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by Alison Willmore
June 19, 2012 1:10 PM
12 Comments
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'Girls' and the Question of Likability

Jojo Whilden Lena Dunham and Adam Driver in 'Girls'

No one could ever hate me as much as I hate myself, okay? So any mean thing someone is going to think of to say about me, I’ve already said to me, about me, probably in the last half hour.
                            --Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham)

Halfway through this first season of HBO's "Girls," which came to a close this Sunday with a wedding that was as much a surprise to the people on the show as the ones watching, I gave up defending the characters to anyone who didn't like them. It was tiring, having to argue that Hannah (Lena Dunham), Marnie (Allison Williams), Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) were supposed to be young, lost and idiotic in the way of many a mid-twentysomething who thinks she knows more about how the world works than she actually does.

"Girls" was never about giving a stamp of approval to its characters' lifestyles or choices -- it was about depicting them in all their ragged-edged, agonizing and sometimes painfully entitled splendor, as the four slowly crawled their way toward something resembling adulthood. You didn't have to like the things they did to recognize and empathize with them (though if you weren't able to achieve the latter, I can see how the show could be intolerable).

HBO Lena Dunham in 'Girls'

Do we really need to like characters in order to enjoy the show they're on? We probably wouldn't want to hang out with the most memorably realized protagonists in the past decade of TV. "Breaking Bad" has spent four seasons showing us Walter White's (Bryan Cranston) sickeningly slow slide into undeniable villainy, "Mad Men" has for a hero an emotionally closed-off serial philanderer, "The Sopranos" was all about teasing possible self-awareness for its central New Jersey mobster, only to slam us back with reminders that people don't change or improve or shift from what's comfortable.

As a semi-employed Brooklyn would-be writer, Hannah has a lot less going on than those guys (and is less outsized than an abrasive comedy cohort like Kenny Powers) but she's also fumbling her way toward some kind of hard-earned, realistic life lesson. And as the show itself noted when Hannah went to that reading organized by her old writing professor Power Goldman (Michael Imperioli), the idea that big themes like death are the only important ones is both ridiculous and a trap -- it's having the ring of truth that counts, and like it or not, "Girls" has had that like few other contemporary pop culture depictions of young women.

Hannah's an oblivious fuck-up who holds other people to different standards than she holds herself because she's thinks she's earned it through self-loathing, but she also winningly soldiers on through humiliations and mistakes and earns a few rare moments of happiness because of it. After face-planting off a bike in the middle of industrial Brooklyn, for instance, she finally lands her oddball love Adam (Adam Driver) in the ensuing argument, in which he points out that while she's seen herself as waiting for any sign of affection from him she's never asked him a single detail about himself or her life or what he wanted from her in a relationship. And even then, she finished the season having accidentally ended up at Coney Island, her purse stolen and her boyfriend having refused to let her come with him to the hospital after he got hit by a car, eating leftover wedding cake on the beach a little worse for the wear than when she started things in episode one.

Part of the hostility with which "Girls" has been faced is due to the fact that we're just not used to seeing genuinely flawed female characters -- most female protagonists in mainstream film and television still wake up with full faces of make-up already pre-applied and are either coolly competent or have for their major weakness ditziness, clutziness or a taste for junk food that never seems to go to their hips. And they're usually right, which is why people have assumed that "Girls" most also approve when its main character throws a tantrum because her parents are cutting her off after two years of financial support -- because that could possibly be part of the joke.

"Girls" hasn't been a completely smooth ride -- the first three episodes were, I thought, fantastic, while the latter ones have been more mixed, as an apparent need for plot has come into the forefront with Marnie acting out post-breakup with Charlie (Christopher Abbott) and Jessa wreaking havoc on her boss Katherine's (Kathryn Hahn) marriage. Jessa's spur-of-the-moment "secret party" that turned out to be the occasion of her marrying Thomas (Chris O'Dowd), the obnoxious finance guy who picked her and Marnie up at the bar hoping for a three-way a few weeks ago, also seemed inexplicable. The character is prone to acts of impusive troublemaking (consider her picking a fight with the "crusties" at the Bushwick party), but this not only came out of nowhere it was impossible to parse -- was she actually somehow in love, or was this a calculated act for financial support or a visa? Coming right after Katherine's lecture to her on becoming the person she's destined to be, it seems the two incidents have to be connected, but how?

