'Girls': How Can Good TV Feel So Bad?

If art's great power is making the person who interacts with that art feel something, you could argue that HBO's Girls is highly successful television. But if a TV show consistently makes a watcher feel bad, can it be good?

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If art's great power is making the person who interacts with that art feel something, you could argue that HBO's Girls is highly successful television. It makes me feel so much I had to pause Sunday's show three-quarters of the way through because I felt truly awful for everyone involved and had to muster the wherewithal to continue. Maybe I'm being Hannah Horvath-dramatic, but for me the show is getting harder to watch with each passing episode this season. If last season's funny and surprising Bushwick "Crackcident" episode, in which the girls end up at a Bushwick warehouse party and Shoshanna accidentally does crack, was the high point of Season One, I think last night's "Bad Friend," in which Elijah and Hannah do coke, end up at a club doing more coke, and then cap off the night with a massive friend blowout with Marnie, was a new low. This is not necessarily a pan, though.

What happened in last night's episode was this, in brief:

Hannah interviews for a writing job with a website called "Jazzhate." Jane, the interviewer, tells her, "It's only the Internet but we pay $200 an article, and you don't seem that fancy." Hannah's up for it — anything to be a real writer — and Jane suggests Hannah get some real experience by doing a bunch of coke and writing about it. Where to get coke? Fortunately there's a junkie in residence, Laird, in Hannah's building whom Marnie suggests she ask. He's clean, it turns out, addicted only to Pom, but will get her the coke anyway, even as he warns her not to go down that road. Clearly, Laird has a crush.

Elsewhere, Marnie's working at the Wedgewood Club when she runs into Creepy Artist Guy (Booth Jonathan) from Season One. Sexually charged/aggressive repartee ensues, and he takes her to his house, where he shows her his art. This involves her being stuck in a column of TVs running video clips while Duncan Sheik's "Barely Breathing" plays for an unknown but presumably unbearable amount of time. He lets her out after he makes coffee and checks his AOL account, and they have sex during which he tells her to look at a creepy doll positioned to watch over the bed. She looks horrified during, bursts out laughing afterward, and later still seems proud of herself for her liaison with a "real artist." Hannah and Elijah start with their coke at home and make their way to a club, where they continue to do coke, making confessions and friend-promises to one another until Elijah finally drops the bomb that he had sex with Marnie. Hannah freaks out and they leave, taking the fight to a nearby drugstore. In the aisles, we get Elijah's concise statement about how many a viewer of the show feels: “We’re all just living in Hannah’s world, it’s all Hannah, Hannah, Hannah all the time." Then they are interrupted by Laird, who's sock-shopping and trying to avoid doing the drugs he couldn't help getting for himself when he scored Hannah's coke.

The three of them go to Booth Jonathan's, and Hannah confronts Marnie, telling her in all apparent seriousness and without even a tad of self-awareness or irony (still buoyed by the coke): “I need you to recognize that maybe I’m not the bad friend and you’re not the good friend ... What makes you a good friend is not doing something that will intentionally really hurt another person." She concludes that as long as Marnie knows her place, as the "bad friend," they can keep being friends, and when a devastated Marnie runs out of the room to throw up, Hannah turns on Elijah, telling him he's moving out of the apartment: "You ruined my article, you ruined my night, you ruined my relationship with Marnie, and for that matter my relationship with cocaine, which could have been my favorite drug.”

She leaves with Laird, and outside of his apartment, they start to kiss. "Just for tonight though, for work," she says. "Oh my God," he answers.

Oh my God.

