At the end of this review, I will quit my job.
“Free Snacks” is the first episode of Girls credited to Paul Simms, one of those TV writers whose work I will always be curious about because he worked on The Larry Sanders Show and then created NewsRadio, before becoming a strange, dyspeptic prophet in David Wild’s essential behind-the-scenes TV tome The Showrunners. (Not that anybody was paying any attention to what he had to say in that book.) As you might expect, Simms nails the office politics scenes, the way that a young and overeager Hannah has great ideas but also shifts focus of the meeting away from those who’ve been there longer, further irritating Kevin; or the way that her new friend, Joe, nurses a crush on their fellow coworker, Karen, but doesn’t want to ask her out because he did that once (almost) and don’t mention it to her, okay? There’s also the notion of “corporate sonar,” which strikes me as a very Simms-ish gag. Lena Dunham or Jenni Konner almost certainly do final passes on all the scripts on the show, and the series is room-written, so I’m always hesitant to give any one writer too much credit, but since it’s Paul Simms, sure. I will.
I’m also reminded, though, of something I wrote last year in an FOC on the show, where I pointed out all of the ways that Hannah and I are essentially diametrically opposite people, from gender to professional status to even physical location in the country. I pointed all of this out as a way to say that I continued to find the show’s ability to make me emotionally invest in the character—for good and ill—to be somewhat remarkable. What I missed in that assessment, I think, is something that season three is playing up even more: Hannah wants to have a career as a writer, and as someone who has a career as a writer, but maybe not the exact career as a writer he wants to have, I can deeply relate to her frustrations at trying to break into a field that can often seem hermetically sealed off from new voices from the outside.
And here’s the thing: Hannah’s coming in at a time when there actually are more openings for new voices. Her piece at JazzHate and her prospective e-book are things that would have been pipe dreams to me when I was trying to figure out a way to launch a writing career, and that was less than 10 years ago. But the mantle of respectability is still carried by things like age and reputation and having a print product, no matter how increasingly pointless such a thing might seem, which makes it all the more crushing for someone like Hannah to end up working at GQ but not actually working at GQ. Instead, she’s in the advertorial department, working on something sponsored by Neiman-Marcus that’s meant to be a field guide to modern men. The other thing about this is that she’s pretty good at it. The kinds of pithy, surface-level observations we’ve seen Hannah making throughout the series are perfectly suited to the sort of light and airy content needed for this field guide, and the ideas she throws out at the meeting are greeted with muted enthusiasm, which is high praise in a corporate setting.
Hannah also very quickly realizes that this could be the death of her writing career. This is a thing I think she’s savvier about than lots of young writers who take jobs that utilize their talents without letting them really spread their wings. The act of balancing one’s work writing with one’s personal writing is insanely tough, because the former has to naturally come first, since people are paying you for it. And then when it’s time to come home and do the writing one has to do, just to get it out there, it’s so tough. There are a million things competing for your attention, even when you’re in your 20s and can get away with sleeping only three or four hours per night, and spending time with loved ones or taking a nap or just going out to a restaurant for dinner will whittle that time away until it’s time to go to bed. There are many reasons children of the privileged find it so much easier to break into the creative-writing fields, but a rather underrated one is that they may not have to take a full-time job to make ends meet while trying to get their writing careers off the ground like the rest of us. (The most practical advice I’ve heard on this for the rest of us came from screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who recommended taking the most mind-numbing job you could find, the better to make getting home and writing seem almost like a reward, though that doesn’t counter the exhaustion problem. But that’s neither here nor there.)
Anyway, that’s exactly what happens to Hannah. After a short talk with Joe about how she just needs to make time for her own writing on nights and weekends—the advice all writers in her situation get—she goes home, intent on writing for three hours before she does anything else. Adam’s gotten a callback from one of the auditions he claims not to care about, but there’s no time for celebrating, because she needs to write first. Or maybe just take a nap. It’s hard to make that shift. It takes time and effort to learn how to do it, and a lot of people see the perks and the benefits and the free snacks, and they eventually just become creatures of their new environment. After all, it’s not that bad, is it?
