This week on Dear Television:
Your Urine-Soaked Life
By Phillip Maciak
January 16, 2014
DEAR TV superfans may remember that I really liked the Natalia arc from last season. I liked the actress — Shiri Appleby — who played Natalia. I liked the challenge this apparently “together” character posed to the group, and I liked that this challenge felt organic and real. (Given the show’s aspiration to some kind of realism, it never felt like Natalia was a contrivance.) I liked the way Natalia challenged Adam’s grody proclivities and potentially even represented a generative splintering of the tunnel vision that is this show’s subject. I liked how her plotline brought the show to a really genuinely engaged discussion of sexual assault, aesthetics, and television in the critical sphere. It was a good move, I thought. But she got left behind.
One of the possible trajectories of this show — and one still alive to some extent or another — is the slow or catastrophic dissolution of the hermetic core that has so frequently been criticized as too insular, too privileged, too much. (The fatal flaw of the Girls hater has been the assumption that Lena Dunham doesn’t know her show is myopic.) In this spirit, it’s been frustrating and fun to watch possible Extinction-Level Events — like Donald Glover’s much-touted black Republican or Kathryn Hahn’s achingly, soulfully harried mother — hurtle toward the series only burn up upon entry into Planet Horvath’s atmosphere. Coming so late in the season, and with such force, I had the momentary premonition that Natalia could have been a direct hit.
Alas, no. And the very possibility made the rest of the gang shore up their defenses, circling wagons, so to speak, in a way that went so far over the top it felt regressive. Marnie and Charlie were back 2getha 4eva, and Adam ran a thousand miles to save Hannah from a mental illness we didn’t previously know she had. It was rushed, it was tonally dissonant, and it threw Natalia to the curb as abruptly as she appeared. We hated it. Lili made a convincing case last year that the finale was using the rom-com tropes at its disposal to produce an intentionally conflicted tragic ending. And a number of other critics made arguments that Girls was fully aware of, and even actively parodying, the rom-com closure of the ending. (I don’t dispute Dunham’s self-consciousness — I just don’t buy that the ending was ironic.) But it wasn’t the way the plot resolved — of course Adam and Hannah are getting back together — so much as the tone with which it resolved that sat uneasily with me. Had Dunham taken the lead of her sap merchant boyfriend — whose arena rock single soundtracked that montage — and turned this weird, sexy, dirty, post-mumblecore, post-SATC, dystopia into a Fun song?
Yes and no. At the very least, it’s given us reason to distrust the show formally — in a way we’ve never had to — at the start of the third season. Are we, in other words, being misled by Girls? The show now operates for us, as viewers, with a persistent unresolved chord at its foundation. When “Females Only” begins with Michael Penn’s score veering into Lisa Loeb territory, it sounded to me like the score from Jaws. The too-good-to-be-true rom-com ending of the last season has us waiting for the other shoe to drop, and — I still can’t tell whether this is good or bad — it still hasn’t. The episode opens with the return of Natalia to tell Adam off, to narrate acts we didn’t see from last season, to deliver a full-throated — though tonally ambiguous — riot act. (Aesthetically, this scene looked like two human actors berating two cartoon characters.) And the cold open ends with all that mess out on the table. But, notably, it all just sits there, virtually unacknowledged. This show is working on the tensest representation of happiness I’ve ever seen. By the time Hannah’s editor bites into his coffee cup, I was ready for blood to start pouring out.
