~ Posted by Tom Shone, May 8th 2012

Critics have been busy naming the various influences that have been stirred into the pot of "Girls", Lena Dunham’s bruised, brazen new comedy for HBO about the growing pains of a group of Williamsburg Millennials. In New York magazine, Emily Nussbaum compared Dunham’s candour to that of the stand-up comedian Louie CK: “They’re Mr Magoos of the dating world, stumbling into mortification, then exploiting it as material.” In Vulture Matt Zoller Seitz found the show “precise and aesthetically modest, like a female-centric cousin of movies by Whit Stillman...and late-seventies Woody Allen.” Halle Kiefer in Rolling Stone opted for "Seinfeld", while the New York Times’s Alessandra Stanley went for "Sex and the City".

I would like to propose another antecedent: Charles M. Schulz. Where else have we encountered Dunham’s preoccupation with ill-matched couples, self-abasing love and self-basting humiliations than in "Peanuts"? Admittedly, Charlie Brown’s love for Little Red-haired Girl never got him as far as an actual date (“You know why that little red-haired girl never notices me? Because I’m nothing! How can she see someone who’s nothing!”) whereas Dunham’s Hannah achieves regular, monkeyish intercourse with an artsy Prospect Heights carpenter who likes to take her from behind on his dirty sofa. But the look on Dunham’s face as he does so, squished into the sofa so that she almost seems to be turning out to face the viewer, seems to cry out for a fluffy thought balloon above her head containing the words “Good grief”. Or better yet: *sigh*.

Charlie Brown, it will be remembered, is the punch-bag for endless jokes about the size of his head, just as Hannah is teased mercilessly for her flabby body; both seem to draw punishment from the universe like air moisture, suckers for an endless succession of humiliations, disappointments and set-backs which leave Brown, at least, staring out at the reader despondently, as if to say: do you see this? As Schulz’s biographer David Michaelis puts it, “No rage boils up, no self pity spills over, no tears are shed, no lunch line is squeezed out—just silent endurance.”

Dunham is not the first to master the art of the dying fall—those little comic diminuendos that descend like snow, at the end of a scene. Ever since American TV sitcoms started ditching their laugh tracks, any number of shows—from "The Office" to "Curb Your Enthusiasm"—have mastered the art of the soft drop, most of them at the service of the comedy of social unease: David Brent’s lame attempts at humour, sliding down people’s faces like egg yolks. Dunham’s moments, like Schulz’s, feel almost unwatchably private. Theirs is not the comedy of social embarrassment—but the softer, crueller kind you can experience solo.       

Tom Shone writes our column "At the Cinema". His books are "Blockbuster" and "In the Rooms"