Why Did the Groundbreaking Girls Have Such a Disappointingly Conventio – Vanity Fair
When I was still in my 20s, I shared a billing with Lena Dunham. We were both on the lineup for a reading series called “Refresh Refresh Refresh,” a semi-regular Friday-night event in a spa-turned-bar on the Lower East Side dedicated to writing about the Internet. What I read I sort of dimly remember. What she read ended up in The New Yorker. Dunham was the headliner that summer evening because her film Tiny Furniture had recently come out to much acclaim—she was the hot new writer-director, someone stopping by this small reading on her way to somewhere much grander. I was just some older guy who worked at Gawker. We met again at a party a few months later. I, of course, remembered who she was. She, understandably, did not remember me. Not too much later, I had a very informal meeting with an executive at HBO in which I sort of limply pitched her a show, and she told me my idea was too young for the network—that actually, the youngest they were going to go was this new show from this promising new writer-director. I asked, “Is it Lena Dunham?” And, of course, it was.
I’m telling you all this not to humble-brag about my failed flailings at writing for television, but to perhaps illustrate how many people feel about Lena Dunham and Girls: jealous, proprietary, personal, both suspicious and in awe. The show, which ended its six-season run on Sunday night, was never the voice of its entire generation, but it was, indeed, a voice, a sometimes loud and urgent one. Which made it contentious—it insisted things about a particularly tuned-in, sensitive demographic. It was daring in that way. It was also rife with problematic stuff that many critics rightfully grabbed onto. The show never grappled with race or, really, privilege in any distinct or worthwhile way, and Hannah having a non-white baby in the end doesn’t exactly do the trick in resolving that issue.
Sorry for the spoiler. I’m getting ahead of myself. Before talking about that ending, I want to establish that despite my seething envy, despite sometimes feeling frustrated—like many of my peers do, whether they admit it or not—that Lena Dunham got to be the millennial who made it instead of me, I think Girls was, warts and all, a wonderful piece of work. It was smartly made, a thoughtful and individual series that understood a certain post-adolescent feeling—a heady mix of excitement and ennui, of beauty and boredom. Dunham and producers Jenni Konner and Judd Apatow crafted an indelible portrait of a small corner of Obama-era America. Or, if not a portrait, a reflection, distorted and strangely filtered but still defining. That it outlived that era by a few months and was forced to end under a very different political temper, thus making that reflection seem a bit out of tune, is not its fault. (The final season was shot before the presidential election’s hideous outcome.)
All that said, I hate how the show ended. After a run of contemplative, narratively inventive episodes, Girls closed out in disappointingly Apatovian fashion. Hannah, a complicated and inconsistent character, wound up in a dismayingly conventional place: normalized by a baby, subject to the same woes of parenthood that we’ve seen iterated time and time again, including in several other stories bearing Apatow’s signature stamp. Gone was the show’s youthful, defiant spark, snuffed out by an unfair insistence that, hey, this is where life is headed inevitably. Get used to it.
That feels antithetical to what Girls was about for most of its run. It’s a rush job meant to locate Hannah somewhere in the adult world, one that feels less true to Dunham’s youthful rebelliousness than to Apatow’s conviction, increasingly evident in his films, that marriage and child- rearing are the most validating, defining things a person can do. In a post-show breakdown that plays after the episode on HBO Go, Dunham says Apatow was “the man behind this breastfeeding plot.” I wonder where the show might have gone without his influence, if it maybe could have ended in a more transgressive, more Girls-y place—or if this was where the whole show was heading all along. Who knows!
Girls was always erratic. It was also often dyspeptic, sometimes to the point of near unwatchability. It was unfortunate to see the show return to the cheapest form of that misanthropy last night, Hannah relentlessly sniping at Marnie (Allison Williams) seemingly for the sole purpose of comedic tension. I know many men, including me, have written bad things about how the characters on Girls aren’t likable, a criticism rarely leveled against shows about awful, rude men. And overall, it’s admirable that Girls never seemed fussed by that noxious argument, making its central four women as mean and caustic as the writers wanted. But I think Girls had earned a little more nuance by the end; it felt like a regression to seasons past to have Hannah as abrasive as she was in the finale. Not because I wanted Hannah Horvath to become a Good Person, but because she sort of had become a better person, in subtle and well-illustrated ways throughout the final two seasons of the show. She’d grown up, as people do, and her temperament had evolved. But then in the finale we found her 25 again, alienating those trying to help her, destructive toward any sense of harmony.
That’s the result of early parenthood, the show might argue. Which, sure, I believe that. Raising a baby is no doubt hard, so some testiness from new parents is to be expected. But is that a lesson that Girls seemed destined to teach us when it first, thrillingly, announced itself? What a hoary place to arrive at, in the end. After all that controversy and clamor, how surprising that Girls would go out on such a familiar note. Maybe there’s a kind of metaphor in there, about how young and spiky verve gets softened and bowdlerized by time spent in the world. That Hannah wasn’t destined to be an independent free-thinker forever, that the onus of motherhood and suburbia was always going to claim her, as it claims so many. If so, that casts the whole show in a rather depressing light. The other possibility, I guess, is that the show was never really sure how to end, and this was just the best idea they came up with. If that’s the case, I wish they’d just ended on the lovely ninth episode, with its dancing and happy poeticism.
Girls didn’t need a happy ending. It didn’t need anything tidy, or comforting, or summative. But it deserved a bit of closure on its core premises, chiefly about what it was (and is) like to be young and hungry and confused and selfish and aware in a world whose answers and glories seem just beyond your grasp. Girls, at its best, was a searching show, one that did genuinely say something about the times it lived in. The series finale sorta threw that all out in a sour and limited half-hour that made the stale point that parenthood is hard, that it’s a forever decision, that it limits our purview. That the world shrinks. We knew that already; we’ve heard it from countless other sources. I guess I was just hoping that Girls would, as it has for five roiling and wondrous years, say something new as it said goodbye.