'Girls': How to fix it
Entertainment Geekly is a weekly column that examines pop culture through a geek lens and simultaneously examines contemporary geek culture through a pop lens. So many lenses!
On one hand, I’m not sure Girls needs fixing — which seems like an appropriately ambivalent way to start an essay about fixing Girls, since Girls is a thing about which few opinions are uncomplicated. When it debuted in 2012, the HBO twentysomething drama was variously hailed as “revolutionary” and “not as good as you think,” the standard point-counterpoint reaction to Important TV Shows.
The best things you could say about it were very good indeed — it was a new kind of television, produced with a new kind of voice, telling stories rarely told in the dude-heavy Golden Age of Television. (The worst thing you could say about it was that it was a much better version of How To Make It In America.) And everyone agreed that it was Saying Something Important — about women, about twentysomethings, about how the internet has ruined us all, about New York, or at least our cultural-consensus understanding about what New York means.
It never got huge ratings, but it was a big hit in the buzz-generating demographics: media people, young people, old people desperate to understand and/or decry the state of young people. Star-creator Lena Dunham became a cultural force. The first season earned Emmy nominations, won Golden Globes. The second season earned mixed reviews but started conversations: The show was too dark, it was losing focus, how come they never just hang out anymore? I was a season 2 defender — or maybe an apologist — mostly because I thought that “One Man’s Trash” was one of the best episodes of television I had ever seen. But the season ended on a strange note: A regressive happy ending, which was maybe in quote marks.
Midway through season 3, it’s not like the show is bad, per se. This year, the show feels less unhinged. It’s more recognizable as a sitcom now, complete with guest-star relatives and playing-themself celebrities and The Character Who Can’t Sing But Sings All The Time and that inevitable Joey-Rachel moment when two lead characters who were never love interests suddenly become love interests just because. (RIP, Marnray.) The show’s writers seemed to decide that characters need some stronger foundation than Eternal Existential Crisis, so Jessa has a job and Adam has a job and Hannah has a job. Everyone realizes that with Adam Driver they struck gold, so Adam occasionally feels like the center of the show — an understandable but admittedly weird development for a show called Girls.
There have been eight episodes, and one of them (“Beach House”) was flat-out stupendous, and none of them have been terrible. If Girls‘ goal is to be just an exceptionally idiosyncratic sitcom — the Friends of Williamsburg, exclusively starring theoretical Chandler-Phoebe bastard children — then that goal has been achieved. And there is something fundamentally worthwhile and good about a series that’s mostly female on both sides of the camera. There are parts of this season that vibe unquestionably like post-success inauthenticity — “Sorry, Patti Lupone, I really need to interrupt this interview to take a phone call, and then receive wisdom from you!” — but it could run this way for years.
But the show is missing something now. It lacks the confessional edge that made season 1 so compelling and season 2 fitfully brilliant. It still has funny things to say about New York, but all those funny things have an unmistakable cocktail-party stench: book-industry in-jokes, magazine-industry in-jokes, Broadway in-jokes. The three non-Dunham female leads are all caught in weird ruts: Their characters barely seem to be on the show, and they barely seem to want to be on the show.
And the show seems to realize this: Part of what made “Beach House” great was the explicit meta-acknowledgement that the four lead characters never hang out together and barely even seem to like each other. “Beach House” returned to the idea that Girls is all about watching these girls figure out who they are. So they cycle through personalities. Jessa is a drug addict or she’s not; Shoshanna wants to party all the time or she doesn’t; Marnie wants to be a singer or a mom or she doesn’t. The show seems to want us to groove onto this existential journey to discover their core. But the possibility exists that they don’t have a core. It’s getting almost abstract, Four Girls in Search of an Author. (ASIDE: It’s a strange comparison, but season 3 of Girls constantly reminds me of John From Cincinnati, a TV show that was entirely populated by archetypes who didn’t want to be archetypes and so became blanks. John From Cincinnati was great, you guys. END OF ASIDE.)
I want the show to be great. But more to the point, I suspect that the creators of Girls want it to be great and Something That People Talk About. Dunham is a model of self-deprecating celebrity, but I take her ambition seriously: I think she wants to be the voice of her generation (or at least a voice of a generation). So before the show goes completely onto semi-decent autopilot — before Adam Driver becomes the Star Wars guy and Allison Williams starts reading NBC sitcom pilots and Dunham achieves her destiny of perpetual Person of Interest-dom and Zosia Mamet’s band achieves its destiny of becoming Hipster 30 Seconds to Mars (or Hipster Dogstar) — I would like to put forward an idea (in the grand tradition of Boardwalk Vampire) for a minor narrative tweak with major repercussions. There is a very simple fix that will guarantee that people will be talking about the fourth season of Girls and will further cement the show’s place in the grand history of its medium:
Make Girls about the making of Girls.
