PREMIUM TELEVISION: GIRLS by Caroline Kepnes & Saul Ibanez
–Ed.: So you each told me, independent of one another, that you’d like to write about this Girls tv show. The question I pose to you two to get started is this: which episode would you recommend to me, somebody who thought from the other room that my male roommate who was watching Girls on his own might be a little fey, but then ended up kind of listening in to hear what was going on.
SAUL IBANEZ: Let me first say that I don’t necessarily agree with the premise of this question; I’m not sure Girls is a show I’d recommend to anyone–it’s simply not that good. Too often–and I can be as big an offender as any about this–people drift to the extremes when discussing a new show, saying either that it’s an unmatched, once-in-a-generation work of genius or that it’s an unmitigated piece of shit. Girls lies somewhere in the middle, probably closer to the genius side of the spectrum, but still in the middle. It’s not so good that I’d go out of my way to convince someone to spend his time watching it.
CAROLINE KEPNES: I don’t appreciate the superlative approach to TV either, especially regarding new shows. They’re babies, literally; you can’t tell if or how they’re gonna grow up sometimes. Girls isn’t the best or the worst. It’s original because it really is about girls, which is a sad, often noted but rarely acted on statement about TV in general. So yay for Dunham and company.
SAUL: That said: the best episode of the season was the poorly-titled “Welcome to Bushwick a.k.a. The Crackcident,” with “The Return” coming in at a close second. There isn’t all that much about the girls in the show that I find captivating or sympathetic. (For a spot-on analysis of Girls on this front, I’d check out Sean T. Collins’s blog post about one of the early episodes. One bullet point: “When your zeal for making your characters contemptible extends to not bothering to make them interesting to watch, ya blew it.”) The girls are unlikable, but my critique goes beyond that (I hope): most of their adventures are just flat-out not that memorable. In one episode, Marnie and Jessa meet a guy who wants them to have a threesome with them but (spoiler alert!) they don’t. In another, Jessa makes it her mission to sleep with an old boyfriend and (spoiler alert!) she does. So many of the episodes follow this pattern: they have mind-numbingly dull linear story-lines without any twists or irony–nothing to make me think any differently about anyone’s character or situation than I did before.
But in the aforementioned two episodes–the ones I listed as the season’s best–none of these gripes really come out to play. In “The Crackcident,” the girls’ dull neuroses exit center stage, leaving room for more fully-realized ancillary characters and resolution to some genuinely interesting story-lines (seriously, I’d watch an entire series about the dad for whom Jessa babysits); and in “The Return,” we’re treated to rare and sincere pieces of self-awareness–none better than in the moment when Hannah psyches herself up for her big date in Michigan, telling herself, “You are from New York, therefore you are just naturally interesting…. The worst stuff that you say sounds better than the best stuff that some other people say.” This is a provably low thing to believe, but Hannah is a provably low person (but at twenty-two or twenty-three or however-old-she is, who isn’t?), and this is the first major moment in which the show shows us it knows this.
CAROLINE: The crack episode was actually my least favorite because of the way they all split off in thirty seconds. They got there and boom they were all swept into their “dates”. (Dates in quotes because the girls are too cool and modern for dates so guys just sort of show up.) For me, the episode felt like the show quietly confessing, in the middle of a huge pretty-to-look-at Urban Outfitters party, that it’s not smart enough to tell stories about friends who can’t have fun together. Every time they cut away to Shoshanna all cracked out with the hipster prince chasing her, it felt like the show itself was shrugging, going, “Well, this is cool to look at, right?” Eh. Once. But over and over? Stories have to move, yo.
Old fashioned daily life without superpowers or guns or lame “But the hook is…she’s actually an alien!” is enough fodder for a TV show. But it’s much freaking harder to tell good stories in worlds without all that stuff. I want more shows like Girls. So I watch Girls. I just wish they were more tender with their stories. Examples: Being a girl means being vulnerable at times, whether you like it or not. A hot nanny throws herself at the hot husband, screws up the marriage and then his wife’s going to come over and counsel her because she wants to be her mommy? Maybe on Saved by the Bell. Not in the world of this show. A girl can smoke crack and run off and some guy will chase her for hours? No. The crackhead should have run off and gotten into some trouble. Gone to a bodega. A restaurant. Anywhere. The threesome flirtation thing Saul mentioned? I agree. My friend said it well. Better, truer story: Jessa gets the hell out of there, Marnie gets drunk, walks off with the guy, makes out with him, bursts into tears mid-kiss and flees and calls her ex.
