Plenty of TV series are populated by people behaving badly—e.g., Breaking Bad, House of Cards, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. But not all unsavory characters are created equal. Returning for its third season on Sunday, Girls has given us something different than the typical small-screen antihero: a landscape in which its pathetic characters are the biggest bunch of screw-ups, failures and general disaster areas. There's nothing lovable or endearingly misanthropic about them—and that's the point.
When Girls premiered in April 2012, it carried significant expectations. Dunham, who hadn't yet turned 26, was a rising star, having two years earlier written, directed and starred in the acclaimed indie Tiny Furniture, where she played a flailing, spoiled film-school graduate trying to make sense of her life back home in New York City. Tiny Furniture established the tone Dunham would bring to Girls: navel-gazing interest in the lives of privileged, bratty, artsy white twentysomethings. The dialogue was glib, but also observant about that period in a person's development when he or she is struggling to say goodbye to adolescence and get on with becoming a grownup.
From the beginning, Girls has received plenty of glowing reviews, with critics praising its writing, its ironic humor and its examination of Millennial hardships. But when Season Two ended in March of last year, it was clear that this sometimes uncomfortable comedy (which had started to feel more like a drama with one-liners) was never going to please a vocal percentage of its audience. For some, like Los Angeles Times critic Mary McNamara, the show's problem was that it was too calculatedly "shocking," especially when it came to the frequent nudity of Hannah (played by Dunham), whose sexual hang-ups have long been one of the show's core tenets. "[L]ately watching Girls … just makes me feel old," McNamara lamented in a 2013 piece entitled "Nudity and Graphic Sex? Lena Dunham and Girls Can Do Better." Further expressing her disappointment, McNamara added that the show made her "impatient in a vaguely maternal way, like when you see a lovely but irritating wild child running naked around the playground, shouting 'vagina' at everyone and peeing in the sandbox."
Along the same prudish lines, Bill Persky, the co-creator of the 1960s Marlo Thomas sitcom That Girl—a Girls forerunner of sorts—complained in Time that Dunham was creating a bad example for young women by depicting her character as someone who sleeps around and tries cocaine. "As the father of three daughters, one stepdaughter, two granddaughters and five goddaughters, I know that, beyond the input of our family, they are the product of the environment around them," Persky wrote. "You would think that a young female talent like Lena Dunham would be showing her generation a way up, rather than reinforcing the idea that it's cool to be down."
These sorts of grumbles have an inescapable air of tsk-tsk-tsk—of an older generation scolding a younger one about the ways they "should" be creating their TV shows. (And to be fair, it's hardly just older people taking Dunham to task: Gawker and Defamer have made a habit of criticizing Dunham's white-hot media image as a Millennial spokesperson, mocking her show's dependence on "white people problems" for its storylines.) Of course, Girls sets itself up for such handwringing precisely because it's so unapologetically brash—it's enjoyed riling up the easily offended from the start. Early in Season One, Hannah's bohemian friend Jessa (Jemima Kirke) pondered getting an abortion, an event that was accompanied by zero moralistic brow-furrowing. In Season Two, Hannah's on-again/off-again boyfriend—the moody, recovering alcoholic artist Adam (Adam Driver)—made his new girlfriend Natalia (Shiri Appleby) get on all fours before he had rough sex with her, which provoked some fans to describe the encounter as rape. ("Did what Adam do constitute rape? That's hard for me to answer," Dunham said later about the scene. "I'm a rabid feminist. And no woman should ever be placed in a sexual situation that leaves her feeling degraded or compromised. … To me, it seemed like a terrible miscommunication between two people who didn't know what they really wanted.")
The problem with complaining about Dunham's deliberate provocations—or moaning about the show's narrow focus on a certain type of young urban dweller—is that it ignores how ambivalent Girls has become about its characters. The show's detractors huff that Girls needs to grow up, but that's exactly what it's done—if we're patient enough to look past its irony and attitude. Slowly, Dunham has shifted her protagonists from being simple navel-gazers into legitimately troubled individuals. Even more impressive, Girls has made it clear that their failings are their own doing. Consequently, the show has become an unsentimental portrait of twentysomething life. Unfortunately, even Girls' fans don't seem to appreciate this.
