My fondness for episodic television reviews – both writing and reading them – has waned sharply over the last year or so. The appeal of this form of criticism is undeniable: liked an episode of television? Hated an episode of television? Jump online and read what <insert critic x> thinks of it! Share your thoughts in the comments!
Hopefully somewhere in there is a grain of insight, the unpacking of the themes and intricacies of a medium that is becoming increasingly intelligent. Too often, though, episodic writing feels hasty, a quickfire response driven by page views and buzz rather than a desire to produce a thoughtful exegesis.
I understand the appeal – much of my early blog traffic was driven by views on television reviews posted within hours of an episode airing – but unless you’re a full-time television critic given the time to pore over screeners, it seems a bit of a waste. There’s not enough time to unpack the rich symbolism of a show like Hannibal or Mad Men and still meet the deadline and, conversely, enjoyable sitcoms get treated to bloated write-ups that meander between retelling the story, retelling the jokes and half-hearted grasping at themes. My writing is no different – my mad rush to write something, anything about television so often missed the wider point (and my two hundred word limit didn’t help matters, either).
So, here’s a different – though hardly revolutionary – way of writing about television (I’m not pretending to be a trailblazer here, plenty of other sites are doing the same thing). One season at a time. Looking at the series’ wider themes, character arcs, successes and failures over a single season of television.
Girls seemed like it would be a great series to kick off this feature with. It’s the kind of show that often proves frustratingly opaque when subjected to week-by-week analysis, but reveals its rewards upon retrospective reflection. Think season one, where so many were undecided as to whether this was a show about spoiled, self-centred brats or a show by spoiled, self-centred brats, until “Welcome to Bushwick a.k.a. The Crackcident” revealed that the show was entirely aware of who its characters were. Similarly, season two’s reveal of Hannah’s OCD was initially jarring – seemingly out of nowhere – but sparked what turned out to be show’s most moving, insightful mini-arc so far (I’m aware this is not a popular opinion).
The third season doesn’t feature any such revelations, nor does it provide a convenient all-encompassing narrative for me to string along my half-baked thoughts to. It’s not like Girls has ever been a particularly novelistic series; every season is distinguished by episodes like “The Return” or the sublime “One Man’s Trash” that are only peripherally connected to the notion of a serialised show. That was accentuated in season three, where it felt like the majority of the episodes included some nod to earlier events but largely took place in their own vacuum, particularly in the last half of the season.
These almost-self-contained stories couldn’t have been easily reshuffled even without those occasional references, because they’re each a pearl strung along the necklace that is Hannah Horvath’s character arc for season three. Like, well, essentially every episode of this show, her arc this season has been about growing up. The show’s title is mostly apt – this is still fundamentally a story about the transition from childhood to adulthood – but it’s interesting how much Hannah (Lena Dunham) has become the focal point of the show in season three to the detriment of the other girls. Girl might be a better title, perhaps, given the small parts Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), Marnie (Jemima Kirke) and Jessa (Allison Williams) have played this season.
I’ll come back to those three, but it’s worth noting that while Girls mightn’t have come together into a coherent narrative this season, there’s a real purpose to Hannah’s arc. It’s a realisation of the myriad challenges of being an adult, how it’s not just finding a healthy relationship and fostering friendships and furthering your career, but it’s about – as Soojin (Greta Lee) puts it in “Role Play” – being a “woman and a girlfriend and a galleress and an electronic musician and all these things.” For the majority of the season, Hannah seems to be succeeding in facing these challenges –in a very Hannah Horvath way – but when her support system of her parents and Adam (Adam Driver) prove less supportive, she crumbles.
There’s an argument to be made that the conclusion of the season isn’t a capitulation but a victory; that Hannah, by accepting her invitation to writer’s college, chooses artistic integrity over the easy life. I think there’s an element of truth to that, but while Hannah’s letter from Iowa Writers’ Workshop is thanks to her talent, it arrives just as she self-destructs at her cushy job. Make no mistake, Hannah’s abandonment isn’t out of any noble artistic belief, but an inability to play nice in an environment that isn’t all about her.
Season three of Girls has gone out of its way to emphasise that Hannah isn’t a very nice person; it’s hard to imagine anyone claiming the show lacks a sense of perspective on its characters after seeing Hannah’s behaviour at David’s funeral, to give just one example. For the best part of the season, though, it seemed like Hannah’s solipsism was paying dividends – sure, her book deal fell through, but by the mid-point of the season she had a seemingly stable relationship and amazing – if, apparently, artistically enervating – employment.
It isn’t until the events of “Flo” and “Role Play” that things start to go very, well, Hannah-Horvath-ish for Hannah. “Flo” was the season three highlight for me, separating Hannah from the rest of the primary cast for most of the episode (also a recipe for success in Season 1’s “The Return” and Season 2’s sublime “One Man’s Trash”) and contemplating thoughts of family and loss, expectations and commitments. The ailing health of Hannah’s grandmother (June Squibb, fantastic) provides impetus for the episode – and gives it a stunning conclusion – but it also seems like a way for Hannah to survey what could’ve been: her compulsively academic cousin, or her squabbling, petty aunts.
“Flo” also continues to widen the wedge between Hannah and Adam (with some not insignificant assistance from her mother), a rift opened in the preceding episode with Adam’s Broadway accomplishment. It isn’t until “Role-Play” that their issues are unleashed, with Hannah’s (generally hilarious) attempts to patch over their flaws having the opposite effect. It’s hardly surprising that Hannah would go on to self-destruct at work, with her family and love life collapsing around her.