But the progression of Hannah's relationship with Adam has turned into the bittersweet center of the show, one that's gone from awkward but explicit sex to cautious hope to heartbreak, this time caused by Hannah as opposed to her enigmatic beau. One of the themes of "Girls" is empathy, and how often its main characters are so caught up in their own problems they don't see other people clearly -- not a likable quality, but one that's part of growing up.

In the finale of "Girls," Hannah misreads Adam's casual suggestion that he'll move in with her as a favor, and asks her now gay ex Elijah (Andrew Rannells) to fill in as her new roommate instead. It was an understandable mistake, but one that ends up angering Adam so because of her doubt in him that it actually puts him in the hospital. "Girls" is Hannah's show, after all, much of it told from her slightly subjective perspective, and it's never felt so much so as when she ended up there on the beach, penniless, upset and legitimately the asshole this time. But hey, at least she has cake.

12 Comments

  • Mille | February 12, 2014 7:22 PMReply

    Whenever a show becomes a huge success like Girls, some people always think they are above it.

    In stead of making a good objective review of the show they draw their personal feelings into it. They hate the show, for whatever personal reason - most commonly because its about well off people with problems, the main character is fat and annoying or they feel some of the characters are unrelatable.

    They mostly talk about how stupid the show is and make gestures that indicate only dumb people would be able to enjoy it, and I suppose this makes them feel better.

    We get it, you think you are incredibly smart. You could have made a way better show, and the only reason you haven't is because most people are idiots.

    Kudos to you and thanks for your "constructive criticism".

  • warren | June 20, 2012 5:06 PMReply

    as a 40-year old swm, i can say that i love the show. it's not original in terms of concept, but dunham's writing is so honest and enjoyable that it makes every episode fun.

    yes, the wedding in the finale seemed to come out of nowhere and i didn't buy that jessa would marry that guy, but nothing else in season 01 struck me as false.

    and i think a lot of the hate for the show comes from the fact that people don't like seeing a 25-year old woman succeed. but kudos to lena dunham for making a consistently engaging and funny show.

  • olen | June 20, 2012 8:09 AMReply

    I don't know about you kids, but I hated having to suspend disbelief for that wedding, endure those sickeningly expository vows, and pretend the friends really weren't disturbed in the least. WTF. Bad. Bad. Bad. BUT....gives the whole series a new element of fantasy that could be interesting.

  • Jora | June 20, 2012 9:30 AM

    Agreed completely. The show has become so tonally spotty that it's difficult to watch. The best episodes of the season in my mind were the ones where Lena allowed co-writers and guest directors to collaborate with her. I think she's a talented filmmaker with real vision, but I'm not sure she has the experience to maintain a consistent tone episode to episode. If we're gonna stretch and shatter believability that's fine, but don't hit viewers with ultra-realistic for 50% of the season and pull them down the rabbit hole for the next 50%.

  • bababab | June 20, 2012 7:38 AMReply

    hating yourself for your flaws does not make your flaws acceptable. you don't have to find the characters of a tv show likeable to enjoy the show but i personally struggle to even watch certain parts of some of this show because i am so consumed with embarrasment and hatred. the character of Jessa is not only the most irritating person on the show, she is also the most unrealistic. she is straight out of an episode of 'skins' (a show with a much more unrealistic grasp of young peoples lives yet inexplicably praised for its grittiness by middle aged reviewers, teenagers who wish their lives were as glamourous, and americans who think they are watching something cool because it's english). she is awful and sums up what is wrong with the show. the great bits of the season are subtle moments, normally featuring Hannah and Marnie, that quietly reveal something about the goodness of the characters at heart (on a very, very basic level), their motivations and their cluelessness but i thought the last episode was the worst and most heavy handed of the run, and had very few of those moments. the whole wedding element of the plot was so bad,Hannah and Adam's relationship is much more interesting and much more developed, but no, the show spent ages focussing on the most one-dimensional and least likeable character getting married to some random character brought in at the last minute because she is such a crazy character and she's getting into all these scrapes because she's just trying to find herself etc etc. half of this show is good, and is saying something valuable about the generation of twenty-somethings it features, but the other half is just your usual run of the mill, fairly dull and meaningless tv comedy. the latter really negates the former. I think a film like Funny Ha Ha does what Girls tries to do much more effectively, though it is quite different.

