Hudson Valley Girl

(Copyright Apatow Productions)

I recently¬†finished viewing season one of “Girls”, the lightning-rod show of the moment. Viewers, non-viewers, everyone seems to have an opinion about the brainchild of wunderkind Lena Dunham. I’m not here to discuss the show’s strengths and flaws; there’s plenty of (digital and traditional) ink addressing that topic. I’ll just say I’m a fan, and especially because of one performance: Zosia Mamet as Shoshanna.

Zosia has the smallest role of the quartet making up “Girls”, but in watching her, you recognize her. Everyone at this age has met a Shoshanna: the rapid-fire can’t-pause-for-breath chatter, regardless of discussion topic, place, or company. This girl couldn’t code-switch if she tried. Throughout the season, and with not a lot of expository background or dialogue, Mamet conveys the desperate push-pull of longing to be worldly and sophisticated against crushing naivete and sheltered privilege. The viewer sees Shoshanna’s childlike need to keep up with her circle of friends, as part of a larger process of discovering who she is (and will be). It’s a maturity-in-process performance.

Mamet is the rare performer who accurately conveys the underlying nerves that accompany the early adulthood period, when so many “firsts” are experienced. Excitement, anxiety, ambition — these are the many layers detected in Mamet’s performance. It’s not that Shoshanna is shallow, not exactly. It’s that she just hasn’t yet experienced the world — this girl hasn’t ever gotten her heart broken, lost a loved one, not been able to make rent. The audience knows this because of what Dunham has Shoshanna worry about — the unspoken hierarchy within class members at kickboxing, which “Sex and the City” characters correspond with those in her real-life immediate circle — in other words, the concerns of the blissfully young and untroubled.

I find this performance so celebratory, as well, when viewed in direct contrast to Mamet’s recurring “Mad Men” role as Joyce Ramsay, a worldly and cool lesbian who introduces Peggy to the counterculture movement of the mid-1960s. In that show, just before Mamet’s big break on “Girls”, the audience sees an actress capable of going small, with a character that’s nuanced and effortlessly confident. Joyce is as different from Shoshanna as two personalities can be — a smoky clarinet compared to a flighty piccolo. It’s a testament to Mamet that she carries off both roles with ease.

The above two scenes take place during my favorite episode of “Girls”: “Welcome to Bushwick a.k.a. The Crackcident” (Episode 7, Season One). The first shows Shoshanna sober, preoccupied with an upcoming blind date from an online matchmaking site. The second shows Shoshanna high, and on crack, no less. Dunham writes Shoshanna’s traits in even starker relief under the influence, and Mamet’s performance is crazily game. In a season of very funny and witty writing, in my opinion, this episode stands out as the best — primarily because of Mamet’s go-for-broke commitment.

This post first appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.

The Constant Gardener

(Copyright HBO)

I was unable to find an episode of HBO’s “In Treatment” to link to, so the above, summarizing Blair Underwood’s role, will have to suffice. Needless to say, if you haven’t seen Underwood’s performance as patient Alex in season one, go out and rent the season — it’s absolutely unforgettable.

Anxiety is the settling in of a planted seed. Several people–or events–may have interred it, but once it starts to grow and flourish, its maturation can take unexpected, unanticipated turns. Usually, at this point, the host seeks to starve the plant of further sustenance, to deny its further health and existence. That’s what Alex seems to be seeking in therapy — how to kill off these growths at the root, and thus stop his anxiety cold.

His anxiety doesn’t present itself in the typical way, or not by a textbook definition. He’s arrogant, abrasive, argumentative. The viewer gradually understands that Alex is trying to learn the difference between denying/starving the plant and suppressing/avoiding it. Clearly, thus far, he’s been an expert at the latter. The suppressed can be dealt with, albeit temporarily, if buried. The problem is the method: The buried becomes the perfect condition for the seed.

To starve his anxiety, however, is to expose it — to leave it, and himself, vulnerable. Can a proud, perfectionist person be vulnerable? One sees Underwood struggle with this paradox in every episode. The first few sessions, he cannot even articulate the anxiety. He presents it in the abstract: Something is waking him from sleep, something is growing just under the surface.

Underwood’s role is all journey, and offers no guideposts toward progress or setbacks, no absolutes. It’s one of the most maddening, enigmatic, and difficult roles I’ve ever seen an actor play. With a lesser performer, the role of Alex would be an all-out mess, alienating the audience. Instead, embodied through Underwood, Alex is utterly compelling in his complexities and mystery.

In the end, the viewer wants the plant starved as much as Alex does. But we also want to see what type of plant is there, too, even knowing its roots and flowers are poisonous.

This post first appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.