Somehow, some way, I’ve hung on for the whole series of Girls. In true millennial fashion, I watched whatever I could whenever I could get my parents’ HBO password. I liked it about as much as I liked Tiny Furniture, to which my reaction years ago was “that was kind of funny and also that Lena Dunham girl has shitty friends!”
I started out feeling optimistic about Girls. Judd Apatow was clearly trying to incubate a lady Judd Apatow, and that was cool, although I could think of comedians I would have preferred over Lena Dunham for this venture. But Lena Dunham isn’t really a comedian. She’s more of a strong-opinion-haver, podcaster, filmmaker, nudist, fancy parent-having ingenue, and that’s nothing to be dismissive about.
Once the show premiered, I followed the backlash along with the rest of the world. It did indeed seem shitty that the show hadn’t bothered to reflect the diversity of New York City in its core cast, choosing instead to cast guest stars of color, who were usually sexually enamored with Hannah. I also followed the massive backlash from men, who were enraged at having to look at a non-thin woman naked. This made me feel like men are not very self-aware of how many less-than-desirable men women end up seeing naked in their lives, whether in movies, porn or just on the street. (I saw a nude man walking on my block about this time last year.)
While Lena Dunham can be a frustrating character swaddled in privilege, she does mean something to me just for the very fact that she dares to be a public person without fitting any kind of physical mold set out for women. How many regular women exist like this on TV? Like five? I also was quite a fan of her memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, which I thought showed a lot more writing ability and vulnerability than most TV show star memoirs, which are usually Thought Catalog-style series of listicles.
I had equally complex feelings about Girls. Some episodes were brilliant, especially the tangential rendezvous wherein one character left the rest of the gang and went on a solo journey of self discovery. The show was constantly trying to find itself, which seemed very “millennial” in a positive way. I also adored some of the characters, like Ray, played by the super charming Alex Karpovsky. The best thing about Girls, however, was the dialog. Lena Dunham has a stunning ear for conversation, and is amazing at placing non sequitur pop culture references in the middle of fights.
Most importantly, she captures the essence of being a Smart Girl without Being a “Smart Girl” in a way that only she and Mindy Kaling excel at. Never do her characters don glasses and quote Plato to prove they’re intelligent. Instead, they use all the verbal tics millennial women are made fun of for, and come out all the more triumphant for embracing them. This was evident when Lena hosted SNL, especially on her awesome spoof of Scandal.
It wasn’t until I was listening to a WTF podcast with late Simpsons creator Sam Simon that I was able to pinpoint what I hated about Girls (other than its lack of diversity). Simon reflected that one of the main rules of writing a show is that you have to love your characters. This is where Girls goes wrong. A lot of the series felt like schadenfreude in action, especially Marnie’s plotlines. As the show went on, it felt like Lena was taking criticism of the characters’ privilege and unrelatability and thinking, well, I’ll make the joke be on them. Then people will know I’m not writing them as an instruction manual for “how to be.” But at that point, why not just replace them with better characters? I would rather hang out alone with my dog any day than spend actual time with Shosh, Marnie or Jessa.
But this negative development of characters seemed to apply mostly to the female characters. Adam and Ray seemed much more three-dimensional throughout the whole series, and were part of why I kept watching. This goes back to what I said at the beginning: I get the sense that Lena Dunham’s view of female friendship is a bit skewered. There seems to be a level of toxicity that is taken for granted at the heart of all of these relationships, wherein one party is using the other party for reasons of popularity, connections or just plain self-esteem. Like I said earlier, I don’t think Girls is trying to be an instruction manual for how to be, but I always felt a bit let down by how it portrayed this element of female life.
That goes back to the fatal flaw of the whole show: its name. Girls implies a universality that Lena Dunham could never live up to. She can’t represent a whole gender in one show, and it’s this premise that made her failure to include diverse perspectives even more magnified compared to say, How I Met Your Mother. I hope Judd Apatow projects don’t keep opting for such universal names. Love is already so limited by having to be about one “will-they-won’t-they?” love connection that I can’t imagine it lasting that many seasons.
The finale of Girls was perfectly in keeping with the rest of the show. It included too much bickering and drama for drama’s sake, but also had some moments of levity, humor and truth. Ironically enough, the first central character of color ended up being birthed by Hannah herself, too little too late. Whatever you thought of Girls, it wasn’t afraid to be divisive.