TV

'Girls': An Engrossing "American Bitch" Just Misses Transcending Its Sitcom Medium

Argun Ulgen
Creep or not? Novelist Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys) gets some nuance.

In "American Bitch", the novelistic approach squares up against polarized argumentation.


Girls

Airtime: Sundays, 10pm
Cast: Lena Dunham, Matthew Rhys
Subtitle: Season 6, Episode 3 - "American Bitch"
Network: HBO
Air date: 2017-02-26
Amazon

The challenge for HBO’s Girls: The Final Season is to dare Hannah Hovarth (Lena Dunham) to address imperfection with a broader range of critical and emotional tools. This kind of artistic evolution reflects just as much on Hannah the character as it does on show writer Dunham's propensity to apply outrageous situations over what could be more organic dramatic or comedic arcs. In "American Bitch", both Dunham and Hovarth's artistic progress and nagging limitations are on full display.

Hannah, who in recent episodes has developed into a magazine essayist with steady work, is summoned by a fictitious famous author named Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys) to visit his stately Manhattan apartment. The purpose of Hannah's surprise invite is to address an inflammatory online essay she wrote based on online accusations against Palmer for sexually exploiting and forcing himself sexually on four women during his book tour. Initially, the audience is treated to the equivalent of a Twitter war on social media's virtues and flaws. Palmer accuses Hannah of using online hearsay and slander to inform her opinions. Hannah defends her sources.

Shortly thereafter, however, "American Bitch" graduates to a debate between the two writers on the inherent dangers and benefits of online journalism, the authenticity of experiential personal pieces, and the meaning of sexual consent in trysts where power dynamics are unaligned. The sharp dialogue, bon mots, and argumentative dismissals fall squarely into Hannah's non-fiction essay terrain.

Sure enough, Hannah has some incisive points to make, but they readily lend to familiar polarized terrain. She righteously argues that Chuck took advantage of his literary star to sleep with at least one experience-craved college student, "Denise", who desperately thought that she'd have to succumb to a famous author’s charms to obtain his wisdom and find success herself. Yet that accusation is readily met by Chuck's standard argument that two consenting adults went to a motel room and had consensual sex. While this isn't to suggest that Hannah's viewpoint isn't a strong one  --  yes, there's a strong ethical and moral argument against Chuck's behavior -- it too easily falls into the trap of becoming yet another blog transcription from a TV episode.

Dunham, however, masterfully uses these first ten minutes as a setup for a higher form of conversation in the show’s second act. What's lovely about "American Bitch" is when Palmer's literary voice slowly begins to blend with Hannah's essayistic approach. Eventually, both tacitly agree that as writers they can have a descriptive conversation built on formative experience rather than judgmental banter. Here, one can see Dunham guiding both herself and her character Hannah into new terrain, and in so doing she sweeps the show into a medley of emotions rarely felt in prior episodes.

In an effort to convey that experiential essay writing often isn’t a matter of choice, Hannah tells Chuck a story about a middle school teacher whose uninvited classroom back massages she tolerated in exchange for his public flattery. Several years later, when Hannah conveys to an old classmate that her teacher molested her, she's immediately dismissed as being accusatory. These stories, Hannah conveys, uncontrollably affected both her worldview and her writing.

Here, Hannah is doing more than just posting an argument ;  she's appealing both to Chuck and to the audience's emotions. In other words, she's maturing before our eyes as a deeply felt writer who can open up their empathy and feel more comfortable telling their stories.

In return, Palmer reads a self-reflective passage he wrote about his sexual encounter with "Denise". It’s one full of emotional gray areas, in which both parties' vulnerability and insecurities are addressed. What's compelling about Palmer's story is he acknowledges that while both physically consent to the sexual encounter, the question of emotional consent was still in doubt. The audience is allowed to feel distaste for Palmer's encounter without going on an intellectual diatribe against him.

Afterward, over a perusal of Palmer's book collection, Hannah admits that she loves Phillip Roth, even though readers have criticized him for being a misogynist. Chuck offers Hannah a rare edition of one of his books. Then he lies on his bed in a vulnerable fetal pose consistent with his earlier admission that he has been battling insomnia for the several weeks. This sequence quietly heightens drama between two individuals who are at once at odds with one another, but who also share an artistic appreciation of life as at times horrifyingly, and at other times wonderfully nebulous.

Swept in gray, the last third of "American Bitch" faces the challenge of finding a satisfying conclusion organically consistent with its powerful first 20 minutes. Here, however, the episode misses the mark. The final act is an insane five minutes pivoted on an outrageous and cringeworthy sexual sight gag.

After Hannah accepts Chuck's invitation to lie down with him, he surprisingly exposes himself and brushes himself up to Hannah. For perhaps a second, Hannah complies with Chuck's proposition before leaping off the bed in shock. What makes Chuck's act even more deplorable is that he's entirely unapologetic. Chuck lies sideways on the bed with a Cheshire grin, which re-ignites the question of just what happened with "Denise".

Minutes later, just as Hannah is about to leave, Chuck spits venom on Hannah’s wounds by inviting her to watch as his just arrived daughter begins to perform an impromptu flute recital. Hannah watches Chuck as he beams with pride at his daughter.

Plainly put, Chuck may have compartmentalized himself as a wonderful author and a doting father, but in reality, he's first and foremost a lecherous pig who emotionally manipulated and sexually harassed an unsuspecting woman. Yes, Hannah should've been able to visit Chuck’s home and lie on his bed without assuming the risk of being sexually harassed. And yes, all mediums must emphasize this kind of behavior needs to stop.

On an argumentative level, Dunham certainly proves her point that Chuck’s better qualities do not nullify his inexcusable behavior. Chuck will only become a good person when he lets his better nature influence how he approaches the women he desires.

Nevertheless, "American Bitch" sells itself a little short on an artistic level by going all-in on an outrageous final act. Had Chuck tried to continue to romance Hannah rather than act like a total cretin, the episode would've gone deeper into its established gray area on whether Chuck had made a genuine connection with Hannah, if he was still leveraging his status to emotionally manipulate her, or whether both factors were at play.

Likewise, Hannah's decision on whether to have a sexual encounter with Chuck would be more emotionally complex. The three acts would've melded together seamlessly into an elegant short story with several unanswered questions. Instead, "American Bitch" feels fragmented, with a stentorian finale uneven with its more nuanced foundation.

Ultimately, “American Bitch” begins with novelistic aspirations but ends with argumentative flare. Perhaps this is what Dunham wanted. That's fine, but something feels amiss from not seeing an even more nuanced, morally ambiguous approach to Chuck and Hannah's relationship for the episode's entirety.

Perhaps Dunham has a full-blown novelistic episode or even a movie in her. "American Bitch" shows that it just isn't her time just yet, although she's getting a lot closer.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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8

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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