Not everyone is sad to see the end of “Girls,” Lena Dunham’s meandering ensemble dramedy about four overly coddled, overly ambitious millennials. However, it’s an exercise in frustration when you consider “The Delusional Downtown Divas,” her two-season 2009 web series about a group of three fame-chasing twentysomethings who would stop at nothing in their dogged pursuit of art-world recognition — except make art.
Commissioned by Index Magazine when Dunham was fresh out of Oberlin College, the three Divas were an obvious precursor to the four “Girls.” However, they inhabited a much more specific world in the downtown New York art scene, where Dunham was raised. It was a subject ripe for parody, one that she was uniquely suited to lampoon. (Of note: The founder of Index was artist Peter Halley, father of “Divas” star Isabel Halley.) “Divas” struck a much sharper and funnier tone than the uneven soup of dissatisfied ennui that often hampered “Girls.”
Of course, each episode of “Girls” has to sustain a half hour, while “Divas” rarely passes the five-minute mark, a length that serves Dunham’s character-driven humor. Played by Dunham and her real-life friends Halley and Joana D’Avillez, the “Divas” presage the “Girls,” but their worries trade in downtown oddball neuroses rather than slick Hollywood anxieties. As artists who don’t make art (one is a “private performance artist”), the Divas are outrageous caricatures whose desperate attempts at fame rise to absurd comedic heights.
Where “Girls” trades in naturalism, often bogging down in expository conversational scenes that lack focus, a “Divas” episode pulls out every stop in less time than it takes Adam to explain his acting philosophy. Through the lens of this heightened reality, Dunham’s perspective is much clearer. It’s an old trick, but one she does well: By channeling her desire for fame into larger-than-life wannabes, she pokes fun at herself while grappling honestly with her demons. The result is a much more genuine — and ultimately compelling — work of art.
There’s a moment in episode 9, season 1, “A Decent Proposal,” when conceptual artist Rob Pruitt offers the Divas the gig of hosting the Art Awards at the Guggenheim Museum. “I think it’s really important for us to get kind of like, attention, generally,” says self-described businesswoman AgNess (Halley). Oona (Dunham) coolly corrects her: “Exposure.” Like those who prefer “wealthy” to “rich,” there’s a socially acceptable term for venal desires.
While it’s not hard to imagine Hannah using words like “exposure,” “Girls” typically shrouds such blatant self-aggrandizement in hemming and hawing. The difference between the two shows is much like the difference between the two words: One is up front about its delusions of grandeur, the other hides it under HBO polish.
Certainly, there’s an enormous difference between making a short web series and creating a half-hour comedy for HBO. Dunham’s rise to fame inspired a cottage industry of think pieces about her privilege, connections, and whiteness. They’re valid criticisms, but it’s difficult to find a young male auteur that ruffled as many feathers. Dunham’s position as a “voice of her generation,” however fraught that claim, is as yet unrivaled. (Though Donald Glover comes close).
Far more important than Dunham’s connections (but since we’re on the subject, since when did modest art-world recognition guarantee success in Hollywood?) is the fact that “Girls” never lived up to expectations. Audiences have trailed off every season, and even current fans often admit it in a whisper. Not suspenseful enough to be a drama, not laugh-out-loud funny enough for a comedy, the storylines often feel like coat racks to hang Dunham’s funny hats. The bottle episodes are the most critically praised, but wouldn’t pass muster in an introductory screenwriting class.
One could teach a class on comedy writing from the scripts of “Divas;” they are that perfect. The game of the episode sets up quickly and clearly, with a premise that always pays off, and the random asides are full of unexpected whimsy. The three-part “Night at the Museum” sees the Divas spending a night in a tent at the Guggenheim, reading aloud from E.L. Konigsberg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. (Now that’s a reference worthy of the voice of a few generations.)
In a documentary-style interview in the Pruitt episode, Oona says of his invitation, “It showed trust on his part, but it also showed desperation. And that was something I admired.” She would soon receive a real-life offer from another man who would place his trust in her, Judd Apatow. But what “Delusional Downtown Divas” had — and what is most admirable about it — is desperation.
“The Delusional Downtown Divas” is available on the Guggenheim YouTube channel.