But I’m always ready for Girls to break bad. And I have to say that it’s getting tiring. We’ve written a lot about the wrong-headedness of critics who perceive Dunham to be self-aggrandizing or overly privileged. The show is about privilege, we shout! The line about being the “voice of my generation” is a joke, you fools! I still agree with all of that, but I’ve been let down too many times now to trust myself. In other words, if Girls opened up a credibility gap in the finale of the last season by taking a hard right turn into The Mindy Project, it’s also opened up a credibility gap between Phil the Critic and Phil the Viewer. Girls has frequently and wonderfully surprised me — the bottle episode with Patrick Wilson, the amazing Alison Williams karaoke performance — but it very rarely is what I always claim it to be at heart. That is, for all the hay I (and we) make about Girls being this harsh but ultimately humanist indictment of this group of terrible people, that indictment mostly only exists — if at all — at the level of subtext. The thing that happened with the snappy Fun musical cues in the finale was so puzzling because it felt like the show declaring an editorial opinion. And it wasn’t the opinion I thought the show had.
All of which is to say that Girls is far more committed to our near passive spectatorship of the foibles of this group — and this group only — than it is to making its characters atone for those foibles. Perhaps that makes it more watchable. Perhaps that makes it more generous. Because it flirts with critique, however, because Natalia is not even remotely wrong, because, like Lili, there’s no reason not to agree with Jessa’s counselor, the tension we feel when we watch Girls can also feel a little like guilt. Maybe it’s the kind of guilt we’re (maybe) supposed to feel in the exhausting last hour of Wolf of Wall Street or the kind that Michel Haneke forces down our throats in Funny Games. Maybe it’s that old HBO guilt of making us root for the redemption of little monsters who probably won’t redeem themselves.
Girls is still funny. It still looks great. Alison Williams gets better as an actress every season, and Lena Dunham gets more confident as a director every season, even if that makes the show’s lines a little cleaner than I’d like. But the characters, as AHP points out, have remained pretty static. She writes,
But just as it’s wrong to expect too much change or redemption or growth from these characters, it’s probably equally wrong to be as pessimistic as to their development, however subtle, and what it might communicate to those who identify with the show.
And I think that’s really right. Dunham refuses to let her characters bottom out. (Jessa and Marnie both hit fake or even constructed bottoms.) Or she lets them hit bottom and learn the wrong lesson. (Is Adam really the solution to Hannah’s mental illness?) Girls has been haunted by higher paths, other options, growth opportunities for three seasons now. And AHP’s right that there’s no reason to think that any of these characters will ever embrace those options or listen to their prophets. I keep saying this is a show about myopia. It’s also almost about a lot of other things. It’s almost about Natalia. It’s almost about responsibility. It’s almost about redemption. At the end of “One Man’s Trash,” that gorgeous bottle episode last season, Hannah takes out the trash and leaves the brownstone. The episode ends and we never speak of anything that went on in that brownstone ever again. Girls is always threatening to expand itself, to change, but it always turns away at the last moment. In the middle of “Females Only,” Hannah starts to make a reference to something Natalia said in her screed against Adam. He interrupts, incredulous: “Are you really going to bring up what Natalia said?” Hannah apologizes. She’s not going to bring up what Natalia said. But Lena Dunham wants us, at least, to remember that she said it. Who knows why.
Any dot com you wanna put it on is gonna be great by me,
By Lili Loofbourow
January 16, 2014
THE THIRD SEASON of Girls opens with Hannah and Ray discussing the aftermath of a breakup in the show’s version of New York. At stake in their chat, which is partly about pessimism, optimism, and what constitutes (to use Ray’s phrase), “real life,” is what kind of fictional NYC is. Hannah says it’s inevitable that Ray will run into Shoshanna again. Ray counters that it isn’t: New York is big, there’s no reason for their paths to cross. When Adam walks in, it’s clear this conversation about exes was a setup for Adam to run into his ex (and possible rape victim), Natalia, and her pal played by Amy Schumer. In an exchange laced with hypothetical babies (“she’s pregnant!” Schumer says of Natalia, who admits she isn’t but casts aspersions on Hannah’s ability to feed a baby), Natalia excoriates Adam while Schumer (who’d been egging her on) says “you’re better than this.” Adam may not like confrontation, but it turns out the show’s Big Apple is exactly as small as Hannah says it is.
