Now halfway through its fourth season on HBO, the ever-controversial “Girls” drew crowds of fans for a screening of its newest episode and panel discussion at this year’s PaleyFest. In attendance were executive producers Judd Apatow, Ilene S. Landress, Jenni Konner, and Bruce Eric Kaplan, as well as cast members Allison Williams (Marnie), Andrew Rannells (Elijah), Alex Karpovsky (Ray), and of course, the auteur and creative force driving it all, Lena Dunham (Hannah).
Judd Apatow moderated the hour-long post-screening panel discussion, which covered a range of topics from politics to
“I stopped looking at my own twitter.”
Apatow opened the discussion by addressing Lena Dunham’s relatively quick rise to fame, following the critical acclaim of her first feature “Tiny Furniture” prior to her work on “Girls.” When asked about her stability among so much positive and negative commentary, Dunham said, “our focus remains on the work […]. What could be dangerous is if we became too invested in what the internet was or wasn’t saying or what awards we were or weren’t getting.” She reaffirmed that their success stemmed from the fact that “it’s always been so much about the show.”
Dunham did admit that the criticisms and cyber abuse were personally difficult to handle, however. “I stopped looking at my own twitter,” she disclosed, adding that she has now hired someone to manage and filter her account.
Improvisation Transforms Storylines
The cast discussed at length their creative process, and the emphasis they place on improvisation to approximate the show to reality. “We always get the scripted version and then we get to play a lot,” said producer Jenni Konner, while Bruce Eric Kaplan highlighted the show’s distinctiveness from shows he had previously worked on, like “Seinfeld.” “There’s a lot of effort and a desire to be truthful in this show, which isn’t always the case for a normal half-hour comedy,” he said.
The cast spotlighted Andrew Rannells’s improv skills in particular, having auditioned for the role of Elijah despite the character being written initially as relaxed, tree-hugging yogi kind of guy. “Andrew came in to audition and it was like The Beatles,” said Konner of their discovery.
Rannells revealed that his declaration of Hannah’s dad’s homosexuality was improvised, and fans were surprised to learn that this had been turned into a storyline in the latest episode. An audience member asked what other plot developments had emerged from these improvisational exercises, at which point Dunham remembered a prank Konner had pulled off in Season 1, where she had rewritten a scene as a melodramatic love encounter between Marnie and Ray’s characters, who were not involved at the time. Four years later, Dunham adapted the storyline into the show and the tangled relationship between Marnie and Ray was born.
The Hardest Scenes Are Tackled First
“Girls” has become infamous for its explicit nudity and unabashed treatment of the sexuality of its characters, which has generated both widespread acclaim and criticism. The cast has never been scared to dive into challenging scenes head-on: Producer Ilene S. Landress recalled being surprised at Dunham’s request to schedule difficult scenes early on during the first season, including the iconic moment where Hannah eats a cupcake naked in the bathtub. “[With] those hardest scenes that are at the end of a filming schedule by now we’re like, let’s just start with that,” quipped Allison Williams.
Dunham defended the show’s take on sexuality, claiming, “we really try in the show to do sex scenes that push the characters and the platform and don’t feel gratuitous,” citing the controversial rimming scene between Desi and Marnie that shocked viewers during the season opener.
“What we really saw in that first episode was that Marnie was the most vulnerable she’s ever been,” said Dunham, while Williams points out that the dialogue between the couple in the scene – Desi’s “I love that” is met with Marnie’s “I love you too” – immediately brings the viewer “up to speed with where Marnie is emotionally.” Rannells applauded how the producers “never ask us to do things that are not organic to these characters.”
“Marnie may have had the most onscreen sexual partners of any of us.”
So claims Dunham when discussing her characters. Marnie has particularly undergone a variety of experiences that have transformed her sexuality since the beginning of the show. When asked about Marnie’s evolution, Williams noted that the character was now completely different from the character she had read in the pilot epsiode. She commended the writers, saying, “you guys have done an incredible job of writing a continuous person while putting her more and more in different situations […] it still feels like her soul is there”. Williams also revealed that a scene with Marnie pleasuring herself was cut from the current season, joking: “we’re at the point now where me masturbating is boring.”
Dunham No Longer Shuns Politics
When asked about the show’s development on political issues, Dunham referenced an interview years ago where she had stated she was not a political person, emphasizing now that she could not relate to the statement at all. “It’s amazing how much you can grow and change in five years, because I don’t believe that sentiment in any way. The fact is that the natural truth of our politics comes through in what we are doing, because we can only tell stories […] not just about the world we live in, but about the world we want to live in”.
Williams complemented Dunham on the subtle and realistic incorporation of politics into the show, adding that, “it’s not didactic at all, because you have people contesting certain opinions and changing their mind and growing. That’s what makes it seem relatable.” Nowhere is this more evident than “Close-Up,” the recent episode where Adam (Adam Driver)’s new girlfriend Mimi-Rose (Gillian Jacobs) obtains an abortion without discussing her pregnancy with him first. What ensues is a tactful treatment that explores reproductive rights from both perspectives without easy answers or judgments.
Emulating “Girls” Means Not Being Ashamed to Be On Top
The event coincided with International Women’s Day on March 8, providing a perfect platform for the panel participants to celebrate women and discuss the show’s effect on female representations in television. On the carpet, Dunham stated, “We feel so lucky to be working in a landscape where there are so many shows for, by, about, women and […] we’re getting a wide range of representation that’s getting wider every single day. We just want our show to contribute to a positive sense of self and also the idea that women can be just as complex as their male counterparts.”
Meanwhile, Konner encapsulated the success of their goals by relating something a young fan once told her: “Because of you, I’m not ashamed to have sex being on top.”