When previewing Season Two for Entertainment Weekly early last year, Dunham declared, "If you loved what we were doing last season, then we're speaking right to you. If you hated it, then I'm afraid things aren't going to change." But that wasn't true: In Season Two, Hannah and her gang's quirks got progressively less adorable as the reality of their flawed behavior started impacting their lives. Hannah, whose toxic self-involvement was initially meant to signal her creativity as an aspiring writer, started drowning in her once-dormant OCD just as a writing career was starting to blossom. Marnie (Allison Williams)—the show's "conventional pretty girl"—was exposed as someone who for too long has relied on her looks and long-term boyfriend, the safe and loyal Charlie (Christopher Abbott), to protect her from becoming a self-sufficient adult. Meanwhile, Jessa burned through a doomed-from-the-start impulsive marriage and visited her equally childish father, which only convinced her that her restlessness was a genetic trait, inspiring her to run away from New York.
Among the Girls girls, the deeply insecure Shoshanna (the youngest of the four) might actually be the most put-together: She came to realize that her early-30s boyfriend Ray (Alex Karpovsky) was an angry, negative loser and dumped him. But just like with everybody else on Girls, Shoshanna seems a long ways away from happiness.
That last statement might strike some as curious: After all, at the end of Girls' last season, didn't we leave Hannah back in the arms of Adam and Marnie reunited with Charlie? But Season Two's final episode, with its seemingly romantic happy endings for Hannah and Marnie, was really a brilliant feint. The show's advocates missed the boat by taking the ending literally, in the process giving Dunham little credit for her creative coup. Writing for Grantland, Molly Lambert wrongly argued, "After Adam broke down Hannah's door and cartoonishly came to her rescue, there should've been a moment like the one at the end of The Graduate, where you see Ben and Elaine sitting on the bus together, already no longer sure that busting up Elaine's wedding to run off together was the right idea, wordlessly contemplating whether it might in fact have been a terrible, irreparable mistake." (That's silly: Hannah and Adam don't have the realization, but everyone watching them at home certainly would.) Off the mark in the opposite direction, Vulture's Kaitlin Phillips gushed, "Girls hasn't been much of a fairy tale this season, but pinch me if Adam isn't the shirtless Prince Charming of our generation!" And another Vulture writer, Margaret Lyons, argued in a self-explanatory piece entitled "All of the Couples on Girls Should Break Up" that "I just cannot root for any of the romantic pairings on Girls. You are all terrible for each other!"
Yes, they are. And I'd bet that Dunham knows that. Anyone who's been watching Girls carefully has noticed that happiness rarely visits for long. On Dunham's show, impromptu weddings crash and burn, possible career boosts fizzle out and when a character finds a potentially great love interest, he or she inevitably screws it up. (Deep down, Adam knows he's too tormented to be with the wonderful, mature Natalia; likewise, Hannah's sex-filled fling with Patrick Wilson's handsome, understanding doctor is undone by her insecurities and by their incompatibility.) So when Season Two ended with such sweeping romantic gestures, they deserved not to be taken at face value. Even Dunham hinted at this while talking to the Los Angeles Times about the finale: "People are always complaining that there are no wins for the characters. Well, we had an episode of super-wins! It's funny. I don't experience life as being this series of downs, but I've never been drawn to writing about characters experiencing great joy and triumph. Let's just say I'd be the wrong writer for the bright side."
Hannah and Marnie (and Adam and Charlie) might think they've found happiness, but we can see the disasters they're blissfully sleepwalking into: They're retreating into unworkable relationships because adult life has proven too problematic to face. (Marnie's fate will be particularly intriguing to follow in Season Three since Abbott has left the show.)
In a sense, Girls had been building to that faux-happy ending the whole time. In Dunham's Millennial universe, dead-end or nonexistent jobs are rampant. (It's telling that one of the reasons Marnie wanted back with Charlie is because he hit it rich thanks to an app he created.) And the main characters are surrounded by adults that can't be trusted. Hannah's parents seem to have stayed together mostly out of boredom. Meanwhile, her editor is a shallow, sensation-crazed jerk. Marnie's gallery boss only cares about herself. And her onetime artist boyfriend spent most of their brief relationship sadistically humiliating her. In such a world without options or viable role models, Hannah and Adam (and Marnie and Charlie) can at least rely on each other to be dependably unsatisfying—misery always on the lookout for company.
The show's critics aren't completely wrong: Girls can be smug and narrow-focused to the point of seeming airless. It would risk being unwatchable if Dunham's observations weren't so precise, if her dissection of her characters' failings weren't so acute. But even if we in the audience didn't grow up young and hip in New York, Girls' central dilemma still resonates.Eventually, we've all got to stop staring at our navel and figure out who we're going to be. With Girls' third season just around the corner, I'm betting that's where Dunham takes Hannah and her friends next. They're stumbling toward maturity, whether they like it or not.
Photo courtesy of Jessica Miglio/HBO