What we talk about when we talk about Girls
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If Girls’ first season was the show announcing its presence to the world, then the second season was when it abruptly became the one show viewers had to watch if they wanted to keep up with the cultural conversation. The HBO series and its creator, Lena Dunham, landed on magazine covers, seemingly every other New York Times arts section, and the stages of awards ceremonies. Never mind that the show’s ratings—no longer benefiting from the lead-in of Game Of Thrones, as they had in season one—actually dipped. (Though a substantial portion of the show’s audience watches on HBO Go, so the network likely doesn’t care all that much who’s watching on Sunday nights.) None of that mattered. Everyone who wanted to be a part of the cultural dialogue of the moment had to have an opinion on Hannah’s weekend with the dreamy doctor or Adam’s ejaculate in the season’s penultimate episode. You couldn’t just watch Girls. Love it or hate it, you had to be more engaged with it than any other show on TV, to explain exactly what you thought of every single scene.
I love Girls. To me, there are only two or three shows that have aired in recent months that have inspired the kind of devotion and fervor I’ve dedicated to this season, and even I will admit this is all a little silly. Not since the heyday of Mad Men and Gossip Girl has so much ink been spilled for a show so few people watched! But right around the season’s fifth episode, the beautifully shot idyll between Patrick Wilson’s character and Hannah, something dawned on me: When I describe something about the show that I like—be it the series’ emotionally unpredictable storytelling or the way that its character arcs veer all over the place—then act as if that’s a self-explanatory reason to love the show, there are just as many who see those things as self-evident reasons to dislike it. The things that make Girls what it is are so deeply ingrained in its DNA—and so confounding to so many people—that it’s possible for me to explain something about the show and say that’s why I like it so much, and for you to agree with me in every detail and see that as a reason to hate the show.
So let’s pull back a bit. Let’s not worry about the phenomenon or the Rolling Stone cover article or the time Lisa Lampanelli tweeted a racial slur to describe her relationship to Lena Dunham. Instead, let’s just presume that if a cultural artifact draws this much attention—positive and negative—it usually means there’s something to it. It doesn’t mean everyone has to like it or agree with what it’s trying to do. It’s even possible to think everybody who’s trying to defend said artifact is a total numbskull. But if something is worth discussing in earnest—and Girls discussions in both directions are hyper-earnest—then it usually means there’s something at its core that stirs up wild differences of opinion on all sides. If a show is worth discussing beyond snark, if it’s worth looking at as something more than a bland mediocrity, then that show is worth appreciating, even for those who don’t like it. I, for instance, pretty much hate The Following, but I’m glad that it exists so I can have discussions with the show’s super-fans about what makes them so attached to it. This is all good. We need more of it.
What’s so different about the reaction to Girls is the belief by so many who dislike the show—for often valid reasons—that those who like it are letting go of their critical faculties. This is an attitude that tends to crop up more in comments sections than critical writing about the show, since critics are pretty uniformly gaga for it, even when we think the show makes weird missteps. It’s also an understandable reaction to the flood of good reviews and uncritical press, which includes a huge number of puff pieces. To say that everybody else has taken leave of their faculties often seems to make more sense than saying that our theoretical viewer doesn’t see in Girls what everybody else does. But it also denies the subjectivity of human experience, the fact that we all see things differently—and the fact that that’s okay.
There are plenty of criticisms of Girls I agree with. The show is too white. It’s too relentlessly upper-class. It sometimes has difficulty indicating that the things its characters do are meant to be vaguely horrifying, in the sense that they remind us of awful things we’ve done (or had done to us) in our 20s. And particularly in its first season, it had trouble indicating to the audience that Hannah Horvath was not another traditional single-girl-in-the-city heroine. She did terrible things and made huge social mistakes and just generally fucked everything up. In its second season, the series has been better about using its ensemble as an ensemble, but it’s also struggled with that from time to time, turning the episode “Video Games” from a chance to elucidate Jessa, Girls’ most frustratingly underdeveloped character, into another chance to further explore Hannah. (The show’s relentless Hannah focus seems to drive some people nuts. I’m not one of them, but as this season wound up, I could at least see where they were coming from.) The second season was messy and poorly plotted and filled with character arcs that headed in one direction then abruptly veered in another, like one of those Crazy Mouse roller coasters.
