'Girls' and the Question of Likability

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).

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.

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