Guys on 'Girls': Two dudes debate the HBO sitcom's bleak second season

GIRLS-DUNHAM

Image Credit: Jessica Miglio

The second season of HBO’s Girls has proven to be the first great running controversy of the TV year, as creator Lena Dunham left the relative innocence of the show’s first season behind and sent all the lead characters on a downward dark-night-of-the-soul spiral. (Besides Charlie, who founded the new FourSquare or something.) Could Hannah really hook up with an attractive divorced doctor shaped like Patrick Wilson? How come none of the titular girls ever hang out anymore? Is this show even a comedy? Below, assistant managing editor Mike Bruno and staff writer Darren Franich have a serious conversation about the show and the eerily happy season finale, with all the awkwardness you can imagine when two men try to talk about female issues.

Mike Bruno: So, last night’s Girls finale – I found it heartwarming and sweet (at least after that horrid Adam-Natalia sex scene and the first 20 minutes of Hannah’s breakdown), which was a drastic change from earlier in the season when I couldn’t really understand why the hell I kept watching. I’m all for disturbing and bleak — really, I am. But there has to be some point to it all. To me, the finale said that point was to eventually bring everyone back to where they belong: Adam and Hannah, Marnie and Charlie (GAG), Shoshana and flightiness, Jessa and boho randomness. It flipped 180 within the span of one half of one episode, so I’m inclined to say it was a bit too tidy (though they did build up toward each of those conclusions throughout, it’s true).

At the same time, having the point to all the misery and bleakness and isolation be to make us feel a hokey warm-and-fuzzy joy for the final 5 minutes of the season was preferable to what had seemed to be the point of those early episodes: Lena Dunham’s response to tiny-violin criticism that her show is about whiners suffering inane white people problems.

Darren Franich: Disagree on all counts! I was way into the half-season of disturbing-and-bleak episodes — starting with the Patrick Wilson Romance One-Act and climaxing with last week’s Eardrum Rupture/Alcoholism Relapse/Marnie Singing trilogy-of-tragedy. It struck me that Lena Dunham and the show’s creators were answering the white-people-problems critique by steering right into the skid. The characters couldn’t connect anymore; the look of the show became more shadowy and austere, very Sopranos Season 6. I think the point was clear: All of these characters had spent their very young adult lives developing a self-image: Hannah as generation-defining writer, Marnie as the most successful and put-together person she knows, Shoshanna as Charlotte from Sex & the City, Jessa as a free spirit. Now life was cruelly yanking that self-image away from them: Hannah’s memoir/novel was boring, Marnie was a jobless mess, Shoshanna wanted to explore her inner Samantha, and Jessa…well, “something something daddy issues.” (Hey, the show’s not perfect.)

Lemme ask you, though: You seem to prefer last night’s episode because it was back in the show’s heartwarming/awkward/sweet strike zone from season 1. Really, it felt more like a comedy again, right down to Adam’s climax-of-a-Katherine-Heigl-movie shirtless run through the streets of Brooklyn. Do you think the show only works when it’s more sitcom-y? Is it possible you just don’t care about the Emotional Plight of the Young Brooklynite?

Mike Bruno: Don’t get me wrong. That final scene was definitely kind of cheesy, right down to the “I was always here” line they plucked out of a John Hughes movie. The real difference was this season’s lack of subtlety. It always felt like Dunham was in on the shallowness of these spoiled kids’ issues in that first season, and that allowed her to bounce through visceral topics like abortion, and sexual harassment, and alcoholism in a way that had some folks roll their eyes at the frivolousness of these poor spoiled rich white kids, but it was also a raw, interesting coming-of-age story for this new generation of urban, wealthy(ish) 20-somethings.

Yes, it was a meta Lena Dunham story, but it also had honesty. In fact, it was that honesty that led to all the criticism, because it absolutely WAS a show about young, pretty people with white people problems. This second season just felt like a reaction to that criticism and was too on-the-nose in presenting the crumbling of the identities you refer to. It didn’t feel real and it lacked soul. What’s more, unlike The Sopranos (did you really go there?), the drama in this band of kids’ lives just doesn’t merit the kind of bleakness that was shoved down my throat each week. Poor Hannah had writers block so she loses all her friends, her crippling OCD comes back and she jams Q-tips in her effing ears? Boo-freakin’-hoo, darling.

I realize I’ve used the word “kids” a number of times in describing them, and maybe there’s something to that, too. My 20s are a fading blip in my rearview at this point, so I watch this show as a representation of a generation different than mine. I’m not currently living that drama, I’ve already been through the whole find-yourself-wake-up-you’re-not-all-that crap you put behind you (or stop indulging, anyway) in your 30s, so there was a level of my being just annoyed at the assumption that I cared deeply enough about these really not that fascinating struggles with identity to find entertainment in a show that abandoned friendships and heart in its seconds season – at least until the final 5 minutes.