Yet at the same time, those criticisms don’t particularly bother me. The show is too white and too upper-class, yes, but that’s a broad, systemic problem within the TV industry, and harping on this little-watched show as if it’s the standard-bearer in that department strikes me as a strange way to tackle that problem. (Even more bizarre are the still-lurking accusations of nepotism, as if HBO is throwing open its doors for every child of artist parents. If anything, the nepotism complaints are attempting to get at complaints about the skewing of the class system in America, but, again, that’s a problem that extends far beyond Girls.) And almost all of the other “flaws” I described above—except perhaps the show’s inability to know how to use its ensemble from time to time—are things that are so endemic to the series’ strengths that it seems impossible to separate them from what I love about it.
Now, I have very little in common with Hannah Horvath beyond our shared goal of becoming writers of one sort or another. We’re of different genders, and though my parents have helped me financially from time to time, I still had to get a job directly out of college. I got married at 22 and moved to the opposite coast from Hannah. I don’t have a wide variety of friends I’ve known for ages living around me, and we don’t get into wacky scrapes involving dating and our prospective careers. Every other week of my life doesn’t break down into convenient short-story format, concluding with me having some infinitesimal moment of personal growth. And if you think it was bizarre that Patrick Wilson and Donald Glover would have sex with Hannah, well, I can tell you they sure as hell wouldn’t have sex with me.
Yet I relate, often intensely, to what Hannah goes through. And that goes for all of the characters. No matter what Dunham and her collaborators are putting these characters through, they do their level best to make sure the audience is always present in the moment, remembering some moment when we, ourselves, felt that ashamed or felt that lack of control in our own lives. Hannah losing herself in the doctor’s house reflects any experience we’ve had that seemed too good to last, then actually was too good to last. Jessa taking off for parts unknown becomes any time we’ve wished to run away. Shoshanna blanking and lying about how she betrayed her boyfriend becomes any lie ever told to a loved one. Marnie completely losing the path of her life, or Ray realizing that he’s a complete loser, or Adam feeling an intense, lonely anger that threatens to consume him whole… They’re all perfectly depicted and often graphically moving.
It’s that word, “graphically,” that gets to the heart of what makes Girls so special, the kind of specialness that’s bound to subside with season three, which won’t be made in the same kind of bubble seasons one and two were. (The second was produced concurrently with the airing of the first, meaning the series had yet to blow up into the phenomenon it’s become.) Much has been made of just how often Dunham shows her naked body on this series, with plenty of thinkpieces about what it all means that a woman who’s not tall and skinny and perfect is taking off all her clothes. But Dunham’s willingness to get physically naked is simply an outward expression of the show’s real and intense exhibitionism: its harrowing emotional realism.
Dunham’s writing style is often achingly confessional, but her directing style can be incredibly confrontational, with all its close-ups and shots that isolate the characters from each other, designed to indicate just how alone all of these people are, even as they think they’re together. (Dunham’s style has so thoroughly pervaded the show that she didn’t even direct one of the best examples of it, the disastrous dinner-party scene in “It’s A Shame About Ray.”) The series uses acute emotional breakdowns like more traditional series use dramatic or action setpieces, and its storytelling method strings chains between these moments so that they bounce off of each other in unexpected ways. It’s a character study, but it’s also plotted like it wants to be a TV adaptation of a Fiona Apple album. To me, that’s a compliment, but again, it’s the kind of praise that could sound like a demerit to many other people.
So maybe that—the often-horrifying lack of emotional distance—is what we talk about when we talk about Girls. What Lena Dunham seems to want more than anything is to put viewers in the middle of these intense, emotional moments, to make them sympathize or empathize with people who can be terrible to each other in one moment and surprisingly loving in the next, even as she invites us to keep a certain distance and judge these people for all they don’t know. It’s an incredibly difficult balance to keep going, and I don’t know how long she’ll be able to. But when the show is in the zone, there’s nothing like it on television, and when I’m invited into those intensely private moments, to contemplate these people in both their despair and joy, I’m always riveted. So much TV keeps its distance, gives us the space to properly sort out why the characters behave the way they do, or how the plot is going to move forward. (Mad Men, perhaps my favorite show currently in production, fits this description to a T.) Girls removes that space. It feels like a to-scale model of real life, in all its pains and joys and terrors, coming to life inside your TV. It collapses the private into the public. It takes off its clothes and shows that true intimacy only comes in moments of unguarded openness. It moves and wrecks and loves and observes, and it never stops trying to push viewers to a point where the “comedy” falls out of “cringe comedy.” And if that’s what you don’t like, so be it—but man, this is a hell of a show.