  • Mea | February 12, 2014 7:04 PM

    I never read a comment about a tv show with that much self entitlement. Those are obviously your own personal feelings, made from your own experiences in life. You fail hard at making an objective standpoint people can benefit from.

    I mean come on - how would you know if anonymous reviewers are middle aged, teenagers or americans, and even more so what they long for in life?

    You say "hating yourself for your flaws does not make your flaws acceptable" That is just stupid. "Flaws" are a matter of opinion, what you see as a flaw might not be a flaw to me.

    I assume you think free spirit characters like Jessa are "unrealistic" because you don't know anyone like her, and because you can't identify with her you believe people with those characteristics doesn't exist.

    My guess is that you are the one who think Girls and Skins are "unrealistic grasp of young peoples lives" because you compare their lives to your own. You assume its only people who don't have exiting real lives who are able to enjoy Jessa's character, and the plot on Skins. People who "wish their lives were as glamourous" but I suspect these are actually your own emotions because you once again can't identify with neither characters or plot.

    Oh and saying "americans who think they are watching something cool because it's english?? That's downright disgusting, you are basically saying all Americans are simpleminded idiots.

    Get over yourself.

  • Alan Jones | June 19, 2012 4:53 PMReply

    I've read a few analyses on that final scene of Adam not letting Hannah into the ambulance, and a surprising amount of them seem to put the blame on Hannah. Yes, she could have handled the apartment situation better and, yes, it's nice that the character of Adam has been fleshed out. But let's not forget that we still don't know everything about Adam, he's a consummate weirdo, and he probably has some anger control issues. Didn't anyone else find that "when I commit to something, I really fucking commit" line a little overbearing?

    Other than that - yes, it's a good show that reveals a certain demographic's lifestyle with a surprising amount of truth, and it's detractors seem to hold up its flaws (of which there are, admittedly, many) as if they necessarily detract from the season's moments of brilliance (of which there are also many).

  • Luis | June 19, 2012 4:25 PMReply

    "Girls" is well-made, bubblegum trash. Just like "Tiny Furniture". Simple as that. The type of stuff that people watch because it makes them feel smarter than they actually are. Both follow the tired template of typical film festival fodder: privileged twentysomethins soul searching for meaning, shot in apartments/lofts, public parks and NYC bars, scored to annoying indie soundtracks, and being vaguely meta to their hipster genealogy. I think it'd probably be another three to four years before people start feeling embarrassed that they once cared for this shite.

  • Jim Tushinski | June 19, 2012 4:05 PMReply

    A great analysis of this very funny and touching show. The backlash, which started even before a single episode had aired, has less to do with the quality of the show and more to do with the dumbed down expectations around comedy most Americans have and the fact that complex characters with issues apparently are way too subtle for some folks. And yes, I'm sure the fact that Girls is about...well..girls...is behind a lot of the criticism. I fell in love with Lena Dunham when I saw her film Tiny Furniture, one of the few recent films I watched again as soon as I finished it. Maybe I was more prepared for her singular voice and vision because of that. Here's hoping the backlash's backlash has begun.

  • WOODSYOU? | June 19, 2012 3:55 PMReply

    I love GIRLS. I interpreted differently Hannah's reaction to Adam's offer to move in. I think she couldn't handle such a commitment to the relationship and found an easy way out. I think she felt that Adam liked her more than she liked him, which was a first for her. I could feel her changing once he offered.

    Love you writing.

  • Williamsburgaterian | June 19, 2012 3:06 PMReply

    If the show was spoken in a male voice from a similarly entitled perspective I don't see it garnering as much critical conversation. The fact that the female voice is causing this much discussion is a sad sad state of the current media writing.

  • FOOL | June 19, 2012 5:29 PM

    But don't you see that it's the female voice that's so enticing? One of the best moments of the season (in my opinion) was Jessa's and Marnie's conversation in the eight episode (I think). The scenes weren't incredibly intricate or bold, just two women talking, but their mannerisms and words were identical to a real conversation. They were slightly bitchy about their friend and still nice people. It's incredibly rare to see an exchange of dialogue so true to life on TV, and it's a bonus that it also captured the difficult voice of a woman.