Girls Is Consistently a Better Show Than It Gets Credit For

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Jessa (Jemima Kirke; left) and Marnie (Allison Williams) in the season-five premiere of Girls. Photo: HBO

Girls will never not be an issue; that's too bad, and it's also understandable. The show's fifth season, which started Sunday, already looks to be one of its most quietly assured. That's not the same thing as being all things to all viewers, or even particularly lovable, or likable, but at this point, one would hope that everyone has reconciled themselves to that. As conceived by the core team of creator-star Lena Dunham and her co–executive producers Jenni Konner and Judd Apatow, this show is the sitcom as hedgehog; love it or hate it, it will never be cuddly. I've never seen an episode that wasn't on some level infuriating. I understand why so many people hate the show, and even though I love it, there are times when I also kind of hate it. This premiere, more so than any single episode since the exuberantly berserk season-two finale, seems okay with all that, to the point of internalizing the affection-revulsion cycle with wary acceptance, the way Dunham's Hannah has accepted her obsessive-compulsive disorder and Adam (Adam Driver) and Jessa (Jemima Kirke) their addictions.

I love that the episode drops us right into the middle of the extended group of friends — maybe "friends" is a better way to describe some of these relationships — on the day Marnie (Allison Williams) is set to marry her musician boyfriend, Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). "It's going to rain" is the first line, delivered by Marnie as she stands in front of a window clad in flesh-colored Spanx while Shosh (Zosia Mamet) steams bridesmaids' dresses, a harbinger that would seem too Fiction Workshoppy if Marnie weren’t posed so gravely, bearing the existentially blank look of a Bergman heroine who’s about to launch into a monologue. (The characters are always unaware of how self-dramatizing and absurd they are, but the show always knows — this is something Girls rarely gets credit for.) The wedding episode works just like a real wedding in life, a milestone event that’s like a shareholders’ meeting for a community of relatives and friends, forcing every member to reaffirm what they like, hate, and tolerate in each other. (Weddings, funerals, and births tend to do that.)

The necessity of coming to terms with who we are rather than denying it is at the center of every scene in this episode. We find out Desi has been engaged many times before and is freaking out at the prospect of finally getting hitched. Hannah is always in denial about something, and that’s true here, too. Her bond with her schoolteacher boyfriend, Fran (Jake Lacy), while encouraging in some ways, also feels like a rebound-overreaction. He’s a patient, stable, responsible person who represents the opposite of Adam, and maybe that’s what she needs right now. But is it what she desires? Adam and Jessa’s furtive kiss comes out of nowhere, yet seems in retrospect like a development that was a long time coming. Both characters are recovering addicts, and both have Joker-like inclinations to stir every pot in sight to keep from getting bored. Shosh’s confession that she intentionally attended the wedding solo plays like a veiled wish to hook up with Ray, Adam to her Hannah. Lots of positive and negative ions at this wedding; some were bound to latch together.

The next few episodes, which I won’t describe here, have more scenes like those, moments where you’re taken aback by the seeming arbitrariness of what you’re seeing, then think about it for a second and realize, Yes, of course, that makes sense. Marnie’s Bridezilla routine is the most sadly comical example: It feels like a bit of sadism on the show’s part to push the patience of everyone in her wedding party to the breaking point. But it's true to her aggressively passive-aggressive character, and it connects with Desi’s allergic reaction to marriage; it might even be a buried version of the same thing, though Marnie is too controlling and repressed to realize that, much less admit it. Running beneath every encounter is a squirm-inducing display of white, upper-middle-class entitlement. The awareness of the characters' baseline abrasiveness is embedded in every scene and line. The characters fancy themselves more mature, sensitive, and self-aware than they are. Marnie is the poster girl for this kind of mentality, but every character has a touch of it, including the parents, who tend to be outraged by displays of privileged or just arrogant behavior unless they’re doing it, in which case it’s just behavior, and everybody else had better deal.

We seem to be catching all these characters on the verge of transforming into some new iteration of what they always were. For the younger characters, that has a lot to do with the onset of the 30s (in Ray’s case, 40s). One of my (and other critics') many complaints about Girls, a complaint that maybe isn’t a valid complaint if you study the show, is that it doesn’t make sense for most of these characters to be friends anymore, or even call themselves friends. In recent seasons, the writers have had to contrive reasons to have them cross paths with each other, often by way of a scheduling coincidence or a meal or a party that most of them would be tempted to skip, not just because so many of them have fallen in and out of relationships or are still nursing grudges, but because that’s what happens when you get older. I had a lot of friends in my 20s I saw constantly; after a certain point, we didn’t see much of each other because we realized we either didn’t have many points of commonality anymore or were no longer sure if we really liked each other in the first place. And so it goes: It’s not pretty, but it’s real.

I admire this series greatly, even though it has struggled to say all the things it seems to want to say, and it's still as awkward about race as it is astute about class (Desi's best friend Wolfie, played by Baron Vaughn, is all support and no character), and there have been moments when its grip on its story slipped and we seemed to watching four or five mini-shows mashed together. These sorts of things tend to happen on most series, though, and there are plenty of shows with characters who are just as fundamentally unlikable, if not unlovable, as the ones on Girls, yet get a much more sympathetic hearing from audiences (Louie for one). The early fixation on whether or not Dunham "deserved" to have a TV show, whether she should have a political megaphone of any kind, whether the title was too culturally arrogant or merely imprecise, and whether the writers had an obligation to represent a multicultural Williamsburg-Bushwick 20-something scene, all focused media attention on aspects of the series other than what was actually onscreen. That's too bad, because what's onscreen is consistently more thoughtful, self-aware, and honest than the mountains of press clippings about Lena Dunham would ever suggest. But it's not exactly a tragedy, because the show has run for five seasons and is set to go one more, and because it's a substantive work that I suspect will seem major once we all get more distance from it.