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Dunham does Iowa: ‘Girls,’ Season Four

Dunham does Iowa: 'Girls,' Season Four

Girls is back for Season Four this Sunday, and everyone is better now! Just kidding. No one is okay, and a new level of creeping-adulthood panic is setting in.

Of the many criticisms of Lena Dunham that annoy me, the one that gets leveled at this show consistently — they’re all so self-absorbed! — is the most frustrating. Girls is a portrait of a particular age and place with a liberal sprinkling of satire; it’s not a showcase of Dunham’s actual level of self-awareness as a 28-year-old writer and director. Her recently released memoir Not That Kind of Girl, in all its neo-Nora Ephron glory, introduced us to a more thoughtful (if definitely similar) sensibility from the artist herself. And her show certainly runs circles around Entourage, which trafficked in an equally narcissistic, blind-to-personal-faults crew — and, as I seem to recall, mostly got a pass from critics for its good-time, look-at-the-tits ethos. 

On a broader scale, I often think of Dunham as aspiring toward the Woody Allen school of comedy, and I don’t recall him being written off as a hack because his characters were too self-involved. (“The heart wants what the heart wants,” Allen’s explanation for his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, is tossed in an episode here as, I imagine, both homage and indictment.)

But I digress. We follow Dunham’s Hannah to the Iowa Writers Workshop – AKA nirvana for aspiring novelists – and surprise, surprise, it’s not all she dreamed it would be. (Her elated shock at non-New York rental prices, though, is hilarious: “What can I get for $800?” she asks, predictably, when shown a perfectly nice place for $250). Her writers’ group turns out to be full of exactly the kind of assholes you imagine might gravitate toward the program – which is why they accepted Hannah, of course. The problem is, she’s not writerly in the right way, and she’s cripplingly thin-skinned. When she reads them her first story — a nearly nonfictional account of a sexual encounter with Adam — her smug expectation that they’ll be blindsided by her honesty quickly turns to outrage when they uniformly tell her it’s clichéd. In other words, she gets another dose of the real world.

But what also happens — and what’s still reliably great about Girls — is that Hannah does get a few moments of clarity, and abandon, and she (well, Dunham) manages to get in some zingers about the prevalence of male privilege in fiction-writing and the lack of respect for the female perspective, as well as the over-reliance of MFA-toting novelists on a certain accepted selection of plot tropes. Just because Hannah’s a whiner doesn’t make any of that less true.

Back in New York, the other three are also discovering that life doesn’t hand you happy endings — and that what can feel like a radical change doesn’t mean that your life is magically going to change for the better like in the movies. Jessa (Jemina Kirke) is finding that, even as a sober person, she still can’t help being a jerk. Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) is no longer a motor-mouthed, business-minded college student; she’s a grad who’s so irritating nobody will hire her. And Marnie (Allison Williams) is writing songs, and sleeping, with the noxious Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), telling herself she’s not his mistress “if we end up together.” Their music is getting them noticed, but their relationship is so obviously headed for bad times it’s hard to look at them straight.

The other thing I noticed about the episodes was a general sense of rage building up. Not only in our four leads – though Hannah’s exasperated, drunken takedown of her writer group is pretty great, especially her deployment of the phrase “manic pixie dream girl pseudo-Weetzie Bat bullshit,” but also in the tertiary characters of Girls: the boys. Ray (Alex Karpovsky) is having a quintessential New York breakdown: The city has installed a new, badly functioning traffic light on his street corner, resulting in a nonstop cacophony of honking. Elijah (Andrew Rannells) shows up at Hannah’s Iowa apartment, exhausted from trying to be hip enough for NYC – and quickly finds an artistic milieu in Iowa in a way that Hannah seems incapable of. And Adam (Adam Driver), who’s attempted to befriend Jessa because they attend the same AA meeting, finds himself swept up in one of her “fuck the man” moments he wants no part of.

Natasha Lyonne also has a terrific cameo as the daughter of Bede (Louise Lasser), the wheelchair-bound artist Jessa’s taking care of (after helping her try to kill herself). The dressing-down Jessa gets from Lyonne’s character – which amounts to “why is everyone in your generation such a spoiled brat?” – seems drawn straight from critiques of the show itself.

Watching these episodes, I found their mood to be prescient about the state of both New York and the country right now, considering it was all written and filmed months ago. Not that the show takes on the issue of race – though it does name-drop “stop and frisk” – but I think it does have a good read on our collective anxieties. And equally importantly, Dunham is forging ahead despite the type of credibility-assailing criticisms that are rarely leveled at male comic auteurs (including her producer, Judd Apatow). Both reasons make it worthwhile to tune in for the show’s new season on Sunday – or do what Hannah would, borrow someone else’s HBO Go password.

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