Apr 15, 2017

Why "Girls" Was a Great Show, Warts and All

Scene from Girls
It's incredible how unassuming the series Girls has been. Despite being in the pantheon of long running HBO comedies, it has rarely felt as big or exciting as the channel's most iconic works. This isn't to say that it didn't spark controversy, which largely came at the hand of creator, writer, director, and actress Lena Dunham. She was a profoundly outspoken talent over the six seasons. Sometimes it was for what she said; other times it was for her penchant nude scenes where she displayed her less than "socially acceptable" body. Whatever the case may be, it embodied the 20-something culture better than any series ever did. As the show gets ready to say goodbye on Sunday, it feels like a good time to assess what made the show such an incredibly prescient, timely, and effective series.
The series premiered during a different time for TV comedy. In 2012, the idea of female-created sitcoms were a bit of anomaly - especially with how the shows discussed the issues central to women. It was during this year that three shows with "girl" in the name appeared on the sitcom market: 2 Broke Girls, New Girl, and HBO's Girls. Each were part of the slow revolution to represent women in a more unabashed, sometimes profane manner. 2 Broke Girls relied on traditional racism and sexual innuendos while New Girl showed the fun of roommate antics a'la Friends. Meanwhile, Girls was the show pitted with controversy from the start, in large part due to the belief that the show was somehow nepotistic and whitewashing New York. It's a fact that the show addressed in season two when Dunham's character Hannah dated a black man (Donald Glover) who felt like he was being used as some token of Hannah's lack of racism.
Most of all, Girls premiered five years ago tonight with the false sense of 20-something entitlement. The premiere features Hannah being financially cut off from her parents as she grossly eats dinner. It's a notion that's evolved into its own taboo that painted millennials as selfish, lazy, and needy. There's no denying that Girls' central cast were at times insufferable experts at all of that. Yet its controversy didn't stop there. The second episode takes place around an abortion clinic as the "pregnant" mother Jessa (Jemima Kirke) ditches it to have sex with a stranger at a bar. This story line would evolve to deal with a season-long exploration of Hannah's HPV, and Jessa marrying a random man (Chris O'Dowd). The show wore its absurdity alongside its inability to tell a story for more than 30 minutes. Most of all, it depicted the obsessive and aimlessness of youth in such an ugly fashion that it was either accepted as raw and too honest, or it was just trash that made young people look terrible.
The first season was so critically acclaimed that along with a few Emmy nominations, it ushered in a new style of TV. On the big screen, films like Frances Ha received false comparisons to Girls simply for having frank discussions of sex. On HBO, the network would begin trying to appeal to the indie aesthetic where not much of anything happened. Not in the Seinfeld sense, but more in the ennui of 20-somethings' day-to-day behavior. Shows like Togetherness, Looking, and Crashing all adopted the indie film aesthetic and allowed the stories to get raw, event at times sexually explicit. While some of the moments were arguably better than Girls, none of them could compare to the fervor that came with each of the seasons to follow. Even as the show lost its popularity (at least in a positive sense), it would return into the news every few weeks because of some outrageous moment. Maybe it wasn't outrageous in the way that Game of Thrones was, but its borderline rape or any of Hannah's negligible behavior would become the poster child for how aimless millennials could be. Whole seasons would pass without the audience getting much trajectory. It took until season four for Hannah to break up with her toxic boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver), and then another whole season to get over him. If the show was about progress, it wasn't significant.
What is probably the most alluring part of Girls was that it started as the "anti-Sex and the City" even calling that detail out early in the show's run. It was supposed to be meant in the way that the show didn't treat its characters glamorously (it was "real"), but it became a notion of how close the characters were by the later seasons. Sex and the City could always rely on Carrie talking to Miranda, Samantha or Charlotte any given week. By the time of the penultimate episode in season six, it was admitted what was known early on: these characters are incompatible. They cannot be in the same room without trouble brewing. Hannah may have been the central problem child by default, but the journeys of Marnie (Allison Williams), Jessa, and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) had their share of mistakes worthy of groaning.
