Girls: Still Flawless at Being Itself
By now, you either find these deranged people hilarious or you don’t.
Apologies. I’m going to start this review of the latest work from one of modern pop culture’s great and flawed masters of trolling (Lena Dunham) with a reference to the latest work from another of modern pop culture’s great and flawed masters of trolling (Kanye West). On West’s The Life of Pablo, the young emcee Chance the Rapper shares the advice that West gave him about rapping: Make “the bars so hard that there ain’t one gosh darn part you can’t tweet.”
Beneath the social-media reference and hip-hop context, there’s an eternal definition of excellent writing. Dunham and her team basically have it nailed on Girls.
The fifth season of HBO’s comedy about white Brooklyn 20- and 30-somethings arrives into a culture fatigued by years of discussion of it. Dunham has said that the show will end next year: a valid personal/business decision that might feed into the common impression of Girls as a televised think-piece. But it would be a shame if burnout over arguing about Hannah Horvath prevented anyone who enjoyed Girls in the past from tuning in for season five, which, as a work of entertainment, is as sharp as the show’s ever been.
The premiere tackles a situation that’s plenty familiar in film and TV: a wedding day. Girls has even been here before, in its first-season finale when Jessa got hitched. But where that was a surprise affair, this wedding is as meticulously planned as you’d expect from the bride, Type-A avatar Marnie. There are no grand twists on Bridezilla tropes here. Feet get cold; mascara gets runny. The first line of the episode has Marnie worrying that it’s going to rain, and, spoiler, it eventually does. At one point, in a typically meta moment, Hannah reflects that “it’s like a really bad rom-com that’s really obvious and not funny.”
Except it is funny. From the first moments, the writing delivers gift after gift to viewers in the form of perfectly crafted declarations of self-aggrandizement, obliviousness, and bizarre viewpoints. Extremely flawed characters turn you off? Want your comedic kicks to come from regular-seeming people rather than from highly stylized vehicles for satire? Fine, you never liked the show anyways. Everyone else can titter at the utterly blasé way that Jessa enters a scene talking about having just bathed in a stream. Or at Hannah comparing a bad makeup job to a trip to Hershey, Pennsylvania. Or at Marnie trying out a few ways to describe her wedding’s aesthetic and landing on this: “artistic, but also with a nod to my cultural heritage, which is white Christian woman.”
Many of the show’s best pieces of dialogue aren’t jokes per se, because there’s no punchline. They’re distinct formations of thoughts that people really do possess but rarely choose to say, and even more rarely say with the panache on display here. Hannah enters the season wearing an “I Woke Up Like This” sweater, which is simultaneously a joke about her unapologetic embrace of the frump persona, a reflection of how much her age/gender/class cohort tends to love Beyoncé, and—meta again—a reminder of the kind of work it takes to pull off a show as densely hilarious as Girls. The song that sweater slogan comes from, “Flawless,” is meant to be an oxymoron: No one wakes up perfect, but there’s power in making it seem that way. In Girls’s world, you can extend the principle. No one is as effortlessly deranged as these characters, but there’s power in making it seem otherwise.
Which is not to say, as people often do, that Dunham and her team hate these characters and want the audience to do so too. There is love and gentleness to the show that is more pervasive than ever before in the fifth season. You can, yes, call it character growth. It’s seen most clearly in the core friend group’s interactions, the ways in which, despite their bickering, they demonstrate a growing sympathy for one another’s emotional states. The four episodes I’ve seen tend to center on the question of whether one character will show another character mercy by not blurting out whatever is on their mind, and often, the answer turns out to be yes. Jessa in particular undergoes a surprising test of her ability to self-deny in the name of friendship, though, of course, doing so involves directly insulting the very person whose feelings she wants to spare.
As for the question of whether season five will touch off any online essay wars, the answer probably is yes. When the third episode takes a visit to Japan to check in on Shoshanna, it does little but reaffirm Western stereotypes about that country as a wonderland of infantilized kink. At the very least, the portrayal won’t help with the show’s well-documented race problems, which are more pronounced than ever: Five seasons in, and not one regular character of color? On the other side of the progressive viewer’s ledger is an ongoing storyline about a quote-unquote nice guy who maybe isn’t all that nice: basically a feminist meme turned, skillfully, into a plot point.
That storyline dovetails with perhaps the most underrated part of Girls, which is how much fun it has with its boys. Season five offers a primer in the various subtle varieties of 21st-century enlightened male shitheadedness (before any MRAs hop into the comments, know this entire show is predicated on demonstrating the female version of that—we all want equality, no?). The thing that the guys share, in contrast to the women, is a pretension to seriousness (with the one exception being Elijah who, as is sometimes the case with gay men, has been liberated to indulge his narcissism undisguised). Hannah’s current boyfriend Fran and her ex Adam negotiate their relationship using pseudo-dignified non-verbal communication. Ray quizzes Fran on the profundity of his bond with Hannah, asking if he cares about her views “on transgender politics, or the afterlife.”
More deliciously, there’s Desi, the furrowed-brow wannabe mountainman who Marnie’s marrying, played with deliciously vacant intensity by Ebon Moss-Bachrach. He’s more of a caricature than any other regular cast member, and who can complain about that fact when you get a scene as glorious as the one in the premiere where he salutes each of his groomsmen? He calls Adam “my comrade in arts, my comrade in arms.” He calls Elijah “a comic persona as skilled and radical as Lucille Ball.” He says “this is among one of the greatest days of my life.” It’s tempting to quote the entire thing. Truly, whenever he’s onscreen, there ain’t one gosh darn part you can’t tweet.