Darren Franich: Full disclosure: I’m in my 20s and I live in New York City. Just by saying that, I’m opening myself up to the most straightforward and maybe accurate critique of Girls: That it’s a narrowcasted show made for New York twentysomethings by New York twentysomethings. (Fuller Disclosure: I was watching the show with some friends last night, and when we got to the scene with Marnie and Charlie, we all recognized the restaurant and yelled in unison: “That’s Roberta’s!”) However, I think my enjoyment of the show goes beyond just somehow recognizing myself in the characters. Anyhow, I know plenty of mid-20s New Yorkers who claim to hate Girls, despite — or perhaps because — they themselves are practically walking parodies of character types found on Girls.

Like, when Girls is in its wheelhouse — its first season, and episodes 5-9 of this season— it’s not just about the modern young/white/artistic/annoying/urbanites’ search for identity. It’s about The Search For Identity, period. I’m not sure there’s a more universal story than that. It’s the primary subtext of Mad Men, another New York-based show exclusively about White People Problems, and it was the opposite of subtext (supertext?) on The Sopranos, a show filled with psychology scenes that basically doubled as Tony Soprano’s running commentary on his own life. And you bet I’m going there with those comparisons, although I have to give a hat tip to Film Crit Hulk for getting there first. Girls is much messier than those shows. But it’s playing in the same league, portraying characters whose primary struggle is with themselves and their own faults — and unlike all those other shows, it doesn’t gild that introspection with grabby elements like mob violence or jet-age fashion. (I guess it has the sex scenes, but it’s got least porn-y graphic sex on television. An impressive achievement, considering that it shares a network with Fantasy Hooker Boobs Weekly, a.k.a. Game of Thrones.)

If you didn’t care enough about the characters to follow them on the downward spiral, that’s a legit complaint — and I’m not sure any character besides Hannah feels fully three-dimensional yet, which occasionally makes the whole show feel like Lena Dunham wrestling with her split personalities. (It’s a spiritual sequel to Identity!) But I’m intrigued by your argument that the show doesn’t “merit” the bleakness. Do you think the show would somehow legitimize the bleakness if Hannah was secretly cooking crystal meth, or if her best friend was Meadow Soprano, or if the show was about something more “important” than just “Finding yourself”? And to get really heavy, isn’t “Finding Yourself” the most important journey we’ll all take in life? [Cue Robyn montage.]

Mike Bruno: It went too far too fast without enough heft behind it. Walter’s descent on Breaking Bad was a slow and steady one, and properly set up by a mid-life crisis toppled over by a cancer diagnosis. The crystal meth was just a symptom. “Finding yourself” is not without its own heft, but Girls went from a very effective and nuanced format to one tried too hard to prove its legitimacy and fell victim to sensationalism. Whether it was then rescued by the Cameron Crowe movie finale is up for debate, but I fear it set up a season 3 that ham-fistedly returns to the kinder, gentler Girls from season 1 in what will be another overreaction to the criticism.

I’m still not sold on Sopranos. Seinfeld and the Simpsons also revolve around characters whose primary struggle is with themselves. (Though I suspect if we look hard enough, the Internet will provide an essay making those comparisons, too – though not as eloquently as our friend HULK is capable, no doubt). Perhaps we just agree that this season was disappointing and that I am smarter than you.

I will conclude with this, before leaving you with the last word, Mr. Franich: I may not have loved this season of Girls, and I may not yet be convinced that Lena Dunham is a genius, but I do like talking about this show – this season, more than I liked watching it.

Darren Franich:  I never get disappointed by a TV show that goes ambitious, and that’s what this season was: An overstretched, flawed, utterly unique and frequently brilliant mess, filled with beautiful writing, raw honesty, first-year-of-film-school pretension, jokes about Staten Island, probably the most graphic sex act in HBO’s history, and Alison Williams believably deploying maybe two whole emotions.

Also, speaking from one dude to another, I can’t shake the simple fact that this show feels important. It’s a show about women trying to find themselves, at a moment when the American culture at large is having an important and by-nature-contentious conversation about “The Modern Woman,” whatever that means. (Future generations will refer to his as the Anne-Marie Slaughter/Sheryl Sandberg/Taylor Swift/Seth MacFarlane Op-Ed Era.) In that sense, Dunham and her collaborators are swinging for the fences in a way that we usually associate with young mid-century novelists or hotshot film directors. Is Lena Dunham the voice of her generation? No; nobody is; that whole idea is a fallacy cooked up by the new media to sell advertisements. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthy goal.

That ambition hits a nerve, which is why I think the show is so interesting to talk about. It helps that the show can’t seem to decide whether it’s a dark coming-of-age tragicomedy, or if it’s just most grittily realistic romantic comedy ever made. Truthfully, I’m not sure Girls knows what kind of show it wants to be — which is exciting and infuriating all at once. To paraphrase Shoshanna, it’s surrounded by negativity, but it’s just trying to grow into a fully formed TV show. I look forward to having more arguments with you — and everybody I know — when the show comes back for season 3.

Read more:
‘Girls’: How are we supposed to feel about Adam?
Is Girls still a comedy?
Girls recap: A Rom-Com Ending
Lena Dunham keeps her clothes on for Playboy interview

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