breaking Bad gives us back to ourselves is a question much discussed in my family. Lucinda sat the whole thing through with me and agreed perhaps too readily with my laughing suggestion that cooking crystal meth might have been one of the ways I could have gone; but my wife gave up watching, unable, much to my relief, to find the character plausible. Perhaps her opinion was a tribute to Britain’s National Health Service, which ensures that no man stricken with a terminal illness need find a way of raising a quick few million dollars.

I found him plausible but dull. Failed chemists in America no doubt turn into drug overlords every day, but do they walk around in their underpants with their mouths open? It was that last part that set me nodding. Even my granddaughter gives me credit for the work that goes into my Benedict Cumberbatch impersonation: it’s quite a strain on the corners of the mouth, pulling them down like that without using your fingers. But nobody gave me credit for my impersonation of Walter White, as played by Bryan Cranston. I would keep my mouth sagging open for ten minutes at a time but nobody gave me an Emmy. I should be more reverent, because the show was a huge hit: a legitimate source of pride for AMC, for Netflix, and for its creator, Vince Gilligan. Cranston, who had to outdo Spencer Tracy in transforming himself over time from mild to monstrous, was much praised for carrying the show, along with Anna Gunn as his wife, Skyler, bravely adjusting herself to the realization that her husband is a lying head case, as so many wives must.

After he is cheated out of a fortune by his unscrupulous science partner, Walter settles for an unspectacular career as a mere teacher, but when he is diagnosed with terminal cancer he realizes that his family will be left impoverished, so he breaks bad. He breaks understandably bad. But the criminal activity he opts to join is one that will inevitably damage people by the thousands. I found him hard to sympathize with even when he was reduced to his underpants, and I speak as someone who has done unspeakable things to stay in business: I once voluntarily interviewed the Spice Girls. Luckily White has a brother-in-law, the DEA agent Hank Schrader, played by Dean Norris, who is marvelous at inhabiting the mental territory somewhere in between implacable detective and plodding knucklehead. Eventually he will be White’s nemesis, but it takes him five seasons to get there. Another plus is the secretive drugs mastermind Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), who proves that a black criminal kingpin can be as smart as Stringer Bell and still live. Or he almost proves it: in the end he presents us with one of the most stunning images in all the box set dramas when he walks toward us through a doorway with one side of his head missing. There is also Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), a fast-talking shyster with bad taste in ties who looked set from the start to have his own series one day, as Frazier did after his first few speeches in Cheers. These subsidiary Breaking Bad characters are worth remembering when you question your own lingering impression that the show is underpopulated. It seems that way when you are bored by Walter’s transformation or don’t want to face it; or else you don’t want to face your memories of his apprentice cook, Jesse Pinkman, played by Aaron Paul as the most unbearable punk since the one Clint Eastwood blew away in Dirty Harry. (I should name the actor, Andrew Robinson: it wasn’t his fault that whole cinemas erupted like a Nuremberg rally when a slug from Harry’s cannon took him out.)

Unfortunately, from my viewpoint, nobody blew away Jesse Pinkman before my patience was exhausted. Lucinda, who quite liked him, told me to stop being irrational, but I would put a cushion over my face rather than watch those unnaturally perfect teeth bared at me again. This was probably a triumph of acting, but still: there are things you don’t want to see twice. Why Walter didn’t upend his rebarbative assistant into a vat of bubbling acid was a mystery, and a bigger mystery was why the kid attracted the affections of Jane Margolis, played by Krysten Ritter in all her witty beauty. The latter mystery didn’t last long, because she OD’d, and was helped along to death by Walter. I could just about put up with the loss of cheesecake, but I thought the show’s texture could ill afford to lose her character, which had been light and quick: qualities otherwise sorely missing from the script, even when Saul was in full spiel. Still, perhaps it wasn’t that kind of story; although it didn’t seem to mind turning into a bad action movie at the end, when Walter wiped out the enemy with, guess what, a remote-controlled machine gun. He was supposed to be a chemist, not an ordnance engineer, and anyway we had seen the remote-controlled gun in the highly unnecessary Bruce Willis–Richard Gere remake of The Jackal, where it had already looked more than enough like a desperate plot device. With a TV drama as with any movie, it’s always a bad sign when the image that flares into your head is of a bunch of tired writers listlessly shuffling their memories of scenes they’ve seen before.

