HBO’s Girls wraps for good on Sunday. Through six seasons, show creator, producer and star Lena Dunham never learned to write male characters …or did she?
I remember the post-9/11 season of Sex and the City hyped by HBO as what would be a more somber romp through rarefied social circles and improbable sexual trysts by how-does-she-actually-ever-get-published love and relationship columnist Carrie Bradshaw and her cohort of aging It Girls sipping awful red and blue drinks from oversized stemware as some kind of house beat scored their adventures in Manhattan.
For its part, the art department at HBO made that campaign’s poster seem a little more ashen and grim adding grays and drop shadows and throwing the girls into LBDs to register Carrie’s proximity to Lower Manhattan, but by season’s end it was back to a fitful musical chairs hop in the sack from obsequious suitor to obsequious suitor while the one that got away continued to get away.
If the SATC girls can be accused of never having taken a stab at reality and even the most fully formed male characters, Mr. Big, Aiden and eventually …Mikhail Baryshnikov (?) were as one-dimensional as a cartoon loop backdrop, but — forgive them — for all the fourth wall-shattering moments in season 1 (eventually dropped for more straightforward close ups of Carrie’s laptop screen as narrator, letters crawling with alarming consistency across it/a trick borrowed from Doogie Howser M.D.) the show settled into rote slogs from aspirational situation to aspirational situation. The sex wasn’t always good, the city wasn’t always kind, but the champagne and the and the trips and the handbags and the shoes and the namedrops were always in plentiful supply. Can’t complain.
But then the economy crashed for everyone but them. And while the SATC girls were busy having hot flashes and playing off every negative Arab world stereotype imaginable in an ill-fated movie sequel in 2010, just two months earlier Manhattan-by-way-of-Oberlin wunderkind Lena Dunham packed all her post-college anxieties into a short feature called Tiny Houses and caught some attention on the indie film circuit. Decidedly unglam, insecure, medicated and doted upon, an unlikely star was born, and so was Girls, HBO’s own answer and mea culpa for the last couple seasons of SATC. Girls debuted in April 2012.
From the onset, Girls — which also tracked the over-privileged and underemployed lives of four fabulous females this time traversing the streets of Greenpoint and Williamsburg instead of the Upper East Side — was more beautifully written, meticulously planned and artfully executed than its predecessor. Look no further than Marine’s (Allison Williams) plunge into her past channeling some serious Saturday Night Fever subway malaise from season 5:
Throughout the series, the four of them scrapped in small apartments and beachy getaways and on ill-fated trips to the country as well as in the vicinity of coffee shops and on the sidewalk holding plastic bags full of nothing outside bodegas. The girls’ final confrontation was in the bathroom of Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), the neurotic and underestimated fourth in the foursome, who, at least for the final couple seasons, was surreptitiously growing most profoundly up as well as away from the group. Be it from simple distance — her relocation to Japan — or noticeable absence from most dramatic storylines — Marnie’s stumbling singing career and divorce/ensuing back-and-forth from her addict singing partner to Jessa’s (Jessa Johansson) ultimate Danny Ocean thievery of Hannah’s Adam Sackler (Adam Driver) — it was Shoshanna who put an almost too on-the-nose punctuation on the series and the relationships that built it when she hit the pause button near her shampoo bottles and said, “I think we should all just agree to call it.”
That line best portrayed the exhaustion of the artist Dunham herself. Unlike Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie, Dunham had to inhabit Hannah Horvath on screen as well as write, direct and defend her off of it. A trick she still doesn’t get enough credit for even as praise is lavished.
But it’s not as if Girls is limping to the finish. Quite the contrary. I’d put season 6 up there with any sitcom in recent memory. Hannah got oops pregnant by an alluring guest check-in by Riz Ahmed (who everyone knows by now should be in everything) as Paul-Louis, a plaintive and flowy on the mic (karaoking Twista, whoa) surf (“water ski” according to Hannah) instructor who struck up a breezy three-day affair with her while she was charged with covering cougars who find renewal at his surf camp.