This point Saul makes about the linear (AKA banal and anecdotal) plots is why I’m so surprised that the audience of Girls is dominated by men. Don’t guys prefer to watch things where stuff actually happens?! I mean I get that a lot of guys watch because there are naked girls. But do they just fast forward through the conversations that often substitute for dialogue? I think of the coffee shop dude asking Hannah what she’s going to read at the reading, a great example of the bad dialogue that so often feels like a lazy way of allowing for Hannah to monologue about her insecurities. There’s something really arrogant about the lack of dramatic tension and subtext in the dialogue. Like they think you’re content to just watch it all play out the way stuff does with your own friends. After the pilot, I was like, that’s not a show. That’s a bunch of Instagram photos! And that’s why I’m surprised men are watching. Stuff doesn’t just not blow up. Stuff just sits there looking cool and thinking about blowing up.
But I wouldn’t keep watching if I didn’t like watching stuff not blow up. That’s my love/hate feeling about this show. All the non-story, monotony of the first season paved the way for “Leave Me Alone”, my favorite episode. That’s when Girls found its voice. After all Hannah’s diary writing and venting, she was finally faced with someone who wrote something and had it published. Her dream was not silly; it was possible, it just belonged to someone else. And then after all of the bickering with Marnie and their growing incompatibility, there was finally an outright fight. That fight was wonderfully rare for TV because they weren’t fighting over a guy or because someone got invited somewhere where someone didn’t. They were fighting because, as Hannah said, she has a boyfriend and Marnie doesn’t. Of course there’s more to it, but when Marnie threw that toothbrush, the show was finally, fully lit. Jealous bitches…with brains, weight problems and irritatingly cool taste in music. Omigod, a theme! Yay!
SAUL: Just about everything you said about the episodes I picked as my favorites is true: there are some glaring flaws there, not the least of which is Shoshanna, who I agree is a terrible character. I get that she’s supposed to be an unlikeable character–a parody of some kind, I guess–and I don’t generally mind unlikable characters, nor for that matter do I mind unrealistic characters, nor even totally realistic characters, but, again, what Girls does with a character like this is so rarely interesting. There’s nothing funny or poignant about her speaking frenetically, or about her signing up for online dating. Again, this is all so straight-forward.
It bugs me that the episodes are each so flawed that they make picking a favorite so difficult. My first choice for my recommendation was the episode in which we see Adam’s play rehearsal–his joke about not wanting to do “the wigger joke” is just about my favorite moment in the series–but even that episode is coupled with the dreadful threesome adventure.
CAROLINE: Girls sometimes feels like it’s set in a fantasy land without consequences. It might just be because of the David Mamet factor. His daughter plays Shoshanna. Brian Williams’ daughter plays Marnie. Dunham and the girl who plays Jessa went to St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn. These actresses, most of them anyway, all come from deep pockets, if not financially, then socially, culturally. They come from the “good” kind of wealth; their parents make national news, unspeakably good theater and have hip taste in private education. So why didn’t Duhman make a show about Mayflower descendants opting for the thrift store? Girls is almost that show, but it won’t just go and be that show, which is kind of annoying. It’s like they’re in the 1% closet or something. After all, we trekked to Hannah’s home (in an episode I actually didn’t like because I didn’t buy the boy-band-ready pharmacist lusting for Hannah; he seemed too simpleton-y). We know her parents aren’t living in low-income housing. We know she’s in no actual, acute financial jeopardy. And in these times, oh man, don’t fantasize about being poor, TV show. Please don’t.
The hot and cold of Girls is where the real drama was all season. When it’s funny, it’s so funny, whenever Hannah’s boyfriend Adam speaks, or Hannah’s eyebrows after the other girls at that law firm got to her. This show can be so insightful and funny about the dangers of being lost in your twenties. I wish they had more of that. They get that with Hannah’s boyfriend, who I think is hands down, the best character on the show. He’s fun to watch. He’s weird in the good way, where his weirdness isn’t about neurotic quirks, only eating blue M&Ms or some such bunk. Yep, that guy saved Girls for me. Scenes with him are almost always electrifying. And fit the show, as opposed to the silly scenes on that episode where she went home. When she caught her parents having sex I groaned. It’s the first season. Are they that hard up for plots? That’s the kind of low-grade crap I’d expect to see on Whitney. Please, bring back Adam, I thought. And then they did. Phew.
Girls is kind of like Hannah. It has an identity crisis and severe growing pains. Hannah’s trying to find herself, and it’s kind of fun to watch her try. It would be more fun if, at times, the search was more painful, more poignant and less prone to nudity. I admire it for what it’s trying to do and then it disappoints me and gets all stupid but I give it another try because there are so few shows just trying to tell stories about plain old, er, young, humans in their natural skin and habitat.