It’s fitting, then, that almost every shot in the first two episodes of Girls feels slightly overcrowded. Marnie Marie’s mother’s apartment seems punishingly small for the amount of yelling that goes on there, and our first shot of Marnie shows her tossing and turning on a couch that isn’t big enough. Shoshanna wakes up squirming away from a boy on the top bunk while his roommate sits on the bed below. Hannah and Adam have enough room, but barely: Ray appears to have moved into Adam’s old apartment, and Adam begs Hannah not to bring her friends over to “invade our space.” The only person we see alone and uncompressed is Jessa, who, unobserved, throws a dish in the garbage instead of washing it.
One effect of this is that we visually experience Adam’s claustrophobia, which functionally (and this show is nothing if not interested in sympathetic experiments) aligns us with him. When Adam manages to generate a weak “I think what you think” in response to Shoshanna’s vapid plan to alternate academic and party nights (which Hannah calls “smart and strong and feminist”), we share his unstated reservations. And the sympathetic experiment spreads: when Marnie denounces love, Adam bursts out of the shackles of social propriety to talk about his Colombian ex from Columbia. That wasn’t real love somehow, he says, despite his impassioned list of memories. When you find it, “you won’t hurt, or be afraid, OKAY?” he says. It’s intense enough that we briefly share Marnie’s smile: she’s flattered and grateful for what she calls his “frankness” and Shoshanna, in a moment when she’s similarly moved, will call “dementedly helpful”.
None of this changes the fact that Adam increasingly reacts to his compressed conditions like a caged animal, pounding the radio off during the road trip, escaping the car altogether a bit after Hannah complains Shoshanna’s rocking chair is “so pointy it’s like not giving me any room to express myself. My head’s stuck.” (“What are you doing?” Hannah asks. “Hiking!” he yells, but even this is couched as a gesture of helpfulness: he’s interrupting the typical road trip to help Hannah find material for her book.) Poor Shoshanna thinks she’s gently introducing Adam to Truth or Dare by daring him to kiss Hannah. Seconds later, he’s trying to cum with her in the room. Most importantly for the second episode’s theme of “helping,” though — and where helpfulness comes from and how it works (a theme they underscore by having Ira Glass explicitly narrate it) — Adam thrashes against what he perceives as a feminine network of insincere obligation. He indicts it as perverse and the opposite of helpful.
At this point we could get to the usual questions: what are we supposed to do with Adam The Rapist vs. Adam the Romantic Hero of the Season 2 Finale? What weight do we assign his opinion? Here he is, arguing against the network of friendships on which the show is built — the relationships that faded from view by the end of Season 2 as each character grew more and more isolated. Is Adam warning us against whatever pleasure we take in seeing them as a (toxic) ensemble again? (For me, there’s lots!) Should we accept his warning or should we recall — as several characters point out — that he himself has no friends, and seems unwilling or unable to enter into any kind of relational economy? Is he just pointing out to viewers what every critic has already pointed out — namely, that these are manipulative, unpleasant people with less than pure motives, and that the show knows that? Finally, what do we do with the fact that the figure who has been both a rapist and a romantic hero is voicing these critiques with which we frankly agree?
It’s a smart rhetorical move; let’s get that out of the way. At this point, I’ll state my usual feeling — possibly a copout — which is that all these characters are terrible people, and that there’s nothing of interest to be gained, either as a viewer or as a critic, from that fact. Woody Allen won a Lifetime Achievement Award just last weekend largely for being a terrible person whose insightful rants in his capacity as terrible person have been found entertaining. Charisma is manipulative, and Jessa, like Hannah (and unlike Marnie, who is wholly uncharismatic) is one of the great manipulative horrors of our televisual time. (By the way, that first scene at Sheltering Winds raised an amazing hypothetical for me: what if we were watching an episode of Girls on the set of Enlightened? What if those two brands of narcissistic oversharing were to cross over?)