Gilligan almost ditched the Breaking Bad project when he heard that HBO was going to make Weeds. He would have been wrong to do so—hundreds of millions of dollars wrong, and in show business you can’t get more wrong than that—but there is a case for Weeds being the better product. It has a better subject, simply because the central figure is a law-abiding woman, not a law-abiding man, turning criminal in order to cope with adversity: we don’t expect it from a woman. (Perhaps it is patronizing of us not to.) In Breaking Bad, Walter copes with lack of money by dispensing chemical danger to thousands of people. In Weeds, Nancy copes with lack of money by doing nothing worse than growing the soft and fragrant high that got so many of us through our belated adolescence, back there when the guitar licks of Jefferson Airplane floated sweetly over a crowded field of smoke. In fact Mary-Louise Parker looks a bit like Grace Slick. I soon got past my idée fixe that Parker was really the girlfriend Josh might have married instead of Donna. In The West Wing she was just another knockout Sorkin female highbrow with a fistful of Ph.D.s, but in Weeds she copes in the womanly way that so many of us fatherless ones learned to admire in our youth, although it tended to scare us in perpetuity by just the degree that we felt compelled to admire it. A lasting tribute to the female show-runner Jenji Kohan, Nancy is a heroic figurehead for womanly competence, a Florence Nightingale with incense in her lamp. In the course of seven seasons she gets through three husbands (one of them a DEA agent) and leaves every male in the cast looking like an appendage. The show is vast in emotional scope and I still haven’t finished watching it, but nor have I quite dealt with its basic proposition that integrity can be maintained in a criminal context. Would the story work at all, if it paid due attention to the insistence by John Phillips that pot was the gateway to hard drugs and grim death? Phillips loved the sweet music too (as a member of the Mamas and Papas he created more than his share of it) but he wasn’t fooled by the notion that a tie-dyed T-shirt was an expression of wisdom, and his argument—backed up by his glittering track record as someone who tried to kill himself with every known substance—that marijuana is the enticing entrance to needle park has yet to be answered. It was never invalidated just because Nancy Reagan said the same.

The Scandinavians, to do them credit, don’t fool around with cosmeticized crime. Throughout the box set years, the Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians have done their best to keep crime ugly. Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl), the head girl in The Killing, is not Mary-Louise Parker from any angle. Sarah Lund is a thin bundle of neuroses plunged into the gloom of a bad sweater. In The Bridge, the head girl Saga Norén (Sofia Helin) has a case of near-autistic something-or-other which would make any hetero male viewer think twice about angling for a lift in her Porsche, although it’s probably true that any hetero male viewer would think of it once, because behind her unblinking stare she is very comely. At one point we see her having sex with her bemused bloke and she is under him, over him and off him in a matter of seconds, like the Scandinavian version of the female black widow spider, the one that carries a text book on how to form normal relationships.

And these head girls are just the cops. The criminals really get you down. Most of them are serial killers spreading terror in the standard Scandinavian ambience in which the lights are turned off even indoors, so that sometimes you have to search for the little green diode to make sure that your TV set is still on. Sarah, don’t go into that stygian stairwell! You might shoot your partner accidentally! Oh. Even in the dark, however, it is made clear that a serial killer is a rare event, just as it is a rare event for someone to drop litter or travel without a ticket. This is Scandinavia, after all (it’s all the one place: the bridge that joins Sweden and Denmark obviously joins everywhere else as well), and the scene is basically clean. Basically but not reassuringly. Far from it: under the cleanliness there is a current of angst, like someone weird softly reading aloud from Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.

