Another Squabbling Family on TV: Is Girls Just Recycling Cliches?

Our roundtable discusses "Flo," the ninth episode of the HBO show's third season.

This week's panelists: Eleanor BarkhornAshley Fetters, and Chris Heller

Barkhorn: This was my least favorite Girls episode in the history of Girls episodes.

It begins with Hannah finding out that her grandmother is about to die. She rushes to the hospital, where her mother, two aunts, and cousin are gathered. She spends the next few days tending to her grandmother and navigating the inevitable family drama that arises when a loved one is sick.

In theory, this is a great set-up for a Girls episode. It’s a classic TV scenario. Countless shows have had a “character goes home to tend to ailing relative” episode: The West Wing, Sex and the City, New Girl, to name a few. And Girls thrives on tweaking pop-culture tropes in playful ways. The entire premise of the series—four girlfriends navigating life in New York City—is, after all, a sendup of Sex and the City.

But there’s nothing funny or interesting or subversive about this episode. It was a relentless—and annoyingly earnest—parade of cliches. The dying matriarch who just wants the next generation to get hitched, and who miraculously revives after learning that one of her descendants is engaged: That was a plotline in The Help. The squabbling adult sisters who relish cutting each other down during a family crisis: I’ve seen that in August: Osage County, and the Sex and the City episode where Miranda’s mom dies, and nearly every other movie or TV show that involves a death in the family. The mother who tells her daughter she’s special and perfect and shouldn’t settle for a loser boyfriend: She’s everywhere.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with the episode borrowing these themes from other places; as I said, part of what makes Girls distinctive is its ability to do something unexpected with the familiar. But this episode fails to do anything new with these familiar plots and subplots. They’re presented uncritically, without the implicit commentary Girls usually offers cliches.

So this is all a long way of saying: This was my least favorite Girls episode because it wasn’t really a Girls episode at all. It was a mediocre hodgepodge of stories from other shows I like better.

But what did you guys think?

Fetters: Let’s talk about clichés for a second, because I think there are two kinds of clichés. Some clichés are dumb, lazy tropes that pop culture works seem to only learn from each other—like the foot-pop, or the song winback, or the romantic miscommunication that only gets sorted out after someone has sprinted to and/or through an airport. (Or, yes, the “Grandma’s not dying anymore ’cause the grandkids are getting hitched!”) But there are other clichés that are common because they’re rooted in a common experience. As entertainment writers, we’re kind of contractually required to hate pop culture’s tropes and clichés, but I’ll admit that this latter category is the kind I hate less—and I think a lot of “family” tropes on TV fall into it.

When you live far away and you find out something bad has happened (or is happening) to a family member you’re close to, what do you do? You go to them. And sometimes, it’s an episode. Reunions nobody expected ensue, and coupled with the emotional upheaval of the occasion, often there are suddenly all these feelings and tensions nobody’s prepared for. I'm sure we can all think of many movies and TV shows this happens in (I’ll add more: Big FishGarden StateForrest Gump!), but I'm sure we can all also think of times when we’ve witnessed or been implicated in this very scenario. When I see it in pop culture, it often does remind me of my own experiences or those of people I know. (I guess that could be taken as a sign that I live a tropey, clichéd life, or hang out with tropey, clichéd people. Which could require some soul-searching on my own time.)

But, anyway: That’s why I actually liked this episode of Girls. It showed things that were familiar to me not just from pop culture but also from life. 

With this episode, Girls applied its own darkly comic filter to the universal truth that family is forever forever—and for as long as family members remain on decent terms, they’re obligated to keep crossing paths again and again pretty much until they die. As Girls puts it, family means you’ll just keep encountering that person who taught you what masturbating was when you were little, well into your adult years; family means some infamous events from your shared history will never really be laid to rest or politely forgotten, but rather pointed to again and again and labeled “where things went wrong” or “that moment we all knew you’d turn out to be an asshole.” In my family, it’s the time when my cousin and I were six and seven and drew a mean cartoon of another cousin we were mad at, who cried and told on us when she found it. In Hannah’s, it’s when Hannah explained to her cousin Rebecca that her dad had been nabbed for insider trading and that she probably wouldn’t ever see him again.

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