Last week I tried to figure out if watching the show as a parody made me feel better about how the characters are depicted. If this is all sort of a farce, maybe it's O.K., a broader ironic statement about contemporary culture rather than simply a depiction of "twentysomethings living in an urban environment," or twentysomething disaster porn. But this episode, in which no one seems redeemable save the recovered junkie who ends up giving Hannah coke, broke down my resolve again. It didn't feel like parody, it just felt like watching a bunch of unlikable characters without much heart or purpose (in which nothing, really, is at stake) interact thoughtlessly with one another in a way that makes me cringe. The four ladies on this show have me missing Carrie Bradshaw & Company, another bunch of narcissists who did dumb things but at least had a purpose, and a bit of heart, even if they weren't always easy to watch, either.

After the episode, I asked on Twitter, semi-seriously, "Is Hannah Horvath a sociopath?" People said no, she's just a twentysomething, she's a narcissist, she's just a character. But not liking Hannah, really not liking her, is a real thing. Over at Slate, David Haglund and J. Bryan Lowder ask, "Is it possible to like this show if you can’t stand Hannah?" Elsewhere, The Week's Scott Meslow calls her an antiheroine (and seems to come down in favor of Dunham's treatment of her as that). But I don't think that the crux of the problem I have with Girls is that Hannah Horvath is unlikable. There are lots of unlikable, unreliable, and conflicted characters in likable shows. It's that I don't believe her if she's supposed to be real, and I don't think as a character she's funny or cutting or expansive enough to be true parody. Her motives confuse me, and I know Dunham is not Hannah and Hannah is not Dunham, but how can Hannah be so stupid if Dunham is so deft?

The show and its characters seem to fall somewhere between those lines of hyperbolic satire and a statement of our times, and no matter which of those perceptions of the show I try to embrace I feel I've got no one to root for, except, in this episode, perhaps Laird, the former junkie who's trying to stay clean and for some reason seems to have a crush on horrible Hannah. I'm aware that there's something about this show that might be too close for comfort; maybe I'm in denial, or don't want to think that twentysomethings really do behave this way. But separating my personal feelings about the matter, I feel a bit lost watching it — could that be the point? If so, meta — and that feeling of being alone watching other characters live out their own lonely, purposeless, selfish dramadies, with little connections or repercussions or even comprehension on the part of anyone, just feels desolate and sad.

Of course, there's another option here, and it's that we're supposed to watch Hannah do all of these reprehensible, selfish, thoughtless things (because we all did our own versions of them once, too) and we're supposed to wait it out for the a ha! moment when the light flickers on and she becomes more fully aware of what she's doing and who she is. We may just be at the bottom of that arc, and just because watching something makes a person uncomfortable doesn't mean it's bad. I stick to my original opinion that no matter how I feel about watching a show, Girls is still better crafted television than the majority of what's out there.

So, I guess I'm still rooting for Lena Dunham, that whatever her mission is with her characters becomes clear and that she gives me something to hang onto -- a little bit of heart, a little bit of purpose, a little bit of conscience, something that leaves me feeling interested or even amused instead of feeling bleak and disheartened. The one-liners can be really good, and I laughed when Marnie called the doll watching her sex with Booth Jonathan "sassy." And there is something to a show that makes people feel this strongly — some found it hilarious, others felt the way I did, surely others felt something different. Just because it's not easy to watch, doesn't mean it's not good. Quite the opposite may be true! (Marnie found the room of TVs that she was held captive in quite engaging.) Still, I think even a show with an unlikable main character, or an unlikable quartet of characters, should offer something pleasurable in some way for its viewers. Bad friends may be bad, but if they're fun, too, sometimes they're worth hanging onto to see what happens. Barring fun, I guess the substitute is anything that makes us feel at all.

Winners: Uh, Adam, who wasn't on this show? The incredibly blase woman, Jane, who hires Hannah as a freelance blogger for Jazzhate, a delightfully horrible prototypical "blog" with "art" on the wall reminding employees that "where the magic happens" is outside of "the comfort zone."  That was at least some amusing parody. Lena Dunham, for having the guts to run around in the latter half of the episode, as Hannah, wearing a see-through mesh T-shirt.

Losers: Poor Laird. This is not going to end well.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.