Television's NYC apartments get real

The cast of HBO's Girls include (clockwise from top left) Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham and Zosia Mamet.
The cast of HBO's Girls include (clockwise from top left) Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham and Zosia Mamet.PHOTO: GIRLSHBO/INSTAGRAM

NEW YORK • What I love about Marnie's studio apartment in Chinatown on HBO's Girls is that I used to have one a lot like it, with a shower in the kitchen and a bathroom in a closet. I shared the place, a poor excuse for a one-bedroom in Little Italy, with a roommate, so it was larger than Marnie's 23 sq m.

The biggest difference was that I lived there in 1999, when everyone was busy watching Carrie Bradshaw bound up the picturesque steps of her Upper East Side brownstone on Sex And The City. Remember her walk-in closet? What freelancer has a walk-in closet?

Even then, I knew it was absurd. But I could will myself to believe in it because my friends could still afford to live in neighbourhoods such as Williamsburg and Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where the telltale markers of gentrification - construction cranes, farm-to-table restaurants and soaring rents - had yet to take hold.

But the real estate landscape has shifted so profoundly over the past two decades that this generation's girl-about-town occupies a different kind of space.

As rising rents squeeze young New Yorkers, the TV apartment has become grittier, dirtier and ever more cramped. You could almost say it is angry.

A generation ago, Carrie could whine about the size of a closet in a US$2,800-a-month apartment in the episode where she goes apartment- hunting after being threatened with eviction. "I pay US$750 for something that's twice the size." she laments.

She, of course, has what most New Yorkers could only dream about, then and now: a rent-controlled apartment.

Now, we have Abbi on Comedy Central's Broad City, apartment- hunting with Pam, the broker in a neck brace. Abbi's options include "a beautiful railroad-style apartment in your budget" that is bright green, has no bathroom and might be a hallway. But it sure beats the place with the blood-spattered walls.

"You guys know that television show, Friends?" Pam asks as she jimmies the door with a penknife. "Here's this place."

What Abbi finds inside is the antithesis of the Friends apartment: austere, soulless and stark white, except, of course, for the blood spatter, remnants of an apparent double murder.

The Friends apartment, shared by a young barista and a struggling chef, was a palatial two-bedroom apartment with amusing purple walls in the West Village. Even in 1994, few of us were fooled by the Friends fantasy, but we ran with it anyway.

Television has become smarter since then - viewers expect more rawness.

But dig deeper and shows such as Broad City and Girls tell a different coming-of-age story, one that is experienced in the shadow of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression.

Netflix's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt gets only a grim garden apartment reached by a dicey set of steps in far Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

"Younger generations are having to face this reality," says Ms Lindsay T. Graham, a psychologist at the Center for the Built Environment at the University of California, Berkeley. "When you see shows where the characters are existing in these sorts of struggles, I think that that's comforting."

"We've traded crown-moulding for blooming mould in the bathroom. Furniture is worn and stained. None of the throw pillows matches. We make sure there's no bedbugs and then we use it," says Angelique Clark, Broad City's production designer, about choosing furnishings for the set.

But the grime and the lack of space are the point. At a rent party that Abbi's friend Ilana hosts, she trips over her guests as she tries to shield them from the rats that have overrun her 51 sq m two-bedroom place in Gowanus, Brooklyn.

"We were just trying to capture a New York that was more realistic to us," Ilana Glazer said in a phone call with Abbi Jacobson, her Broad City co-creator and co-star.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2016, with the headline 'Television's NYC apartments get real'. Print Edition | Subscribe