And there is also the boredom. It is hard to get a job as a cop unless you are as boring as hell. (Saga is the spectacular Scandi cop because she not only stares at the wall, she occasionally stares at the wall for a long time.) I blame Wallander, who has been boring the world for so long by now that three different actors have played him if you count Kenneth Branagh. Of the two Swedish Wallanders, Rolf Lassgård tries to make the character interesting by looking around a lot, often approaching the looking-around record that Ben Kingsley established in Species; but the other, and by far preferable, Swedish Wallander, Krister Henriksson, accepts his northern destiny and just looks worried, like your dull cousin fretting about his tax return. Fretting away during the slow solution of a not very interesting crime, Henriksson’s Wallander will stare out to sea as if wondering why Scandinavian waves are so small and dull. At such moments, which seem to last for hours, it is important to remember that elsewhere in the total Scandi crime-show effort important things are happening, especially when the story is about male evil on the loose, and what its resonance does to the female police who have to deal with it. It would be hard to imagine anything more consistently and legitimately frightening than the two episodes of the Swedish series Arne Dahl (it’s the screen nom de plume of the writer Jan Arnald) that go under the collective name of Mörketal. Called Hidden Numbers in English, the two-part show is directed by Caroline Cowan, and for pace and atmospherics it deserves study, if only to remind you that there can be humanoid creatures far more horrible than vampires and zombies: people who look just like us, but whose humanity has failed to form.

Even at their least unexciting, however, Scandi crime shows seem designed to help you make sure that you won’t be booking a flight in that direction, or indeed anywhere north of Paris. When the Americans remade The Killing, they turned the lights on and upgraded the heroine’s sweater slightly so that you were merely incurious about it instead of incredulous; and in Dexter the serial killers get the benefit of a glittering Miami environment in which to lose the bodies. Dexter’s neurotic sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter) would be enough on her own to prove that nothing quite so glamorous happens with the Scandis even when they try, but even if she weren’t there, Lucinda and I would have been transfixed by Dexter himself (Michael C. Hall), especially when he was transfixing his victims, although we sometimes turned to each other between episodes and wondered aloud if we might not have gone a bit strange. We agreed, after some discussion, that it was even more strange to buy one box after another of The Following, in which everyone is a serial killer except Kevin Bacon, but that it was worth it to watch James Purefoy (he who was such a bloody-minded Mark Antony in Rome) so credibly playing a psychopath.

That would be him, not us. On Lucinda’s recommendation, indeed insistence, I joined her in watching True Detective throughout, as if I hadn’t had enough, with the David Fincher movie Zodiac, of a couple of American guys taking so long to track down a serial killer that everybody including the audience grows old and gray. As an American serial killer serial, True Detective had the lights turned right up, even when on location deep in the Louisiana backwoods, but I could barely stand it: not for its horror, which is only about seven on the Seven scale, but for its main casting. It isn’t their fault that I so dislike watching Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. Harrelson did good work in Wag the Dog and McConaughey in Contact was not really sufficient reason for Jodie Foster to flee the Earth: downbeat minor films such as The Lincoln Lawyer or Killer Joe have actually been held upright by his snarling, drawling energy. But add his face to Woody Harrelson’s and you get a kind of reverse version of Butch and Sundance in which each seems bent on lowering further the spirits already lowered by the other. It was a relief when the extravagantly gorgeous Alexandra Daddario took her shirt off: the sequence, quite apart from its startling visual impact, had rarity value, because she has elsewhere always been careful to retain her clothing, to the extent, in her Esquire shoot, of keeping her high heels on when she was half underwater in a swimming pool. But a show is in trouble with at least one viewer if it makes him search the screen in order to avoid looking at the protagonists. How the viewer reacts to a star’s face is a deep subject, scarcely yet explored. (Farran Nehme has begun doing so in the U.S., and Antonia Quirke in the U.K.: and good luck to them both, because it is hard to say that anyone of any gender is more attractive than anyone else without inviting a blog-storm of excremental hatred.) All I know is that when I was very young I couldn’t watch Farley Granger in Strangers on a Train, and that the aversion is somehow connected with the feeling I have today that I would rather eat glass than watch Nicolas Cage, even when he is being quite good in a quite good movie like Adaptation. Such visceral, irrational reactions are undoubtedly rooted in the deep, dimly lit Scandinavia of the mind.

