matt zoller seitz

Girls: From Lightning Rod to Must-See TV


[Editor’s note: The following piece on season one of Girls contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.]

Do you remember when HBO’s Girls was a lightning rod for essays about nepotism, privilege, racism, and hype? As I watched the comedy’s first season finale last night, it occurred to me that I’ve heard barely a peep about any of these subjects during the last five weeks, a period that not coincidentally lines up with the show’s strongest run of episodes. I have no idea whether the near silence is the result of detractors reassessing actress-filmmaker Lena Dunham’s sitcom or just the natural media and PR order of things: editorial outrage flowering along with a show’s premiere, then fading. In any case, at some point during the second half of this first season, the hype and backlash and backlash-to-the-backlash vanished, and it became possible to judge the show as a show and render a verdict.

Mine is positive. I liked it pretty well from the start, but there were a few points during season one where I thought, I could check out and check back in at the start of season two and not beat myself up too much. But I’m glad I stuck with it. The last few episodes all passed my first test of must-see TV: Each week I tuned in expecting to be surprised and impressed, and most of the time I was.

This wasn’t always the case during the first half of season one, which was smart and funny but definitely felt like the work of a talented young artist still figuring out what to do and say on television. The episodes distributed their attention somewhat democratically between Dunham’s heroine, Hannah, her uniquely weird boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver), and Hannah’s friends Marnie (Allison Williams), Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), or Jessa (Jemima Kirk). Somewhere around the season’s midpoint, though, the structure and tone became more varied and adventurous, taking maximum advantage of the medium’s greatest strength, its elasticity. In last night’s “surprise wedding” finale, Adam said, “Time is a rubber band.” On TV, the same is true of tone, and Girls leveraged this week after week.

There were episodes built around a warehouse party (“Welcome to Bushwick, a.k.a. The Crackcident”) and Hannah’s trip back to her hometown of East Lansing, Michigan (“The Return”). Girls also became more tonally confident, often easing away from its default setting (semi-satirical, often vicious ensemble comedy, with splashes of warmth), and trying on different moods and modes. The homecoming episode captured the feeling of returning to one’s birthplace after spending years in a much larger city — and feeling like you don’t quite belong in either place — better than any TV episode I’ve seen in a while. The Bushwick episode was a nifty little party movie with strong turns by supporting players (including the great James LeGros as Jessa’s boss, who haplessly admits he’s suffering a midlife crisis). The climax, which cross-cut between Hannah confronting Adam and Alex Karpovsky’s wise-ass Ray chasing the crack-addled Shoshanna through industrial Brooklyn, was terrific. It reminded me of those moments in early Jim Jarmusch films when people wander through urban landscapes so eerie and desolate that you half-expect zombies to shamble into the frame. The finale, set mostly at Jessa’s surprise wedding to that yuppie yutz that she and Marnie hung out with a couple of weeks earlier, was another curveball— which made perfect sense for Jessa’s character, a woman who would rather be surprising than sensible. In some ways the sedate mirror of the Bushwick party episode, it showcased Girls’ knack for showing us types that we didn’t realize were types (like the wedding’s nerdy-enthusiastic officiator who addresses the guests as “Ladies and gentlebeans”).

Is Girls the product of nepotism? Does Girls flatter privilege? Is Girls racist for not casting nonwhite actors in its central roles? These questions were posed in thinkpieces in the show’s first few weeks. Only the last is really worth asking. The rest are for people who have ideological hammers and treat whatever’s recent and “hot” as a nail.

Nepotism probably played a part in the careers of the four lead actresses, all of whom are the children of successful artists. But how is this phenomenon different, and substantially more offensive, than learning about politicians, plumbers, firefighters, or teachers whose parents and grandparents worked in the same fields, taught them much of what they know, and opened some doors for them? And how is the existence of Girls more outrageous than, say, the careers of Sean Penn, Nicolas Cage, Charlie Sheen, Anjelica Huston, John Huston, Norah Jones, and the late Lucian Freud?