All the conservative pundits who have never watched an episode might feel chagrined to find Hannah chooses to keep the baby but it makes perfect sense in the context of the character. All the winking entitlement that used to outrage the masses (Dunham and producer Judd Apatow have conveniently quelled the argument by claiming they’re just writing about a bunch of spoiled girls whose obnoxious and solipsistic character arcs are intentional. You are, in other words, supposed to be constantly pissed off at Hannah) …is by design. I kind of half believe that argument. I think it’s more like there was no telling the type of visceral reaction Hannah would elicit, so they went with it.
But those who are mad at Hannah (and Dunham by association) are missing the point. The whole conceit is indulgent, down to staying up late Sunday night to watch it on pay cable. So we’re all guilty. It was a show of moments, and the sum total of those shed so much from the sitcom veneer that everything else looks like Gilligan’s Island in retrospect.
If there was one fault of Girls wholesale, it’s that the show’s male characters were never fully formed. Like Sex and the City, they lived in one of two camps. In SATC it was sex-crazed Masters of the Universe or sex-crazed sensitive guys …with gays coming and going in between. In Girls, it was neurotic sex-crazed guys with jobs and neurotic, sex-crazed guys without jobs …with gays acting as Greek chorus and Hannah’s bedrock. Oh, and then there were guys who dated Shoshanna, but that’s a whole different thread. Indeed, the two most compelling, well-rounded and relatable characters in the show were Hannah’s recently outed father (played with brilliant dulcet tones by Peter Scolari, yes, THAT Peter Scolari) and Hannah’s too-good-to-be-true roommate (I have a theory he’s really her imaginary friend, her Harvey) Elijah (real-life Broadway actor Andrew Rannells) — who finally gets his big break on The Great White Way during the second-to-last episode, bursts into the girls’ final bathroom confrontation announcing the good news and yells “suck it you feckless whores” before slamming the door. Perfect.
If the inconsequential comings and goings and one-dimensionality of the boys of Girls was intentional, it was also executed deftly. We do live in a time of men who are marginalized. Jocks are doomed. Factory jobs are gone. The old sales/golf gig is drying up and there’s not a whole lot left but to fucking shit the bed and cry it out. Plus, there can only be one Josh Tillman. Desi, Marnie’s ex, who was promoted to the main cast as their relationship escalated in season four, perhaps had the most opportunity to be a multi-faceted straight male on the show, but they predictably mired him in his own psychopathic drug use. Last we saw him, he crumbled in a heap beside his motorcycle outside a gig in bum-fuck New Jersey, a tiny but pathetic final snapshot of a man who doesn’t know what to do and a character they have no idea what to do with. So 2010s guy shit.
Girls did a lot for television. In a sense, it forestalled the medium’s own demise a few more years for a generation that hasn’t been blessed with a lot of hope in general. Just endless wars and the now near-term threat that all things might be ending before they even get started.
On good days and bad, Girls got a lot of things right. When it moved toward the fanciful or fictitious (there has been a lot of push back about Hannah landing a dream gig teaching writing/”the internet” at a small, private liberal arts college with zero credentials. Those who decry that plot twist also ought to remember that Dunham herself snagged an almost $4 million advance to pen her memoirs with zero credentials) there was always a reason.
Would I have liked to see the male characters work out their stuff a little better on screen and evolve as much as Dunham evolved the medium? Sure. But there’s no mention of them in the title and there’s a very obvious reason why. Boys have had generations to create one memorable female sitcom character, and failed. Ultimately, the thinness of the male characters in Girls was appropriate for its time and an appropriate fuck you to the time before it. A win for the home team forced to grow up with fetal alcohol-syndrome-affected, size-zero cartoon princesses and cat-suit-clad dominatrices like Pinky and Leather Tuscadero stamped on lunch boxes.