With Scandi politics, it’s different from Scandi crime. Though the level of lighting is still not high, Borgen seems designed to get you running to the airport for a standby flight to whichever of those double-glazed countries has the greatest number of female politicians. The reason, dare I say it, is that the central character, Birgitte Nyborg, is fascinating not just because of her situation—how can she keep her family life together while being prime minister?—but because she is played by an outstandingly disarming actress, Sidse Babett Knudsen. She needs to be disarming because Birgitte is living under a fearsome double pressure. (Really it’s the same double pressure that Alicia is living under in The Good Wife, but Birgitte has got it in Swedish, so it’s serious.) With the radiantly intelligent Knudsen in the picture, Birgitte’s headquarters generates something of the same witty tempo as The West Wing. Her brilliant but twisted young adviser Kasper (Pilou Asbæk) could be Josh Lyman with his anxiety neurosis not yet diagnosed, and the media darling Katrine (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) is a combination of Ainsley Hayes and Donna Moss, with enough teeth for both. Call the show The North Wing in conversation and people will know what you mean. It all sounds vaguely as if Aaron Sorkin had dictated it into a tape recorder while imitating a drunken German officer with a speech impediment, but one puts one’s trust in the subtitles and tunes in for every episode, even after Birgitte, in the final season, falls from power. I’m bound to say that she suddenly then seemed much more ordinary, although the women in my family assure me that I’m a clear case of what Birgitte was up against all along.

What was she up against? Possibly it was residual male fear of female competence. Personally I can’t get enough of being told what to do by powerful women, but I’m half dead. Back in the real world, women still must fight for a fair position. On the strength of the television output, we might tend to think they have a better chance of doing that in the European countries. Take a long look at the export-hit French cop show Spiral and you will notice that the head girl, Captain Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust), can never stage a raid without the targeted culprit getting away through the back door, but that she is allowed to retain command of her squad of lumbering male dimwits. Meanwhile the beautiful female lawyer Joséphine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot) pays few penalties for her gender: despite her corruptibility she goes on wowing the courtrooms like Alicia Florrick minus the scruples, while her equally smart male coeval Pierre Clément (Grégory Fitoussi) gets written out by gunfire. Sexual excess would have nailed him anyway: Laure and Joséphine both had their way with him. In Spiral, women are in the lead. It’s a long way from the modern prototype of all French policier screen stories, La Balance, in which even the divine Nathalie Baye (be still, my foolish heart) was a helpless toy.

