HBO’s Girls continues to walk a dichotomous tightrope: its sympathy for bubble-dwelling white Millennial princesses and its simultaneous recognition of the people who find their entitlement repulsive.
Given the context of showrunner Lena Dunham’s real-life adherence to all strains of progressive tribalism, I wonder if the moments of self-awareness are unintentional and the voice of reason really is meant to be seen as oppressive. Whatever the intent, the premiere of Season 4 leans more toward compelling than hate-watchable—a return to form after Season 3’s weak showing.
Sunday’s episode “Iowa” serves as an establishing shot, confirming each character is moving by the inertia of their choices seen in the last episode, “Two Plane Rides.” Hannah (Dunham) is fleeing the real world for a creative writing grad school program. Marnie (Allison Williams) is messing around with a taken man and pursuing a career as a singer-songwriter. Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) is rudderless after graduating college and still pining for Ray (Alex Karpovsky), the now-prosperous ex-boyfriend she dumped for nebbishness. Adam (Adam Driver) is making small strides in his acting career. Jessa (Jemima Kirke) is the only wild card. As yet another employer lets her go, she is, again, adrift more than any of the other leads.
Of the two extremes in Girls, the pro-Millennial elements remain dreadful and grating—its main characters providing the most effective MRA propaganda in the media world, if you didn’t know the source.
In the opening scene, Hannah is out for dinner with her parents, surely on their dime, and she toasts them with a passive-aggressive “thank you” for the years and resources they spent keeping her fed when she could have been supporting herself. “It seemed like you were criticizing my choices and doubting my talent,” she says—accusing them of the cardinal Boomer sin! That, and her mother’s microaggression a minute earlier, suggesting self-control instead of an order of french fries. Later, Marnie reinforces this theme as she melts down at a gig for a detached brunchgoing crowd. She wails: “People aren’t even paying attention, they aren’t even listening.” Finally, Jessa lashes out at Hannah for her move to Iowa—not, as any of the male characters reason, because it’s a nonsensical lateral move, but because it means she gets to have fun that Jessa won’t.
On the other hand, the script savages the characters with merciless judgment. As Marnie cries on Elijah’s (Andrew Rannells) shoulder about her concert’s failure, he replies, with a great show of affection, “This business is not for sissy bitches.” [Elijah does have the advantage of getting to spout politically incorrect wisdom because he’s gay; he says of an ex-boyfriend, “New York is such bullshit. If he lived anywhere else… he’d have already killed himself for being so small and gay.”]
Guest star Natasha Lyonne has a scene-stealing monologue—better material than she’s had to deliver in either season of Orange Is the New Black—where she chews out Jessa, caretaker to her mother, for helping the elderly woman with a failed suicide attempt. Her biting Gen-X critique of Millennials—the first generation who heard adults say “You’re special” and didn’t understand it meant “you’re stupid”—pours out with righteous fury somehow amplified by her impossible wardrobe of suit jacket, baseball cap, and no pants.
And then, of course, there’s Adam, who the showrunners remind us is supposed to be an “asshole” but is actually the most compelling male character on television. While Hannah drifts from season to season hoping to find a path of least resistance to a lasting chemical high of happiness (of her move to Iowa, she chants desperately to her reflection, “You did what you needed to survive”), Adam has been an example of self-discipline and principled living, a would-be folk hero to Reddit’s Red Pill community. With a Broadway play and national TV ad in his resume, he’s auditioning against Hollywood leading men. He reflects on it, saying it’s the “first time I’ve ever looked in the mirror and wished that something looked different.” This contrasts well with a fit he throws over his performance in an antidepressant commercial; he’s a perfectionist, wholly dissatisfied if his work doesn’t live up to expectations. He knows he can always work harder, but he’s not once been dissatisfied with a face he can’t change.
And speaking of faces, Adam puts on a brave one as he and Hannah prepare to shift their romance to a long-distance one. After assuring her they’ll keep in constant contact with technology, he warns her in another scene that he’ll be terrible over the phone. Of course, he’s really warning her that he won’t give her the same excitement as the people she’ll live with, which he must know will be the end of her affections—despite his often superhuman devotion to her, impetuous ego and all.
For all the foreboding, “Iowa” gives me hope that Girls’s writing is back in good form. Last season relied too much on gimmicky changes in scenery, but the premiere kept its dialogue witty and its character moments subtle. For example, we see Shoshanna’s obnoxious divorcee mother, Ana Gasteyer, who apes her daughter’s motor-mouthed dialogue in a fight with her father over who gets her college diploma in the mail. Gasteyer’s wild-haired bohemian look gets its payoff in a later aside from Shoshanna: “female folk singers remind me of being carsick when I was little.”
As my colleague John Nolte has documented over the last few months, Lena Dunham is rather boorish when removed from the filter of a TV studio and collaboration with much more seasoned pros like Jenni Konner and Judd Apatow. Unlike Girls’s tendency to critique its own characters, any negative reaction Dunham gets for obvious trolling becomes a travesty, and her attitude toward the innocent “Barry One” damaged by her—at best, careless, at worst, libelous—nonfiction can best be summed up as: Haters gonna hate, shake it off.
These offscreen antics make me fear that at any time, Girls could devolve into a 30-minute Tumblr feminist rant with better production values. We know one male cast member already left the show because he didn’t like the direction his character was going (he had finally grown a spine and tasted financial success, so my guess is the next step would be to make him an abusive monster); I can easily see Dunham dropping the brutal self-evaluation or, worse, making it a villanous rather than correcting force. Yet for now, Girls possesses enough redeeming qualities to make it an illuminating study of Millennial culture, and my fears could be proven wrong, as the political correctness of today’s colleges could be too much even for Hannah.
Watch the preview for Girls, Season 4, Episode 2: