WATER COOLER TV
Is a Controversy-Free ‘Girls’ Still Worth Watching?
No longer the lightning rod toasted by critics, blasted by conservatives, and defining a generation, the show is finally in a think piece-free stage of growing up—and better for it.
At various points over the last five years, Girls has been the most exciting new comedy on TV, and it’s been overhyped. It’s been feminist, brave, and groundbreaking. It’s been alienating, racist, and too racy. It’s been the voice of a generation.
Now, it finally gets to just be a TV show.
Sunday night’s Season 5 premiere of Girls arrives, for the first time, outside the zeitgeist. The award-winning critics’ darling—and conservative whipping boy—is settled and confident, and no longer the shiny new thing.
Once the generator of so many think pieces it might single-handedly be responsible for turning online pop culture criticism into self-parody, it now bubbles under the radar. (As much as any show created by Lena Dunham, who has turned her designation as human megaphone for millennials into a gig as one of Hillary Clinton’s most visible and vocal campaigners.)
The critical handwringing—and, good lord, the think pieces—have moved on to other lightning rods. Godspeed, Amy Schumer. Fare thee well, Broad City.
It’s a testament to all that Dunham and her bold, insightful brainchild have accomplished and said over the years that the creators that she has passed the torch to are now fanning its flame of controversy.
It’s also a relief to now be able to enjoy the show’s world, its carefully built and utterly singular characters, and its voice—be it of a generation, or just simply interesting—without the noise of its capital-‘m’ Meaning drowning out its pleasures.
When Sunday night’s episode picks up, Marnie’s getting married.
Credit Lena Dunham and her writing staff, including co-show runner and partner in zeitgeist-seizing crime Jenni Konner, with creating polarizing characters less concerned with that ugly TV word—“likability”—than with reflecting a type of human we know exists but cringe at instead of adore, most likely because we’re afraid that if we look too hard, we’ll see too much of ourselves in them.
Marnie is selfish, entitled, and incredibly smart, but cripplingly delusioned. She’s so pretty you almost hate looking at her, which magnifies the ugly sides of her personality all the more. Marnie’s been called different versions of the “worst” or “most hated” characters on TV, thanks to her penchant for overconfident leaps of faith that typically end with her crash-landing in mortification.
The writing, though, has always made her interesting. Allison Williams’s surprising acting skills have always made her human. And you can only imagine Marnie at her wedding.
She’s characteristically insufferable. But then so is Dunham’s Hannah, who hates weddings, and thinks they’re selfish. If nothing else—though it is many things: a portrait of female friendship, an examination of aimless New York millennials, a questioning of how we define happiness for ourselves and others—Girls is a fascinating study of self-absorption and the effect it has on these characters’ lives.
As Marnie’s mom, a hilariously batty Rita Wilson asks her daughter after one of Hannah’s misplaced temper tantrums, “Marnie, why do you even bother with this girl?” And then, in disgust at the flower crown Marnie wants to wear down the aisle: “Honestly, you look like a Starbucks cup.” (In Girls, even the grown-ups get to be pithy.)
Aside from the epic fragility of Marnie’s chill as she prepares for her wedding—and the revelation that her fiancé, Desi, has been engaged seven previous times and is having cold feet on this eighth try—there is an unsettling feeling of, well, being settled among this typically self-destructive cast of characters. And, as any student of Girls knows, that can only mean that they’re all ticking time bombs.
Resigning oneself to peace and stability does not suit the zealous, combustible millennial. Uh oh, we’re getting think piece-y again. Does not suit these millennials.
Hannah is still working at a Brooklyn school, perhaps the most steadily she’s been employed in the entire time we’ve known her. She’s in a remarkably healthy and happy relationship with Fran, played by Jake Lacy, who has now entered into a battle royale against Adam Driver for supreme hipster adorableness.
For all the Star Wars fame that Kylo Ren has brought to Adam Driver, it’s great to revisit the role that brought him to the world’s attention, the mumbling big ol’ lug with the even bigger heart. He’s realizing his crush on Jemima Kirke’s Jessa, Hannah’s good friend and therefore a doomed coupling. Jessa, as ethereally beautiful as ever and, more importantly, sober, is hesitant. But there’s too much of a spark there to be extinguished so easily.
Zosia Mamet’s Shoshanna, whose arrested development is all the more fascinating as she becomes more and more hyperaware of it, is on wedding hiatus from her new job in Japan where, based on her Tokyo-inspired new hairdo and the confident calm that underscores her typical hyperactivity, she is blossoming. (Episode 3 will follow her journeys in Tokyo.)
For an episode that sees best friends scream at each other on a wedding day and a groom nearly walk out on his bride, there’s a remarkable amount of happiness. The girls are growing up.
The fact that Girls might not be as buzzy as it once was isn’t an indicator of any drop in quality. The show is still, and has been over its recent seasons, as excruciating, self-aware, thoughtful, and ambitious as it was during its early water-cooler reign. It has matured, but it is still dark and funny, its characters flawed, and its depictions of sex and friendship startlingly but refreshingly bleak.
Lena Dunham is no longer just a voice of a generation, either. She’s also a supremely skilled actress. She makes every scene Hannah is in captivating. Her line readings are delightfully unexpected, and, while so many other players in long-running series dial up their characters into loud caricatures as their shows trudge on, Dunham still feels very in control of the hurricane of ambling angst that is Hannah Horvath.
Gone are the controversies. Gone are the think pieces. Gone is the responsibility of standing for everything for everybody. But more evident than ever is the appeal of Girls.