In Praise of Girls

I’m pretty sure that, once Breaking Bad goes off the air this fall, I’ll be arguing that Girls is the best show on TV. It’s not the funniest (I’d give that crown to Parks & Rec) nor does it offer the most significant insights into human nature (I’d give Breaking Bad and Mad Men higher marks there) nor is it as grounded in reality as Louie (I think Girls tries too hard sometimes to remind you that it’s in Brooklyn—Charlie’s too-hip office, Ray’s coffee shop—to the point of implausibility), but it is at least as daring and cringe-inducing, if not more so, as all the series I just mentioned, and it’s certainly the most honest. Girls, for my money, does the best job of telling its story, doing so in surprising and unconventional ways. As its second season comes to a close on Sunday, now’s as a good a time as any to put it in the pantheon.

Look, it’s very easy to understand why Girls is so polarizing—the reason I think it’s so great could be the very reason you hate it: Lena Dunham. I’ve defined it as the most honest show on television because it is so emphatically her show. To like the show is to appreciate her talent, and to look forward to the show on Sunday night is to accept the fact that you are going to get everything—literally everything—Lena Dunham has to offer. When she gets naked during what seems like every episode, I get that this can be a turn off, but I admire her audacity to so frequently say “fuck you” in her own way much, much more than I am repelled by all of her tattoos. But what sets Girls apart is the fact that she realizes the show is, at its core, all about her. As selfish as Hannah is, Lena Dunham is, too; paradoxically, she is self-aware enough to understand that centering the show on her (and a character very much like her) is itself an act of selfishness. This means that Girls is by no means a tribute to the limitless joy and opportunities that come from being in your twenties in the big city. Instead, it’s a pretty thorough take-down of that idea. To accept this point, you have to stomach her best and worst qualities, her humor, her weird clothes, and her nudity—all of it. It is the most unsympathetic take on one person and her peers as you’ll see.

The fact that Girls is a selfish examination of Lena Dunham’s life, though, isn’t a terribly valid reason to dislike the show. If you don’t think she’s funny or don’t care for the story or are bothered by the fact that Brooklyn exists, that’s fine. It’s one thing to criticize what the show depicts, but another to criticize why it depicts what it does. For better or for worse, remember, you are seeing an exaggerated version of one person’s life. You can’t blame Lena Dunham any more than you can blame any artist for “writing what she knows.” A writer or director or musician or painter (or human being) is always most attuned to her immediate surroundings. Would you rather see Lena Dunham film a show about four black guys in Atlanta or about four often-obnoxious rich girls from New York? Personally, I’d take the latter, and I think that’s a very easy choice. It’s because she lives so close (physically and figuratively) to the milieu of Girls that she can be as honest and insightful as she is.

This is part of the reason I thought the initial criticism from season one regarding the lack of black characters was, frankly, bullshit. It’s certainly jarring after accounting for the normal political correctness we expect from movies and TV to not see any person of color, but it shouldn’t be that jarring, because I’m betting that if you’re white, you don’t have many friends (this is definitely for worse) who aren’t like you physically or ethnically. Lena Dunham (not Hannah) is making that same bet. If you’re praising the show for its honesty, you need to realize that none of us live in a world of perfect (or anything close to perfect) social inclusion. That’s why I enjoyed the inclusion of Donald Glover as Sandy, the black Republican, in the season’s first two episodes, and the honesty of Sandy’s and Hannah’s conversations in those episodes. If Hannah didn’t know much about her black boyfriend besides his race, political leanings, and the fact that he worked in a bookstore (and if her gay roommate Elijah, played by Andrew Rannells, had no idea what the hell was going on with Sandy), Dunham certainly understood why Hannah would act self-righteous when Sandy asked her if he was just her token black boyfriend, and calls her—and our—bluff, by showing Hannah fail so embarrassingly after her initial protestations.

Further elevating Girls is the fact that Dunham extends the same amount of sympathy (that is, zero) to the rest of her characters as she does to Hannah. As case in point, consider the most recent episode, “On All Fours,” in which Marnie sinks even lower, resorting to a humiliatingly awkward sung-through version of Kanye’s “Stronger,” and Adam’s sexual predilections get the better of him after he falls off the wagon. This is uncomfortable stuff, to be sure, and only the most recent example proving that none of these people have their shit together. (Except for Charlie, kinda, cause of that kick-ass app he developed out of nowhere. But even he can’t help himself with Marnie.)

Additionally, I have to commend Girls for its insistence on structuring its story it does (in other words, the way it wants). Girls has no interest in giving you five minutes with each of the characters every week. (This was the major flaw of the second season of Game of Thrones, a show that I think is yet to reach the pantheon, for what it’s worth.) Along those lines, I haven’t seen a better episode of television since the second half of Breaking Bad‘s fourth season than “One Man’s Trash,” a chamber episode, featuring (aside from Ray in the episode’s first minutes) only Hannah and guest star Patrick Wilson as Joshua (NOT Josh) that reminded me of Ingmar Bergman’s best movies in its simplicity and Woody Allen’s in its refusal to adhere to any semblance of your traditional formula for a romantic comedy. It was no surprise to discover that Hannah and Joshua were at such different stages of emotional maturity and that both had completely divergent conceptions of what honesty and normalcy mean. That Lena Dunham followed this isolated episode with two more—Adam’s and Ray’s trip to Staten Island in “Boys” and Hannah’s and Jessa’s train ride upstate in “Video Games”—is just further proof that she’s telling her story.

I could close with finding one specific scene or moment from Girls to sum up how highly I think of the show, but that wouldn’t be doing the show’s universe justice. For one thing, it makes incredible use of New York (and not just Brooklyn, as “Boys” demonstrated). The show feels more a part of the city than something like Mad Men, for example (though that’s in large part due to when Mad Men takes place). I love the music; it would take two hands for me to count the songs I’ve downloaded after hearing them in various episodes. I love the guest stars, who come from different acting traditions and backgrounds: the aforementioned Patrick Wilson, Andrew Rannells, and Donald Glover, Ben Mendelsohn, Rosanna Arquette, Carol Kane, Chris O’Dowd, Kathryn Hahn, and the Lonely Island dude who plays the weird artist (and if Marnie’s father is not played by Brian Williams, I will be incredulous). Simply put, it’s the best and most-inclusive artistic version of one person’s life story that’s out there today.

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