Leaving Adam’s moral authority to one side, there are elided tragedies aplenty in these two episodes, foremost among them how criminally the show underused the extraordinary Danielle Brooks. If every Girls premiere needs a black character in order to simultaneously address and undermine the charge of racism, all I can say is it worked the first time and not the second. Republican Donald Glover was brilliant at exposing the limits of Hannah’s political consciousness and the distance between her self-awareness and the show’s. Brooks’s Laura is different. We already know Jessa’s brand of magical terrorism; we know that she’s gifted at spotting damage and is an emotional savant: she may have thought (and this is a generous read) that in introducing Laura to lesbian sex she was being generous. The show even leaves open the possibility that it worked: we never see Laura again, so we have no way of gauging the effects of Jessa’s intervention. “It was practically charity,” Jessa says, smirking — and maybe we’re supposed to see through the smirk to linger quizzically on that “practically,” maybe we’re supposed to wonder whether Jessa is coyly confessing that she is herself a lesbian. Maybe we’re supposed to see through her claim that “you can’t make things that mean nothing mean something.” The trouble, for me at least, is that I find myself identifying with the horrified counselor. I’m done reading through Jessa. I just don’t care. The show hasn’t rewarded our deep readings of her in the past.
To the extent that the show teases us with pretty formulations and then strips them of context and legitimacy (this goes back to the days of “All adventurous women do”), the takeaway is kind of dull. It amounts to this: the worst people are often the most brilliant, the most apparently insightful, but their insights are bankrupt. This is true of Ray, it’s true of Adam (we all think this relationship is doomed, yes?), it’s true of Hannah, and Jessa, and it was made literally true by Jessa’s British friend, whose wisdom, restraint, and capacity for friendship and surrogate fatherhood evaporated into sheer ugly need, the way an addict’s will.
Still, what the show does well is juggle need, and it’s a particular relief that this season starts with an apparently reconstituted Hannah. No tics. No Q-tips. No compulsions. She’s happy, productive, normal. As a result, we’ve never been more distant from Hannah, who — at the end of last season — had become a sort of Girl, Interrupted Meg Ryan whose “romantic” ending we were tricked into almost cheering for, even as we understood it was a horrible mistake. I still think it’s a mistake, and I hope my reading of the finale is the right one, but this season opens with Hannah still living inside the romcom, awash in smug “I love you babys” and maybe even literal babies (I don’t know what we’re supposed to make of all her trips to the bathroom).
Hannah’s happiness is crazy. It’s as if she was genuinely “fixed” by Adam. Again, for the moment, I’m reading through the show in hopes that it’s smarter than that. Here’s why: whatever else we might say about Jessa’s dismissal of Laura’s molestation — and her suggestion that “pussy” will fix everything now — the show’s amnesiac approach to trauma seems brutal but strategic. We’ve basically forgotten Hannah’s dark spiral a few minutes into the show. It’s been transformed from damage into “material” for her book. (Hannah and her editor biting into their cups seems like an especially good metaphor for this.) Marnie has transformed whatever actual pain she may once have felt into a performance of pain; whatever it may be now, it’s sufficiently uncompelling that her own mother dissmises it (horribly, but rightly) as totally generic. (“This is the first of twenty guys!” etc.) It’s Adam who never quite leaves his damage behind and therefore remains human somehow and able to actually help: “if you want to go to a meeting sometime,” he says in a self-deprecating way to Jessa, and there’s a slim possibility she might take him up on it.
Girls isn’t exactly in the business of theorizing friendship, but these two episodes are really invested in the fact that Adam doesn’t have any friends and is nevertheless (or therefore) the best helper of the bunch. A bunch of characters make this point. “We are really giving of ourselves being models of female friendship,” Shoshanna says in the car, but her approach is basically greedy — she wants Jessa in her graduation photos. Hannah hopes above all else for Jessa’s gratitude and fails to help when help is being explicitly asked for: “This isn’t the appropriate time to discuss my incredibly exciting professional endeavor,” she says when Marnie’s feeling particularly low but (a little passive-aggressively) toasts her book. Jessa tries to help Laura. The counselor tries to help Jessa. But it’s Adam who helps Marnie, Adam who helps Shoshanna, Adam who helps Jessa. No wonder he’s feeling overcrowded and runs out of the car’s cramped frame into the woods.