What the show did more than explore the aimless life of 20-somethings who maybe were too narcissistic to realize their flaws was show how friends grow apart over time. This came in many forms. In part, it was because of the various circles that they hung out in. It was partially because of their career goals leading them down different paths. It was also just that they didn't have the time to see each other. By season five, Shoshanna had a miserable job in Japan and Marnie was married to Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who was later proven to be a drug-addicted leech on her life despite the audience noticing the lack of character development for three seasons straight.
It almost became an Avengers-like task of getting them in the same room. Episodes like "Beach House" and "Wedding Day" define Shoshanna's complaints of the main four being incapable of being together. Sure, Hannah COULD hang out with Marnie, but Jessa was always a loose cannon and Shoshanna was just never around. Their worst antics came when forced to have a heart to heart. It's generally why later episodes feature scant traces of people not named Hannah. The show tried to explore her growth in a positive light, but wasn't above her displaying bad flirty moves with coworkers and having her students get piercings they wouldn't want. Even at her best, she had poor judgment skills. The only thing she really knew how to do was write - and even that occasionally required her to get stoned with her gay ex-boyfriend Elijah (Andrew Rannells) and dance at raves. Any trajectory she had wasn't a straight line.
It all depends on how much the viewer wishes to dive into unapologetic nastiness of youth when it comes to Girls. There's a lot of moments that would be embarrassing in real life. Dunham could get a bravery trophy just for her awkward sex scenes. She could get even more for being precocious and twee in ways that were obnoxious to the point that one had to wonder if her openness was fictional or part of her real life personality. Considering her controversial memoir "Not That Kind of Girl" and podcast Women of the Hour both depict her as having bizarre tics, it wouldn't be hard to believe that maybe there was honesty alongside the fiction.
Wherever the line is, Girls was a show that could be aimless yet enduring. Its cast would go on to leave some mark in Hollywood. The biggest breakout was Adam Driver, who went on to be the villain of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and starred alongside co-star Alex Karpovsky in Inside Llewyn Davis. Allison Williams starred in Peter Pan Live! before making her big screen debut in Get Out: which is now the highest grossing debut for a black director. It becomes even more impressive when adding in the extended cast, such as earlier exiter Christopher Abbott, who is an indie darling thanks to films like James White, or any of the alternative comics who have gone on to have successful careers.
Still, there's something unassuming about Girls' sendoff. For awhile, it was indicative of an era in culture where 20-somethings had an optimistic future that never came. It embodied the frustrations with not knowing how to land the dream job, or in the case of the show's initial metaphor: become Sex and the City. It's at times unpleasant in the way that all Judd Apatow-produced shows could be. It ushered in a new wave of Apatow series, including Love and Crashing: both centering around insufferable archetypes. The stories could be dark or embarrassing, but there was always the sense that this moment meant something to its characters. How much it actually meant is speculative. This is why it seems significant that Girls is ending with Hannah having a child and growing weary of who the father will be. It's the only thing permanent in her life. Everything else seems to have come and gone at their own free will. But she is now a mother, arguably no longer a "girl" in a way that makes the series' title appropriate.
It is unclear how the show will end, but it will be doing so after six seasons. It's been a phenomenal run and has given HBO one of its secretly most influential modern comedies. It may not have a standout moment on par with The Sopranos or The Wire, but it does have heartbreaking moments with raw honesty worthy of the show's existence. Time will determine whether this show was a dated fluke, or if there's some deeper truth to what Dunham was going for. It'll be interesting to see where she goes next, and if it could possibly be as successful as Girls. Maybe she will remain a divisive figure, but she definitely depicted a generation in ways so unpleasant that one has to either accept it as funny slices of life, or admit that you made better life choices than the character. Girls may or may not go down as one of HBO's best shows, but it's definitely one of its most interesting when looked as a whole.

No comments:

Post a Comment