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How ‘Girls’ Became the Most Frustrating Show on Television

How 'Girls' Became the Most Frustrating Show on Television

In an interview with “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross last September, timed to coincide with the publication of her book, “Not That Kind of Girl,” Lena Dunham offered a surprising insight into the sense of stasis that has plagued “Girls” since I reviewed it, rather lovingly, at the end of season one:

“[T]he span of time that we’ve covered [in] the show is much shorter than the span of time in which I’ve been doing the show. So [Hannah]’s grown less, both chronologically and emotionally, than I have since we started. She’s only had one birthday since we began.”

“Girls,” a series so of-the-moment that it functions as both the target and the purveyor of fatuous “Millennial” stereotypes, has nevertheless always appeared to take place out of time — even at its most quotidian, it unspools according to the dreamlike rhythms of “One Man’s Trash,” where Hannah (Dunham) spends the weekend lolling in bed with an older man (Patrick Wilson), but which seems as it proceeds as though it might be a few hours, a day, a week. Dunham’s remarks on “Fresh Air” reminded me that I’ve watched “Girls” for nearly four seasons without much more than a vague idea of the characters’ ages, personal histories, family lives, passions, ambitions, skills. All I know for sure, after 40-plus episodes, is that “Girls,” like the girls, is stuck.

This is not to say that nothing happens. In the course of the series, Hannah, Marnie (Alison Williams), Jessa (Jemima Kirke), and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) have scheduled abortions, planned suicides, smoked crack, endured Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, entered rehab, changed careers, started relationships, ended relationships, moved to Iowa, moved back from Iowa, and made it through (by my count), one wedding, one divorce, and one death, a dramatic two years or so that—and this goes to the heart of how “Girls” became the most frustrating show on television—seems to have transformed them very little, except in the most superficial of ways.

“I’m wondering how late is too late to change,” one character says in an upcoming episode, amid yet another rapid cascade of events, and perhaps the hidden genius of “Girls” is how clearly its structure expresses the stalwart belief that no one changes, not really, not ever. The mystifying inconsistency, with three or four forgettable toss-offs for every showstopper; the trouble bringing each season up to speed and the trouble sticking the landing; the fact that the series’ finest episodes tend to be set beyond the characters’ exceedingly narrow daily existence: “Girls” often seems like one of those wayward “Millennial” types, self-absorbed, directionless, and confused.
Indeed, for all its gestures at realism when it comes to a particular place (Brooklyn) and time (the present), “Girls”—”the voice of [its] generation, or at least a voice of a generation,” as Hannah describes herself in season one—proves so maddening because the series remains locked in these familiar patterns, even though the one feature that might actually define the generation that came of age during the digital revolution, the War on Terror, and the Great Recession is a profound sense of rupture. “Let’s forget who we are,” Hannah tells Elijah (Andrew Rannells) when he surprises her in Iowa and suggests attending a campus party, but in “Girls” the notion that “who we are” might itself evolve, instead of simply being remembered or forgotten, goes largely unexamined.

And so while this season’s dreadful fourth episode, “Cubbies,” sees Hannah return to New York to discover that her boyfriend, Adam (Adam Driver), has taken up with an artist named Mimi-Rose Howard (Gillian Jacobs), the state of affairs remains almost eerily similar to all that came before. Hannah abandons the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Marnie struggles to make it as a musician, Jessa searches for adventure, and Shoshanna embarrasses herself in an interview at McKinsey: the details may have changed, but the unshakeable core remains, for all continue to resist even the slightest hint of criticism, never admitting that life might be something other than a long, impatient period of waiting for self-fulfillment to arrive. “You’re pussying out on this whole thing,” as Jessa tells Hannah in the season premiere. “The thing that we’re all trying to do, which is make it work regardless of location, right where we are.”

Is this all “Girls” has been for four seasons? A quartet of characters determined to remain right where they are, not only unable to develop but also, inconceivably, unwilling to try? In a way, Dunham’s right. The girls have “grown less, both chronologically and emotionally,” than she has since the series debuted: unlike Dunham, an accomplished actor, director, and writer at age 28, they haven’t grown at all.

After “Cubbies,” I resolved to quit “Girls,” resigned to the fact that a series which had once presented such bracing possibilities for that old trope, young people in the big city, had instead become as enamored of its own fixed ideas about twentysomethings as any tired sitcom. As is the series’ wont, however, the very next episode, the extraordinary “Sit-In,” snatched back my flagging interest by stripping away all the narrative detritus of the excursion to Iowa and reviving the vein of honest emotion that has defined “Girls” at its best—in “The Return,” “Welcome to Bushwick a.k.a The Crackcident,” “One Man’s Trash,” “Boys,” “Beach House,” and “Flo.” 

As Hannah hides in her former bedroom, attempting to process the news about Adam and Mimi-Rose, her friends come one by one to coax her out, and each conversation—funny, combative, rambling, loving—suggests, for the first time this season, the balance of stasis and change that seems to me to define the transition that occurs between entering your twenties and nearing their end. Jessa, for instance, speaks with the same barbed narcissism as always (“Why aren’t you in Idaho?” she asks), but she also acknowledges the fresh pain of being abandoned. “What were we supposed to do,” she says, after revealing that she was the one who set up Adam and Mimi-Rose, “sit around flicking our clits until you came back?”

For all the ways in which the characters are recognizably themselves, “Sit-In,” and even more so Sunday night’s superb season finale, “Home Birth,” holds out the promise that they’re also, haltingly, moving forward. Indeed, though much of the fourth season seemed lost in the wilderness, its mature, earnest conclusion, introducing a hopeful new stage of life for all concerned, once again roped me in—I’ll be there for the fifth season, of course, cautiously optimistic once more. I suppose “Girls” really is like one of the girls, then, often frustratingly aimless but always somehow capable of coming through in the clutch, a friend from whom I’ve grown distant but to whom I remain unexpectedly loyal. I can no more quit “Girls” than I can simply sever my relationship with a college classmate who’s no longer as integral to my daily life as he once was. I can only let the series drift, free to make choices of which I do not approve, confident that it will eventually come back into focus. Just like old times.

All four seasons of “Girls” are now available on HBO GO.

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