Don’t get me wrong: I dislike Adam pretty intensely, especially when he shuts down Shosh and Hannah’s game of Truth or Dare. Still, when Shoshanna wonders aloud — while admiring Adam’s nontransactional approach to relationships — what might have happened to Hannah if she’d had a boyfriend who was an “actual human,” it’s hard not to agree. Adam offers a weird kind of relief. It’s a relief that Jessa doesn’t sleep with the British dude, despite the cramped quarters and the prominence of beds in that rehab. It’s a relief, too, that in the final scene of episode 2, the car is more crowded — there are four people now, two of them cuddling — but the frame feels more open because Shoshanna’s rocking chair is mysteriously gone.
It’s really liberating to say no to shit you hate,
Truthers and Darers
By Anne Helen Petersen
January 13, 2014
WHEN I WAS A KID, every girl I know played Truth or Dare. It’s a girl sleepover rite of passage, after all, which is part of the reason that, in the second episode of Girls Season Three (released in tandem with the first), Adam has no idea how to respond when a Shoshanna, operating in full vapid teenage mode, asks him if he wants to play.
When posed the question “Truth or Dare?,” however, I almost always chose the same thing: Truth. Always truth. The idea of knocking on someone’s parents door or eating 50 Oreos was always terrifying to my shy, goody-two-shoes self; plus, no 10-year-old is devious enough to come up with a “truth” question that’s that embarrassing. But I wasn’t the only “truth” girl: there were always others, just like there were always “dare” girls. Some people like to talk (and confess); others like to do (and transgress).
If you’re a Truth person, it’s not that you don’t have Dare moments — they just make you uncomfortable, and then you need to process them endlessly. Same for Dare people: moments of Truth make them itchy and, usually, make them want to go do Dare things. It’s an imperfect way to think about personalities and what animates them, but it just might work.
Or, at the very least, it might explain some of what’s happening in Girls, which, at the beginning of its third season, has reached the point where characters seem to be reifying themselves — taking a concept and making it flesh — even more intensely than before. While talking to Shoshanna about the post-grad world, Hannah claims that college is the best because “your only job is to be yourself.” But she’s forgetting about narrative television, where a character’s only task is, really, performing character — being “themselves.”
And as seasons progress, barring dramatic soap opera-like shifts, each character settles more into his/her identity: Don Draper becomes more Don-ish; Rachel Green becomes more Rachel-ish. As viewers, we generally find it annoying, but that’s probably because it’s too similar to our own life and understanding of what’s happened to our friends and family. Part of why we watch television, after all, is to meet new people.
So when we return to Girls in these two new episodes, it’s not surprising that Hannah has become more Hannah, Shosh has become more Shosh, Jessa has become more Jessa, and so on. The charismatic attributes that drew us to them in Season One and, to a slightly lesser extent, Season Two, have crystallized into something harder, blunter, more repulsive. When Shosh tells Hannah that Jessa has a great life because “she’s beautiful and guys love her and she doesn’t even really want a job,” it’s the same insecurity that blanketed her when Jessa arrived on her apartment doorstep, but there’s something sharper, more bitter about it. Same for Jessa’s frankness in “Group” and her dismissiveness of others’ trauma. Given Jessa’s behavior over the last two seasons, it shouldn’t be surprising when she dismisses the trauma of a sexual abuse victim, but there’s something so much more cruel and unforgivable about it than mouthing off to her then-husband’s snobby parents.