My fear with all of this is that the season’s plotline (if it’s even going to have one) is going to be about Hannah “overcoming” her job by realizing she needs to quit to pursue her true voice or some such nonsense. For as many people as there are who break into the writing world without a day job, there are just as many who break in with one. (I also shouldn’t discount the possibility of her returning to Ray’s, which might prove to be the aforementioned “most mind-numbing job you can find,” so, see, I worked that random detail in after all.) I spent a long time working at my old job wanting to be a TV or film critic, and I eventually realized that, hey, nobody was going to just suddenly offer me that job. So I spent month after month, year after year, blogging for free, while working in a job that was slowly crushing my will to live, and when the time came, I had clips and contacts in the TV critic world that I could call on to eventually end up here. It is possible, and I think it would be cool to see Hannah figure out a way to balance both halves of that kind of life.
The other reason this episode succeeds is the continued adventures of Marnie and Ray, new American super-couple. I don’t really have a lot to say about this, but I really like how the show’s writers are dealing with the fact that these two people probably shouldn’t be attracted to each other, but are nonetheless, with aplomb. Both Marnie and Ray remain recognizably their characters, but they’re also recognizably fighting off whatever this thing is that’s growing between them, whether due to loneliness or confusion or some other thing entirely. I’m enjoying this quite a bit, and I’m enjoying it a fair amount more than Shoshanna’s attempts to find a new serious boyfriend to replace the Ray-shaped hole in her heart (which seem specifically calculated to have her realize only Ray will do, just in time for him and Marnie to become a couple or something) or Jessa working at the boutique, which has had precisely nothing to it so far.
Mostly, though, I liked “Free Snacks” for the way it made me feel very, very old. I had Hannah’s ideals of doing personally meaningful work once, and I once believed that I, too, could balance writing for work and writing for personal fulfillment, until that didn’t really prove to be the case. I like writing TV criticism, sure, but is it the only kind of writing I want to be doing for the rest of my life? Almost certainly not. Even now, I have short stories I should be editing and a book proposal to pull together and other projects to offer notes on. And I’m working on none of them because I’m writing a review of an episode of Girls, which is just about the most ephemeral thing one could possibly be writing. So, as mentioned, I’m going to quit my job. Here and now.
Except maybe not. I may not get free snacks (well, The A.V. Club home office does, but I don’t work there), but the older you get and the longer you stay at a place, the more the idea of being without that safety net becomes terrifying. So, yes, I have all of those other things to do, but I just have to remember the younger version of myself who wrote four or five blog posts a night after work and slowly got to know other TV critics by posting comments on their blogs like an annoying mid-20something. I can do that with other kinds of writing, too! So can Hannah! So can you!
Maybe right after this nap.
- Clearly the phrase “Gowanus yachter” is the greatest thing ever, and we should all be working as hard as we can to fit it into our conversations whenever possible.
- Adam doesn’t really want to be an actor. He just enjoys auditioning because he likes reading emotional cues in high-pressure situations. All right then.
- This week’s voice of the Girls comments section: Kevin, who isn’t saying Hannah is ugly. He just doesn’t like her face.
- Ray and Marnie spot a couple of Adam and Hannah doppelgangers, perhaps because there are a million of them in Brooklyn. When Ray says “doppelgangers,” Marnie mentions they looked just like Hannah and Adam. Ray says he knows. That’s what doppelganger means. “Doy,” says Marnie, which feels like a word Marnie should attach to the beginning of every line of dialogue she has.
- Shoshanna’s new boyfriend is named Parker, and she most certainly did not say he was just about the dumbest person she had ever met. Except for all of the times she called him dumb.
- Ray’s is so successful that Ray is apparently being profiled in local business journals. That seems like a stretch, but I’ll go with it.
- I am pleased to admit I have no idea how to grade this show anymore. I very much like the groove it has settled into, but I keep waiting for it to do something out of nowhere and unexpected all the same, which is intensely hypocritical, I know. But if it keeps hanging out at this level, B+’s and A-‘s all around!