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 Barkhorn, Ashley 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 Fish! Garden State! Forrest 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.

And once again, the show gave us a fascinating portrayal of adult siblings. The scenes in which the three sisters had to divide up what they wanted from their mom’s estate, to me, was surreal in the most awfully familiar way. In reality, even the greatest tragedies and biggest milestones happen in real time, with everyday logistical concerns still factoring in, and I loved that the sisters found themselves confronting something as looming and abstract as their mother’s mortality with something as banal as Post-It notes.

The fact that Hannah’s mom and her sisters squabble over things big and small, too, then agree as they part that they should all be making more of an effort to be part of each other’s lives—even though they haven’t really resolved anything—reminded me of what I like so much about Adam and Caroline’s relationship: There’s a bottom-line kind of familial loyalty that kicks in when it counts. (And yes, the infighting between adult siblings, one of whom is resentful of the others for not pitching in as much to help take care of the aging parents, is a pretty common trope, but it’s also a pretty common problem.)

Hannah reaching over to take Rebecca’s hand, even in a moment where they're understandably aggravated with each other, showed that same better-stick-together-‘cause-we’re-stuck-together kind of sentiment, too. Worth noting, maybe, that it’s kind of nice to see Hannah try to salvage what’s quickly becoming a bad relationship instead of sabotage someone else’s effort to (see: Marnie’s “healing” plan at the beach house). This show has already raised a quizzical eyebrow at the popular notion that “boys come and go, but your besties are forever”—but in this season especially, it’s seemed more like friends come and go, but family is forever.

Chris, what do you think? Did Girls’ seemingly earnest use of cliché plot points hurt this episode? Did this detour from Hannah’s city life feel real to you, or recycled?

Heller: I'm with Ashley on this one—I liked this episode a lot. If maturity is the theme of this season, "Flo" considers it a different way than what we've come to expect from Girls.

Yes, Hannah's trip to the hospital was an awfully familiar set-up—and I'll get to that in a minute—but the style of the episode still surprised me. I didn't expect to see such an out-and-out sitcom premise on a show that frequently rebels against the tidy resolutions that dominate most sitcoms. Save for the last scene, when Hannah steps out of Penn Station only to learn her grandmother died, the episode wasn't subversive. That's okay. I liked it because we learned about Hannah's family and what it means to grow up when the adults around you act like children.

We're asking a couple of questions here. The first: What is the value of a cliché? I think, in certain circumstances, a well-deployed cliché can work. It's a narrative tool just like any other. The cliché injects compassion into a story by way of its familiarity. (See: Friday Night Lights, Parenthood, and every other show Jason Katims touches.) The problem with the clichés, then, isn't clichés. It's the abuse of them, which it is something writers know all too well. The second question: Are the clichés in "Flo" valuable for Girls? Although I cringed a couple of times, like when Adam lied about proposing to Hannah, I think their inclusion did more good than harm. Maybe that's because I live a very predictable life, just like Ashley. Or maybe it's because the familiarity made it easier for me to identify with Hannah.

I mean, is there a more common hallmark of adulthood than death in your family? If this season is all about Hannah growing up—and learning to trust Adam for emotional support—then "Flo" tackles one of the most universal aspects of that passage. So the episode is clichéd in part because it's about of the few things that most everyone must experience. (That's not to say the theme can't be subverted, though. Louis C.K.'s wonderful ode to family, mortality, and fear is a prime example.) It's not without its faults, but I won't criticize Dunham for showing some sympathy.

Let's compare "Flo" to last season's finale. At the time, Adam's "I was always here" moment felt like a wry criticism of an overused rom-com trope.  (We described it as "the way you feel happy when two awful people who are awful enough to deserve each other finally get together and start ruining each other's lives rather than everyone else's.") Now, I'm not even sure it's all that subversive anymore. Hannah and Adam are happy together. I just re-watched the scene where Adam runs to her apartment, and knowing what we now know, it felt incredibly ... romantic.

Has the show changed without us noticing? Maybe. Girls is in too deep to criticize other stories. It's finally focusing on its own.