As for privilege, nepotism’s cousin, that’s the true, deep subject of Girls. The show has critiqued the mind-set of every one of its clueless, spoiled characters so bluntly that it’s hard to imagine how anyone could fail to see it. There’s a sharp example in the homecoming episode when Hannah’s parents, who cut her off in the pilot, meet her at the airport, and right before she hugs them, there’s a cut to Hannah dropping a bag of dirty laundry that she obviously assumes one of her parents will load into the car. 

If there were any doubt about this self-awareness, the season finale erased it in that extraordinary scene of Adam calling out Hannah on her malignant narcissism, then indulging in his own flavor of it. When Adam, who was looking for a real emotional commitment from Hannah, told her that everybody is scared, Hannah replied, “I’m like the most scared person who’s alive.” But Adam, who had the moral upper hand, blew it (almost) with his line just before the, er, accident: “You don’t know struggle. I’m a beautiful fucking mystery to you!” Just because Hannah grew up comfortable doesn’t mean she doesn’t understand struggle of any kind (she’s struggling right now to be an authentic person and a real artist, and mostly botching it). And Adam is not exactly a poor kid who fought his way up from nothing; a lot of his struggle is the byproduct of his fauxhemian lifestyle. Hannah’s worse than he is, but Adam is no saint; his coffeehouse Stanley Kowalski routine, always blurting out whatever’s in his head and acting on his urges and expecting others to adapt or be labeled square, is a cover for immaturity, not unlike much of the behavior he pins on Hannah. These might be class problems, they might be pre-frontal cortex problems, or they might be emblematic of a culturewide self-centeredness. It’s not up to the show to specify that or draw conclusions. It’s the show’s job to present intriguing characters and situations that the imaginative viewer can translate into their own terms and relate to.

On that score, Dunham’s series is a major success. At certain points, Girls’ first season reminded me of a naturalistic, younger version of Seinfeld, which was about selfish people behaving abominably. Girls understands its characters better than they understand themselves, but has the good sense to just let their behavior exist onscreen, and let us decide to hate them and tune out or see ourselves in them and keep watching.

Because Sex and the City and Girls are both about young (or young-ish) single female friends having romantic and career adventures in Manhattan, the two got compared a lot, but they have very little in common beyond that, and in the one area in which they can be compared directly — the characters on both shows are upper-middle-class — Girls is superior. Every episode features one or more characters worrying about money and jobs and discovering their true self, whatever that turns out to be. They’re somewhat cushioned by their social class, but the longer the show goes on, the less likely that is to be the case. None of the lead characters’ parents are that rich, just well off enough to abide bratty kids who just got out of college but haven’t quite grown up. And as Hannah’s own parents proved in the pilot, their patience is not inexhaustible. At a certain point, adult dependence on one’s parents stops being “normal” and starts to seem unusual, sad, and unattractive, even among the interning subculture that Hannah’s a part of.  Eighty-five percent of recent college grads move back in with their parents, but no one involved is happy about it. Girls understands this unease (though the parents are mostly subsidizing their kids from afar) and makes a comic subject of it.

The racism question is more complex, but I think it’s more wisely posed to HBO, and TV in general, rather than to Dunham and producer Judd Apatow; despite a few tone-deaf touches, such as the jaunty black homeless man in the pilot’s final scene, they cast the show in ways that made sense given the kinds of people that it was about. Spend any time in this world (yeah, I’m old, but every generation has its own version, trust me) and you’ll see that its claims of multicultural enlightenment are exaggerated or flat-out bogus. Girls is set in an extremely specific, realistically pasty world — one whose inhabitants flatter themselves into thinking that dancing to hip-hop and having a few nonwhite acquaintances is the same thing as being post-racial. (The moment in the finale when the wedding guests applaud the bride and groom to the tune of Lady’s “Yankin” skewered this delusion brilliantly.)