In the classic three-act narrative structure, characters grow. We meet them, they face a challenge, and they surmount it; the good people become better, the confused people realize their potential, and the bad people become worse. That’s not how life works, but that’s how narrative works, and when it doesn’t — when characters remain static — that’s when we start using words like “boring” and “annoying” to describe the show.
But that static can also be enormously generative, even if it’s not as pleasurable as first encounters or triumphant character arcs. In these two episodes, our characters are more “themselves,” which makes it even easier to slot them into positions as Truthers or Darers. Hannah and Marnie are both fundamental Truthers: Hannah basically lives her life so that she can write about it, and since Marnie can’t write and doesn’t have good taste, she channels her confessions into boyfriend talk (“I want to have brown babies with you”) and unfortunate (but, for her, therapeutic) singing. She loves it when Adam tells her the story about the “Columbian” who dumped him because that sort of confession is a language she can understand. We might also call them overly cerebral, or verbal, but they’d always rather talk than do, think than change. It’s also why they’re best friends whose relationship is characterized by passive aggressiveness and jealousy: they’re too alike, which is just another way of saying that their modes of being the world unite and repel them from each other.
Adam and Jessa are, of course, Darers. Hannah explains that Jessa was that girl in college who was always dancing on the quad in rain boots in a bikini, and we all know that girl — she’s also the girl who hooks up with a random guy in a bar when she’s late for her abortion, or elopes with a dude she met two weeks ago. She’s completely reckless and the most fun at the party, and the only reason she hasn’t spiraled completely out of control is the net of privilege holding her up. Adam’s no different: he hates computers and television and “Facespace” because they’re all conduits of personal confession. As he tells Shoshanna, “I don’t catalog my mind,” which is precisely the sort of thing that Shoshanna (and Hannah and Marnie) spend all day doing. His most destructive daringness was fueled by alcohol, which he’s given up, but the impulse to be constantly doing remains. When Shosh explains just how remarkable it is that he’s been able to take good care of Hannah, it’s clear that he’s never even thought of it in terms of “sacrifice,” or really even thought of it at all — it’s just what he does. Adam and Jessa are both oppositional but necessary to Hannah: they infuriate and complete her.
Shoshanna’s the only one still in college, which is why it’s appropriate that she’s figuring out if she’s a Truth or a Dare person. Two years ago, she was all Truth: her “baggage,” her sorting into various Sex in the City characters, her spontaneous word vomit. But Ray’s devotion turned her into something daresome — the type of girl who wakes up on the top bunk of a random guy’s dorm room. Her plan for senior year (hook up one night, study hard the next) is classic senior year of college, but it’s also classic identity crisis.
I could have made some, but certainly not all, of these claims at the end of Season One, but ten episodes in, those characterizations would still be too hollow to hold weight. But after three seasons, we not only know and can make claims about these characters, but feel like we know more about them than the narrative enacts. In her post-episode HBO chat, Dunham claims that there are girls on Twitter that “know more” about Shoshanna than she does, which is another way of saying that we, as viewers, ascribe characters with meaning outside of what’s offered. Given the illusion that we know the character, we fill in the blanks with our own understanding of that type.
I do this; we all do this. I’ve always felt confident predicting Adam’s actions because I knew “that guy,” and while the four girls are less easily boxed as the four protagonists of Sex and the City, there are Marnies and Jessas, in various iterations of class and race and sexuality, all over our lives. As the maxim goes, the more specific the narrative world, the more universal it becomes.
We’ve now seen a fifth of the season, and very little has happened. Table setting; reminding us of what has happened and who these characters remain. But just as it’s wrong to expect too much change or redemption or growth from these characters, it’s probably equally wrong to be as pessimistic as to their development, however subtle, and what it might communicate to those who identify with the show. The characters of Girls might not alter their fundamental natures as Truthers or Darers — but their struggles to mature, even within those modes, might be tethered to our inability to conceive of them, or any 25-year-old, as capable of meaningful change.