Part of the intrinsic fascination of the show has always been the relationship between the fictional Hannah Horvath and real-life Lena Dunham — and the third personality at the center of the Venn Diagram, “Lena Dunham” as a creative personality. (See also: Liz Lemon, Tina Fey, and “Tina Fey.”) There are some clear differences between the Hannah and Dunham: The former an everygal from Michigan, the latter enough of a true-blue New Yorker that The New York Times wrote up her high-school vegan buffet. But the most obvious difference between the two is also the least obvious: Lena Dunham is the creator of an HBO TV series, and Hannah Horvath isn’t.
Currently, Hannah’s paying the bills writing sponsored content at GQ — a nominally more “realistic,” or at least more relatable, profession than “writer of unpublished twentysomething e-book memoir thing.” But a few weeks ago, Hannah turned 25. When Lena Dunham was 25, she was starting to work on Girls. My proposal: Go fully autobiographical and give Hannah her own show-within-a-show. Maybe an HBO executive reads her unpublished e-book; maybe she starts a Tumblr and a major network pays her money to turn said Tumblr into a TV show, which has totally happened. Girls season 4 would find Hannah writing and performing in a semi-autobiographical TV show — and she would be joined by Marnie, Shoshanna, and Jessa, all playing fictionalized versions of themselves.
I realize this sounds A) unlikely and B) like the sort of loop-de-loop wormhole that only hardcore Dan Harmonites would even consider. But there is significant precedent for sitcoms going meta. Jerry and George spent Seinfeld‘s fourth season working on a pilot for NBC, which was called Jerry but was literally just Seinfeld. The Jerry arc gave the show the opportunity to indulge in very funny in-jokes, but it also gave the writers an opportunity to engage in the kind of savvy self-deconstruction that defines all truly great long-running TV shows:
The loop-de-loop continued the seventh season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which had the best season of its declining years when Larry decided to stage a Seinfeld reunion as an elaborate scheme to get back together with his ex-wife. In turn, the reunion-within-a-show focused on George’s attempt to get back together with his ex-wife. (At one point, the fictional Larry David “played” George Costanza, a character created by and based on the real Larry David, and now I have a nosebleed.) And it’s worth pointing out that Girls’ fairy godmother Sex and the City played around, briefly but memorably, in the land of Meta-Commentary:
On a pure plot level, making Girls into a portrait of the making of Girls would add an important central motivation for all of the characters. Most of the non-Hannah “action” of this season has focused on the other three ladies attempting to come to terms with the kind of person they want to be. What better way to dramatize that then to force them to relive actual events — to see their 25-year-old selves re-enact events from when they were 23? There would be an inherent frisson to watching Girls season 4 occasionally restage moments from Girls season 1: Perhaps Hannah’s fictionalized alter ego, who for the sake of the space-time continuum we’ll call “Lena,” would portray the early stages of her romance with Adam, played by Adam and named Adam like all iterations of Adam Driver.
This wouldn’t just be a nifty Back to the Future 2-esque trick — although it would be that. One of the best things about Girls has always been how Dunham and her writers have a clear eye for how young people relate to their own self-created persona in the era of social media. Meta-Girls would just be the logical endpoint of this. Would Hannah make herself look better? Or would she go out of her way to look worse — “Weak and soft and dressed like baby,” to quote Blerta?
Many of the defining TV protagonists of the last decade of TV drama have lived double lives, and Meta-Girls would put a radical spin on that concept: What does it look like when Hannah plays herself? How would free-spirited Jessa feel about becoming “the free-spirited one” on a TV show? Would Shoshanna get upset that she gets reduced to comic relief? You can see Marnie and Hannah getting into creative arguments that mirror their personal arguments. You can see Hannah and Adam having relationship problems — and then Hannah would write those relationship problems into the show, which would lead to more relationship problems.