SAUL: One point at which you and I slightly differ, Caroline, is the nepotism factor. It’s difficult not to think about that–and I’ve been prone to do it myself–but I don’t know how fair that is to the material, or how helpful. Beyond that, I think that privilege is a worthy subject for a show like this: not even well-connected people like the girls on Girls can find worthwhile jobs anymore, and while that’s not the biggest problem my generation faces, necessarily, it does happen, it is real, and it is transformative. I think there really is some tension between people who have a safety net and people who don’t. Handled well, it could make for great drama. (I concede that it’s not handled well.)
I was recently speaking to a girl about Girls, and I made the point that one of the more irritating things about Hannah is that, in spite of praise from her parents and an old professor, there isn’t much in the show to indicate that Hannah is particularly good at anything or deserving of blissful life to which she believes she’s entitled. The girl to whom I spoke said, “That’s not true. She’s a great writer! She has a show on HBO.” I’m not comparing your argument to an argument this stupid, but I do think that conflating Lena Dunham and Hannah is confusing as shit. Hannah benefits from Dunham’s nepotism and good fortune, no doubt, but, again, it’s not fair to the character.
CAROLINE: Right on, Saul. It’s not fair to conflate Hannah and Lena Dunham. And I hesitated to bring up all the nepotism business when I was writing back to you. But I did because ultimately it’s a creative storytelling issue about relating to an audience. David Letterman is worth a gazillion dollars, but he can sit there and talk to America about the small stuff and the price of gas and he’s so good at relating (or used to be) that his personal wealth doesn’t matter. He’s still got the perspective, or he’s damn good at seeming like he does. Or was. I don’t think Girls has a strong enough voice and perspective. Shoshanna is a red flag that there’s a big problem with white rich girl self-loathing, like Dunham couldn’t resist throwing in a milky dumbass princess in an attempt to bond with the audience over being the kind of girl who makes fun of girls like that. She’s not comic relief with that annoying Jewish Jabberjaw J-Dating BS.
I also gotta mention the weight thing, which is possibly the hardest thing to write about without sounding bitchy. Girls gets under my skin because in this solipsistic series, Dunham exposes her very un-Hollywood body instead of exposing her inner life. It feels weak, in a writerly way. When episodes get lost, there’s Hannah’s belly in your face, going “You can’t hate me (or my show) because I’m fat (by tv standards) and bigger than other girls (on my show).” That’s where the Dunham-Hannah line blurs and the show runs amok. A naked body carries a lot of weight (bad pun) on TV. And nudity often screams desperation. Whether big girls or silocone sluts, naked girls often mean a show is at a loss for plots and purpose.
Girls are downright nasty about weight sometimes, obsessed. And it makes them be mean, grouchy or overly grateful for male attention. We haven’t seen Hannah stay in because she feels fat. Chrstopher from The Sopranos semi-flirting with her? I don’t buy it. The published memoir writer with the dead boyfriend making all those passive aggressive remarks, which are all great, best writing on the show, but she doesn’t cap it all by telling Hannah, “You look like you lost weight”? If you wanna make a show about an overweight girl where the last episode of the season comes down to Hannah admitting that she feels sorry for herself because she’s battled a weight problem, then you have to spend the first season building up to that. Hannah was way too comfortable in her skin all season. Girls who feel fat have good days and bad days. Hannah’s days all seemed the same, so shrouded in sarcasm that there wasn’t a lot of compelling insight.
You know how girls on Facebook sometimes go “best weekend ever, baked cranberry bread, went to concert, my boyfriend got me flowers, i love my life” and we laugh because we know in real life, the weekend was not the best, the bread probably sucked, the concert probably made her ears ring and the boyfriend got flowers because he’d been an asshole? Well, Girls isn’t seeing the dissonance between what girls want others to think and see and what their lives actually are.
And that’s why the show couldn’t exist without Adam, because he and Hannah are the only two people who get to each other, who bring vitality and life and throw each other off guard. Also yes, the wigger joke was great. A lot of Adam’s one-liners could be on t-shirts. So, there’s that.
Caroline Kepnes is the author of one young adult novel, one kiddie biography of Stephen Crane, and many published short stories, some that ran in Thieves Jargon. She has written about TV for Entertainment Weekly and EW.com. Her favorite shows right now are Shameless, Mad Men, Homeland and, well, Girls. It sparks fun debates. She was born and raised on Cape Cod where she is currently spending time with her family. To the best of her knowledge, she’s the only Brown University graduate who ever danced on MTV’s Direct Effect. Her short story “The Smoking Ban” will be up soon at Fried Chicken and Coffee.
Saul Ibanez is a journalist living and working in Boston. He has reported stories on sports, business, and technology for several major magazines.