Is it fair to favor a pretty face? No, but it’s life, and in fact the balance of evidence in screen history proves that a pretty face earns no automatic favor if it tries to say something funny. My late friend Christopher Hitchens was willfully wrong when he contended that women aren’t funny: he was just generating controversy so that he could bathe in the uproar. There have always been funny women in real life, but on screen they were handicapped if they looked pretty, or even just normal. The Hollywood screwball comedy era, so formative for its stylistic boldness, had a swathe of wisecracking beauties, snappy with a line even if they didn’t write it; but that temporary fashion died abruptly after World War II and was a long time returning to the big screen. On the small screen it looked as if it might never get started. As an admirer of Richard Benjamin (his 1982 movie My Favorite Year, which harked back to the formative television comedy years at 30 Rockefeller Center, set the mark for all the modern American screen comedy that I love best), I was as frustrated as he must have been that the comic talents of his wife, Paula Prentiss, were so often downrated simply because she was so fetching. Today, when I can spend hours watching boxes of 30 Rock, I give thanks for all the fruitful groundbreaking that had to go on before there was a landscape that could contain Tina Fey: in all her work except for an oddly flimsy autobiography, one of her virtues is a capacity to honor the tradition from which she has emerged, and the 30 Rock scenes in which Carrie Fisher plays a washed-up writer from earlier times are therefore touching as well as funny. But the biggest advance resides in the blessed fact that the power to decide these issues is no longer exclusively in the hands of men. The Hollywood screwball heroines could strut their enchanted stuff only because men thought the shtick would sell. Now, women are in on the thinking: they are in a position to take over the office and make Alec Baldwin entertain them, thereby giving him the best role of his life. In Britain, one of the threads of the wonderful all-women comedy show Smack the Pony was about how femininity and feminism linked up or failed to; and in America Veep cleverly (some of the cleverness is due to its British show-runner, Armando Iannucci) examines the pressures on an attractive woman of being a second-class citizen, i.e., of being vice president of the United States.

Veep would perhaps not seem quite so amusing if, in our heads, The West Wing’s absurdly superheated verbal atmosphere did not already exist to be spoofed, but nothing can detract from a sensationally authoritative central character: sensational at having no authority short of hysteria. The show’s wildly funny star, the Seinfeld alumna Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is at the head of the picnic table in Amy Schumer’s epic sketch Last Fuckable Day (permanently viral on YouTube), in which the assembled females, including Tina Fey, discuss the questions of youth, age, attractiveness, and the cruel dying of male desire. When the male viewer gets over his fits of guilty laughter, he might feel entitled to give himself a pass: how victimized are women now, if they can do this? For women it’s been a long trail since The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but look at the trail now: it’s a freeway. And comedy doesn’t even look like a tough life any more, which used to feel like a decent reason for not being too sorry when women were kept out of it: male protectiveness, after all, is the acknowledged reason why women, though welcomed into the Israeli Defense Forces, are not allowed to fight in the front line. But however men turn the question over in their souls, women are likely to deal with it better on the screen: and I, speaking as a man, am glad not to be speaking at all when Tina Fey and Amy Poehler host the Golden Globes. Standing there cracking ten times as wise as Bob Hope ever dreamed of, each of them is backed up by a stack of box sets that few male headliners will ever equal. Seven seasons of 30 Rock and five seasons of Parks and Recreation: how much of my time do these deprived people want?

No, the female performers of today are equipped with the power, as well as the impulse, to deal with the dialectics of their position. They would have slightly less freedom to do so if they were appearing on Al Jazeera, but by now most of them know that, and the point has almost ceased to be worth making; though as long as female writer-performers in some of the Islamic countries must go on risking their lives if they wish to speak freely, it will probably be worth remembering that Western civilization has some claim to its title. That television has been taking such an influential part in this great battle for equality is surely a cause to be thankful for having been alive in these times. The finally ineradicable conundrum, however, has to do with nature’s casual cruelty in making some of us less desirable than others. Of all the bright and funny women who are now appearing in box set form, perhaps the most adventurous is Lena Dunham, because in her HBO series Girls she doesn’t blink the fact that what separates her from the surrounding “sex goddesses” (her term) isn’t a social construct, it’s fate. It’s what happens to you when, being a mere writer, and not especially amazing to look at, you would never make it as a character in the show you most worship, Sex and the City. Dunham’s central bravery is to find a comic language for the battle against nature. Blake Lively of Gossip Girl never had to do that; and Lake Bell doesn’t have to do it either, although she’s funny anyway. But Lena feels that she has to do it; and, this being the twenty-first century, she does it, in a tongue that might seem effortless, but only to someone who doesn’t remember what the twentieth century was like.