A better question might be: Why did Girls, virtually alone among current TV show, become a lightning rod for politically charged discussions, especially on race? Mad Men somehow caught far less flack on the latter topic than Girls, even though it built its premiere around the reluctant integration of its ad agency circa 1966, then gave its lone new black employee little to do and barely mentioned race or the civil rights struggle afterwards. * Despite notable evolutionary steps forward, TV, like cinema, is still overwhelmingly Caucasian. The failures are systemic and entrenched. It’s not Lena Dunham’s responsibility to right them, and I’m worried that by bowing to pressure and casting “great actors of color” in season two (including Donald Glover of Community), we’re about to see a repeat of Mad Men’s greatest failing: its inability to see black (or for that matter, gay) people as people first, sociological representatives second. Can anyone name a show that wasn’t diverse at the start, became diverse owing to media disapproval, and then created nonwhite characters that weren’t glorified tokens? I can’t think of many.

I fear that a lot of anti-Girls hoopla came from the fact that it’s about, well, girls, and is set in a comically exaggerated version of reality, by which I mean that it isn’t a genre show: There are no gangsters, no spies, no vengeful socialites, no vampires, no cops or lawyers, just young women (and a few men) having relationships and losing jobs and moving in and out of apartments and hurting each other without thinking. Such stories have historically been devalued: witness “chick lit” and “chick flicks.” Critics (male and female) often embrace the thinking behind these condescending labels even if they avoid using the labels. A lot of the same gripes about Girls could have been lodged against The Catcher in the Rye, The Graduate, Harold and Maude, Risky Business, The Royal Tenenbaums, or any number of very white tales of young men with money and no sense of direction, but weren’t. A good many first novels and films are (mostly) built around those sorts of young men, because they’re representatives of a social class that’s likely to produce (and nurture) aspiring artists. But when a similar story gets told about a young woman, its portrait of stultifying privilege and ennui is apt to be dismissed as inherently boring, offensive in its alleged triviality, and its creator mocked as unworthy of the platform she’s earned.

If you can wipe away the media grime that got smeared all on Girls, its specialness becomes harder to deny. With each passing week, the characters have seemed less representative and more unique, without ever losing their cultural specificity — a neat trick that few shows manage. Even characters that initially read as stereotypes, such as the brittle princess Marnie and the jumpy virgin Shoshanna, deepened and became more endearing without losing their edge. And many more characters started out memorable and became indelible. Hannah’s parents (Peter Scolari and Becky Ann Baker) are a great, very real couple, aware of some of their shortcomings but blind to others, sympathetic to Hannah but terrified of indulging her worst tendencies, and still hot for each other after all these years. Hannah’s hookup turned boyfriend Adam — a hunky, randy, man-boy who has redefined immaturity and lack of impulse control as honesty, and is nearly charming enough to get away with it — is sui generis. He might be the first truly new young male type since Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything.

First among equals, though, is Hannah. She’s a rare young female lead played by the very same woman who helps write, direct, and produce the series — a self-centered girl-woman brat, a developing writer and unformed adult, and a frankly sexual being who expects that her urges, and her dumpling-shaped body, will be treated as just another flavor of normal. During the sex scene between Hannah and the cute pharmacist in the homecoming episode, I realized that at some point during Girls’ first season, Dunham’s nudity started to seem no more remarkable than the sight of Louis C.K., James Gandolfini, Dennis Franz, or any other heavyset leading man semi-nude in a sex scene, often with a much thinner woman. This is a major accomplishment by itself — a decisive blow against an enduring double standard — and it’s far from Girls’ only one. It’s a remarkable series, one that’s more deserving of its early praise now than when it premiered.

[* UPDATE: An original draft of this story used Revenge as an example of a very white show that got a pass on race issues; Ashley Madekwe’s presence in the recurring cast invalidated the example, so it has been removed.]

Girls: From Lightning Rod to Must-See TV