Lena Dunham had a Hannah Horvath moment before even putting her lips to the mic at last night's Sublime Primetime Writers Guild event. Cheering enthusiastically for Howard Gordon, co-creator of Homeland, as he took the stage to join her on the panel, she managed to spill water onto herself, soaking her pretty polka dot dress and mussing up her stiletto Louboutins.
It was enough to make one wonder — just how close is Dunham to the character she plays on TV? She's nominated for Best Actress in a Comedy for Girls at this Sunday's Emmy Awards, but in a sense, is she simply playing her delightfully awkward self?
But last night wasn't about Lena Dunham the actress, nor Lena Dunham the director, a role for which she's also nominated. Nor was it about Lena Dunham, though she was the most famous face on the stage. Sublime Primetime was about assembling this year's Emmy-nominated television writers, who are some of the most talented visionaries in the business today, to pick their brains. As host and Variety Editor-in-Chief Timothy M. Gray stated during the introductory part, “The real stars of TV are the writers.”
“Frankly,” he continued, “there's a lot of mediocrity out there. A lot of crap,” but went on to explain that the panel of writers — which, in addition to Dunham, included Mad Men creator and executive producer Matthew Weiner, Homeland's Gordon and Alex Gansa and Hatfields & McCoys writer Ted Mann — was the antithesis of that. These are the people making this era the true golden age of television, he said.
With talent like that sharing the same stage, piles of noms and wins and accolades already under their belts, it could have devolved into a dog-and-pony show of hot air blowing. And it would have, maybe, had moderator Glen Mazzara not given each of them such a hard time.
Mazzara, himself the showrunner of un-nominated The Walking Dead, decided to let his undecorated status steer the course (or at least the humor) of his questions to the panel. Not surprisingly, Weiner was his first victim. Mazzara bluntly asked him, in so many words, how the hell Mad Men keeps winning Best Drama Series over and over again.
Weiner said he didn't know. (Though if he did, would he really give up that magic elixir?) While Weiner gets much of the (well-deserved) credit for the show's brilliance, even he is baffled as to why his actors never win. To Emmy voters, he hypothetically asked, “You love the show, but you don't love the acting?” He then added, “My costume designer has single-handedly changed the course of fashion in this country, yet has never won an Emmy.”
One show for which the top-heavy praise is perhaps more understandable is Girls. Spoofing a line from its pilot, Mazzara asked Dunham, “What is the voice of your generation?”
Dunham, of course, had no clue, but was quite clear on the fact that it's absolutely not her. Even defining her generation is difficult, she said, asserting, “We don't even have a Reality Bites level of togetherness yet.”
Dunham seemed more comfortable when Mazzara asked for her take on criticism that the girls in Girls are all incredibly flawed and massively unlikable. She replied, “I don't always like myself, and I don't always like the people that I love, and I don't understand why I have to like the people on TV.”
Saying she hates to be the “girl who cried misogyny,” Dunham continued that there are still a lot of things women seem not be “allowed” to do in the media, namely be unlikable. “I don't hear anyone complaining that Larry David is an asshole,” she said. With him, “Everyone's just laughing and having a good time.”
On major network shows, Weiner explained, characters must maintain some thread of likability. “I never had the soul-crushing experience of being a showrunner on network TV,” he said. Had Tony Soprano been on network, he would have had to somehow play up that he was good at his job. Or Carmela could have flirted, but never could have had an affair. While working in the HBO show's writers room under David Chase, Weiner said, “I didn't know those rules.”
Up next: Weiner on whether he's difficult to work for
Mazzara then asked Weiner to address his reputation for being difficult to work for.
Weiner, who claimed to have studied Chase “like a hawk,” echoed his mentor, who used to say, “I'm not running a writing school.” Weiner said that as a writer, you can either become “crushed” every time a showrunner rewrites your work, or you can strive each time to write a script in which that person “can't tell what's his and what's yours.” It was that attitude, Weiner suggested, that got him to the top.
As much insight as Weiner and Dunham provided, the sleeper hit of the panel may have been Mann of Hatfields & McCoys, who said that if he wins on Sunday night, instead of a speech, “I'd just give out a website where I can thank people for 30 minutes and then Rickroll them.”
Then, at the end of another question, he added the non sequitur, “Oh yeah, I forgot to say Kim Kardashian.”
See also: Boys Who Like Girls: Three Theories on Why Men Are Into This Show