And that’s another thing: Making Girls into a show about Girls would also let the writers comment directly on the various cultural reactions to Girls. They’ve done a bit of this already this year — Jezebel references, the final drunken argument in “Beach House” — but imagine if Hannah had to actually face the various uproars that Dunham herself has faced. There could be an entire episode set at TCA. There could be an episode wherein Hannah responds to critics who complain her show seems to exclusively star white people. Hell, pick a complaint about Girls — that the characters are awful, that its portrayal of Brooklyn is a fantasy of gentrification, that the characters all seem to live pretty well considering that half of them are unemployed half the time — and imagine a whole episode where the girls of Girls actually talk about that very issue.
Maybe you feel like turning Girls into a behind-the-scenes show would betray the series’ budget-Brooklyn style. But the show has already taken slight moves towards showbiz. Hell, the most recent episode was halfway to Smash. Adam has been cast in a Broadway show. Marnie had that YouTube video and still wants to be a singer, question mark? Shoshanna is about to graduate from college; Jessa appears to have no purpose in life beyond musing scornfully; even though neither of them have ever expressed an interest in acting, they’re both vaguely-artistic enough to take on the challenge, even just as a placeholder for boredom (Jessa) and typical post-college barely-employed ennui (Shoshanna). And we know that Hannah’s writing is entirely autobiographical: It makes sense that she would insist on casting her own friends, and it also makes sense that a network would let her do so for the sake of verité veracity, because again, that is actually what happened.
Not every episode would focus directly on the making of Meta-Girls. The show has always been great at breakaway short stories. Indeed, you could argue that many of its best episodes are bottle episodes. You might not like episodes like the Michigan-vacation “The Return,” or the train-trip-to-Jessa’s-home “Video Games,” or “One Man’s Trash,” or this season’s upstate-roadtrip “Truth or Dare.” Personally, I love them — probably because I’m one of the Girls viewers who prefers the show when it’s Louie with twentysomething ladies. Turning Hannah into a TV writer would let the show indulge that wandering spirit — trips to Los Angeles, brief affairs with interesting men, a whole episode about the gang riding in First Class and struggling with their newfound luxury, a whole episode about Marnie walking through the art gallery where she used to work and buying all the art with her TV money and then burning it all because guys Marnie is basically crazy now.
But if your tastes skew more towards Girls‘ scenester-Brooklyn episodes, Meta-Girls would indulge that and then some. The parties would get more elaborate. Newly-famous Jessa would single-handedly make some heretofore unhip corner of Queens into a new hipster mecca — which in turn would become a place that Jessa would despise. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Shoshanna would experience a be-careful-what-you-wish for arc: The excitement of red carpets would fade into new-celebrity anxiety. (They keep shrinking her in Party Lines!) There would be more cameos, but they would actually make sense. (In the sixth season finale, Beyoncé and Jay-Z would film a dreamlike cameo playing themselves but also kind of playing angels.)
All of the characters would still be consumed with concern about their authenticity, but said authenticity would no longer be a vague artisanal-ice-cream concept: It would be the show’s central conceit, since they would literally spend their lives “acting” as themselves. This would also heighten the importance of Ray, who would naturally refuse to be on Meta-Girls and who would, in turn, serve at the visible incarnation of anti-Girls sentiment. (Imagine what Ray would have to say about Adam’s romcom-run at the end of season 2.) And at a certain point, there would be the inevitable panic when Hannah runs out of autobiographical story material and has to start making things up — at which point she would turn meta-Girls into meta-meta-Girls and give the fictional “Lena” her own fictionally fictional HBO TV show, CUE INCEPTION FOGHORN BWWWWAMMMMMP.
Although the comparison has always been reductive, parts of this third season feel a bit like the latter years of Sex and the City, when the show’s sharp edges got softened (and the clothes all got much better.) It happens to all long-running shows, eventually. But Dunham came of age during the era of brazen mid-show reboots: Think of Mad Men‘s fourth season, with Divorced Don and the new ad agency, or Parks & Recreation, which constantly reshuffles its characters’ day-to-day life even while it maintains roughly unchanging character dynamics.
Dunham and her fellow producers have shown a willingness tomake bold, potentially off-putting creative decisions: See, Adam and Natalia and one of the most disturbing sex scenes in HBO’s boobsy history. Imagine what they could do if they really threw out the playbook, upended their narrative chessboard; if Dunham-as-Writer was allowed to explore onscreen the development of Dunham-as-Public-Figure. Girls has always had lots of savvy, intriguing, funny, sad, occasionally-unwieldly, always-fascinating things to say about women. Imagine what it could say about Girls.