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Girls is a brilliant show with a fundamental flaw - where does all that money come from?

Like Friends and Sex and the City, Girls falls into the genre of “Characters Live In Apartments Too Large For Their Current Economic Situation.”

As someone who watches TV for a socially unacceptable amount of time, it’s frustrating see the issue of money so willingly ignored on the small screen. Instead of focusing on the intimate details of a show, my mind wonders to questions of finance. They include, but are not limited to: “Why are you spending what is clearly a work day wandering around New York?”, “How are you taking a cab from one side of New York to the other as an amateur comedian?” and “Is that a double bedroom located suspiciously near a tube stop with a southward facing window you’re living in there, mate?”

Too much of television refuses to deal with the reality of money. It’s a legacy of sitcoms produced and written by the privileged that money never comes into it, and it shows. In the real world, it’s within the interest of those with money not to talk about how much they have, which has in turn created a culture where to do so is uncomfortable, or not even worthy of conversation. When those are the people responsible for most of the art that gets made, no wonder money is so blatantly ignored in the narratives we watch. Sitcoms like Seinfeld, Sex and the City and Friends may as well have been named “Characters Live In Apartments Too Large For Their Current Economic Situation.”

HBO’s Girls is a prime example of this. A lot of the criticism aimed at the show - that it depicts privileged white girls, that it lacks any racial or social diversity - seems to boil down to the fact it ignores the pressures of money in its narrative, in the way that the privileged get to do so in their day-to-day life. The complicated and messy realism in Girls is what makes it such a brilliant show, but it can't get around its fundamental flaw: where's all the money come from? It’s all profound and touching to watch Hannah Horvath throw damning yet insightful shade towards Jessa in her apartment, yet all I can think of is “honestly though how do you afford to have a sofa that big when as far as the series is aware you were a teacher, a barista and then a marginally successful online writer?”

Over the last couple of years, we’re lucky enough to have television shows that represent minority stories, but even those shows struggle. I am thankful for being able to watch characters joke about UTIs, or get abortions, or discuss with their parents the experience of being an immigrant, but for the love of God will someone tell me where they get their income from. Master of None, a Netflix sitcom that successfully grapples with issues of sexism and race still seems to think it can just give its jobbing-actor character an expansive apartment with brushed iron kitchen tops, and no one will notice. Well, you can’t hide your exposed brick apartment from us.

It’s not all terrible, however. Like most things Donald Glover touches, his most recent series Atlanta is gold, and showed money for what it was - a constant concern for a large majority of the population. An entire episode revolves around working out how to pay a restaurant bill. The fictional rapper character at the centre of the show is called “Paper Boi.” It’s all about money – even in the music it uses - and rightly so.

British television often manages this better, what with our crushing obsession with class. Shows like Peep Show and Fleabag, whether being cuttingly dry about life or disarmingly tender, manage to confront issues of wealth (or lack thereof). In doing so, they access something more real, even in the context of comedy, because there isn’t an overwhelming sense that something is missing.

Not to get all old-school-socialist-who-hates-identity-politics on this topic, but it is willfully ignorant to act like money doesn’t play a large part in the power dynamics these shows attempt to expose. What is a discussion of race, if there is no discussion of money? Why bother talking about women struggling in the workplace, if not to talk about the wage gap? Willing suspension of disbelief is clearly a big part of escapist television, but a show that wants to confront real, untold stories needs to confront the cash problem. By ignoring it, it merely perpetuates the idea that money isn’t an issue. And unless you’re Lena Dunham, or a Tory, it probably is.

 

Credit: Arrow Films
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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”