Why I Can’t Give Up on Girls Just Yet
I’ve declared that I’m done with HBO’s Girls many times, and each time I’m a giant liar. The reasons to move on are many: almost all of the characters are usually unlikeable, the writing is inconsistent and self-indulgent, and generally everything Marni does makes me want to stab the character with a bedazzled unicorn horn. In general, I’m not opposed to breaking up with TV, but I can’t seem to quit Girls.
The problem comes when I give in to “just one more” syndrome. I’ll watch just one more episode, just to see where one particular plot line might wrap up, or to see one particular guest star (Gillian Jacobs and Zachary Quinto, how you disappointed, but Spike Jonze was delightfully twee in the finale). Inevitably, during this “final” episode, the writers either resolve a plot point to my surprise and satisfaction, or introduce a new one that has some potential resonance. If only the fallow periods between these more engaging episodes didn’t exist.
Take, for example, the way Girls ended up dealing with the reasons I feel such antipathy for Hannah Horvath. I don’t hate Lena Dunham, but I severely dislike Hannah, and not in the way I’m supposed to dislike her. The character is written so that you’re supposed to marvel at her selfishness and her privilege and the way she thinks herself so exceptional while being so painfully un-self-aware. All of that is supposed to be distasteful and make her an unlikeable protagonist. And sure, that’s all true. But I didn’t like her because I always thought the one thing that was supposed to be her saving grace – her art, her writing – was bullshit. The show didn’t ask us to interrogate whether Hannah is really a writer, and artist – it’s almost the foundational concept. The fact that she got into the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (one of if not the most prestigious in the country) confirmed this. But I didn’t see her commitment to it, and her passion for it and accomplishments with it seem incidental to her, which offended me even more. It’s all about the peripherals of being a writer without any of the craft, and I despised that.
And then the show made the exact same point.
Hannah realizes that she can’t take the rigorous criticism associated with becoming writer, quits the Workshop, and returns to New York. Granted, Hannah doesn’t see herself as flawed in the way the rest of us do. From her perspective, she’s too delicate a soul to be trampled upon by the blunderings of critics who just don’t understand her. But the show understands what’s really happening, and when it strikes the perfect tonal balance between sympathy for Hannah as a product (rather than voice) of her particular generation and derision for her self-centeredness, something very unique and watchable occurs.
It’s unsurprising to me that some of the best material comes when Dunham and her crew expand the scope of the show to involve Ted and Loreen, Hannah’s parents. While Hannah and her friends move through a heightened, rarified reality that’s two clicks away from being a permanent dream state, the elder Horvaths (played perfectly by Peter Scolari and Becky Ann Baker) are firmly anchored to the ground. In season four’s eighth episode, “Ted & Loreen & Avi & Shanaz,” we learn that Ted and Loreen have been in therapy, and that Ted has come to the realization that he might be gay. Naturally, this has an impact on Hannah, but more affecting is its impact on Loreen. She’s bitter, furious because she sees the past thirty-odd years she’s invested in building a life with Ted as a waste. Ted, fresh with self-actualization, gets to go on a voyage of discovery and enter a new world brimming with new experiences, while Loreen is left with nothing but an empty, lifeless shell. She feels the hollowness of her life, and bristles of how unfair it is that Ted’s long-kept secret has taken away her future.
Loreen’s failure to simply become a cheerleader for Ted’s new reality is refreshingly honest; someone close to me had a spouse reveal their actual sexual orientation to them after years of marriage and children, and the hurt was real and enduring. While nobody wants someone who denied their true sexuality to live a lie, to ignore that it might cause pain to those close to them means only telling part of the story. Girls is perhaps one of the few shows with enough rough edges to deal with this issue in such a raw way; the show’s selfishness becomes a strength in this case. I’ll tune in to season five of Girls if only to catch glimpses of how Ted and Loreen navigate the future.
I’ll end with the biggest thing that keeps me coming back to Girls: Ray Ploshansky, Hannah’s old coffee shop boss and romancer of both Shoshanna and (ugh) Marni. Ray is older than the rest of the characters on Girls, in his thirties, and even as he sees the ridiculousness in each of them, he can’t help but be sucked into their orbit. (In that sense, Ray is a fine audience proxy.) Ray is angry, curmudgeonly, but also profoundly loyal and finally finding the ambition he so long denied having, as he ran and got elected as community committee chairperson for his district. Generally, Ray brings out the best in the characters who interact with him; the exception to this is Marni, whom the writers seem intent on framing as Ray’s one true love, a conceit I wish they’d give up. Nevertheless, Ray’s pining over Marni resulted in what was perhaps the best exchange in the entire history of the show, as Hannah and Ray watched Marni, ever the narcissist, announce her engagement at Ray’s victory party at the end of episode nine, “Daddy Issues” (pictured above):
Ray: “I’m so happy for them.”
Hannah: “I’m so happy for everyone.”
Ray: “I’m faking it.”
Hannah: “I’m faking everything.”
A self-aware but not self-involved Girls is the best possible version of the show. Deep down, I think it’s because even with their navel-gazing, self-righteous, and destructive behavior, I realize the youth of these characters, and I want them to grow up. Move on. Become productive, multi-faceted people. And with some of the stories introduced at the end of season four, it seems they might eventually get there.