[A version of this review appears in a recent edition of the Rutland Reader.]
Girls is not a show I particularly love. Unlike other series, I don’t google casting updates between seasons, or spend inordinate amounts of time discussing it with friends or on social media. It still a good show, a great show even. It’s smart, funny, emotional, and, at times, surprising.
The main reason I watch Girls is because it’s an important show. It’s relevant, and has interesting things to say about modern American culture, feminism, sex, growing up, and the Millennial experience. Since its debut on HBO in 2012, the series has been the subject of scores of thinkpieces — both championing and decrying its boldness and message. (Spoiler: most of them aren’t all that thoughtful.)
The lens through which we observe these issues is an exaggerated one — this is a sitcom, after all — but series creator and star Lena Dunham has a surprisingly deft hand and keen sensibilities for someone so early into her career. And she’s smartly surrounded herself with pros like Judd Apatow, Jenni Konner, Bruce Eric Kaplan (Six Feet Under), and Paul Simms (Newsradio).
Part of Girls allure is its rawness. Emotions run high, character conflicts aren’t always black and white, and there is hardly ever a clear winner. Fights are messy and dumb and real; as they tend to be when you’re in your early 20s and still figuring out how to be an adult human.
That rawness is also front and center in Dunham’s creative choices. Sex and nudity is not intended to titillate. Rather, it’s awkward, funny, and occasionally shocking. Girls has gotten a reputation for turning out gasp-inducing sex scenes we’ll all be talking about the next day. Some deliver — a scene of rough sex in a previous season pushed the TV envelope for both its tone and graphicness. Others no so much — the much-discussed analingus scene in the season four premier played for shock was hardly risqué at all. (As Jezebel noted, we reached “peak butt” back in 2014.)
A major knock against the show is all its Millennial navel gazing. This is a show about children of privilege. White children of privilege. These characters are whiny, lazy, and ill equipped to deal with the harsh world on the other side of college and their parents’ bank accounts.
Watching Girls can be a frustrating, cringey experience. The four main characters are selfish, entitled brats. At least once per episode, you want to reach through the TV and shake some sense into them.
But that’s the point. That’s the great thing about this show: it’s as critical of Millennial malaise as any tongue-clucking, Baby Boomer-penned trend story. The only difference is Dunham addresses it with an insight and firsthand knowledge that contextualizes her generational cohort (of which I am a member) while simultaneously drawing out the universal angst and fear of becoming adult that cuts across the generations. Yes, that angst and fear is still very much rooted in #FirstWorldProblems, but that’s the milieu Dunham has chosen to work within.
So when Hannah consoles a sobbing college student by saying, “I’ve seen a lot of things. I’m 25 years old,” Dunham is playing for laughs.
A more sincere line comes earlier in the same episode, when Hannah summarizes her decision to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — a major life choice that moves her out of New York — by saying, “I feel like I made the right decision, which is a totally new sensation for me.”
Discovering that certainty, knowing you are on the right track is a new sensation for someone in her age. That’s part of growing up, and Dunham captures it perfectly.
Still, over the course of its run, Girls has had a tendency to dither. Episodes tend to function as short stories. Seasons are held together loosely with several arcs, but the sum has not always been greater than its parts.
As season four opens, it offers a bit more direction as well as a much-needed shakeup in location. Hannah is now living in Iowa, a decision that has been met with mixed emotions from her friends back home.
Recently sprung from rehab, Jessa (Jemima Kirke) resents Hannah for leaving, accusing her of running away. It’s Jessa’s way of telling Hannah she needs her, but it’s a selfish reaction that Hannah rightfully dismisses.
The distance has put Hannah and Adam’s (Adam Driver), relationship on the backburner. Like Jessa, Adam needs Hannah. Despite their occasional volatility together, they did reach something approaching stability last season. With this new pressure as well as their self-destructive tendencies, it’s not clear if these two will be able to make it work.
Fresh out of college, Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) has had little to do so far this season aside from watch Scandal and not understand how collect phone calls work. Her brief appearance was nonetheless funny.
Marnie (Allison Williams) is still pursuing her awful dream of being a folk singer and home wrecker. While the show has done a lot to intentionally tear her down since season one, it hasn’t succeeded in making me care about her at all. In a series of often tiresome characters, Marnie is the worst. It’s hard to say if the problem lies in Williams’ acting or in the writing, but her arcs are consistently the weakest parts of the series.
Hannah, meanwhile, seems to be finally taking her writing seriously. Getting into Iowa is a big deal. It’s the kind of challenge she desperately needs. However, as she settles in, it’s unclear if she’s up for it.
Dunham does a great job seeding doubt in Hannah about her talent. If she wants to be a great writer, she’s going to have to work at it. Her first story critique is brutal. Her classmates savage her story while Hannah sits in shock. (I’ve been there. It sucks.) Dunham perfectly captures that hot, sinking feeling of not being as good as you think you are. I will, however, be disappointed if Hannah washes out. It would feel like a step backward for the character and for the show if it squanders this season’s potential for growth.
The story critique also works as meta commentary for the series itself as the others slam the piece for being blatantly autobiographical and a shallow exercise in white-girl privilege. It’s another case of Dunham knowing exactly what her critics are saying, and throwing it back at them.
As Girls settles into season four, it finds itself at a crossroads. Hannah and company, now in their mid 20s, are growing up whether they want to or not. Dunham, too, is growing as an artist. It’s still unclear if this season will find the direction the series and its characters so often lack, or — as Adam put it in his toast to Hannah’s move to Iowa — be yet another step “in a series of random steps.”
Girls airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.