By now, Adam – first introduced in season one as little more than a shirtless joke of a fuckbuddy – might as well be the second lead of Girls. Thanks in no small part to Adam Driver’s performance (really, Dunham and Driver are on a whole different level to the rest of the cast), Adam’s gone from a joke to a complex character, equal parts tragedy and comedy. Right from the second episode (“Truth or Dare”), where he grumbles through the entirety of the drive to collect Jessa from rehab, he’s positioned like a young father – a grown-up – reluctantly taking his kids on an extended drive. He’s often presented as a more responsible figure throughout the season, whether by showing genuine care for his sister (Gaby Hoffmann) or through his commitment to his Broadway role, in stark contrast to his dismissive attitude to acting in earlier episodes.
Growing up isn’t always a good thing, of course. In earlier seasons, Adam seemed to not so much drift through life as crash around through it, knocking over the obstacles in his path without a great deal of thought. His successful rehearsal and subsequent ambition aligned tightly onto a single-lane road towards success, but a road that he seems increasingly unprepared to share with Hannah. His repeated, casual dismissals of Hannah’s writing and her company demonstrate the flipside of Adam’s grasps at maturity.
Girls still seems to be floundering with what to do with the remainder of its lineup, however. When the show focuses on Hannah and/or Adam, it makes for fantastic, engaging television more often than not. The supporting cast seem to be relegated to either intermittently appearing to share sparse details of what they’ve been up to with the core cast (see: Shoshanna and Ray) or given a hefty amount of screentime that the show doesn’t always seem to know what to do with (see: Marnie and Jessa).
I didn’t really have any problems with the use of Ray (Alex Karpovsky), Shoshanna and – returning to the show midway through the season – Elijah (Andrew Rannells) across season three. None of these characters ever threatened to pull the spotlight from Hannah, but each had a decent character arc or, at least, a good character moment or two. Ray confronted his mortality; Shoshanna confronted the difficulties of juggling study and a social life; Elijah confronted his anxieties over his relationship.
Jessa remains, well, Jessa. Jemima Kirke is a talented actress, but I’ve never really had the sense that Girls knows what it wants to do with her character. In season one she was introduced as a free spirit, and it seems like she’s based more on a flighty character that Dunham encountered at a party rather than on a full person (you get the sense with most of the other characters on the show that the writers know them deeply; my assumption is that they’re amalgams of Dunham’s social circle but perhaps that’s unfair). Her not-quite dalliance with a married father and impromptu wedding in season one demonstrated that she was complicated, unpredictable but not without a moral system. Season two left her adrift, dismantling her marriage (thank god, since whatever accent Chris O’Dowd was trying wasn’t working) and eventually removing her from the plotline for the back half of the season.
In season three, Jessa is apparently supposed to be dealing with the consequences of her do-whatever-the-fuck lifestyle, beginning the season in rehab. But neither Jessa nor the show seem particularly invested in this storyline, except as an excuse to rope in Kim Gordon and Danielle Brooks (of Orange is the New Black). The idea – as demonstrated by the confrontation with Jessa’s manic manfriend’s daughter to give just one example – is to confront Jessa with the consequences of her erratic behaviour, but I couldn’t muster any interest. Girls really needs to find a purpose for Jessa …or just write her off the show for good.
I have similar qualms about Marnie across season two, but I’m less prepared to direct my ire towards the writing staff. After all, season two ended with a happily-ever-after-not-really pairing between Marnie and Charlie (Christopher Abbott) that seemed like a perfect conclusion to Marnie’s troubles across that season. Her attempts to define herself as something other than a well-spoken, conventionally-attractive woman failed again and again, but falling into lockstep with her ex – now a software mogul – seemed entirely apropos. Christopher Abbott’s decision to leave the show put the writers in a tight spot, and while the solution – an off-screen, generally unexplained dumping – left a bit to be desired, there was never really going to be a great fix. (“Charlie died on the way to his home planet,” perhaps? No?)
Without Charlie to rely on, it’s understandable that Marnie would end up at square one. It’s just a shame that the show felt compelled to walk her through basically the same character arc all over again. Did you enjoy that awkward performance of “Stronger” in season two? Well, here’s basically the same thing, now in YouTube form! (Sorry, I should cut back on my Simpsons references) And if you loved Marnie trying to find a sense of purpose and ultimately seeking it in a man’s arms, well you get that too. I saw an interesting theory midway through the season that Marnie’s disappointment stemmed from her expectations/privilege: as a white, pretty girl from a well-off family, she expected to simply get things without having to earn them (unlike, say, Hannah).
It’s an interesting idea, and one that would’ve elevated Marnie’s arc, but I don’t think the conclusion of the season really supports that reading. Marnie finds her way into a sweet gallery job by virtue of knowing the right people and seems to have some momentum behind a potential music career thanks to – yep, a dude. It doesn’t help that Allison Williams is clearly the weakest actor of the bunch, her emotions generally expressed through variations on an I-just-ate-a-lemon or, sometimes, you-just-farted face.
Overall, how did season three of Girls stack up? As a whole, I think it’s an excellent season of television, lacking any episodes as masterful as “One Man’s Trash” but hitting about the same overall benchmark as the second season. Aside from Dunham’s performance, one of the big appeals of Girls for me has been its mutable identity. Without a case to solve or sitcom formula to follow, the show regularly plays with its form, and its little capsule episodes – a house party here, a trip away from the city there – are invariably the strongest episodes because of their unpredictability and completeness.
The run of episodes from “Free Snacks” to “Flo” (including “Beach House” and “Incidentals”) was the best part of season for me, a chunk of episodes that each had their own unique identity while feeling very much a part of one show. In particular, I love that Dunham is increasingly demonstrating the confidence to tie these distinct chapters together with serialised plots that elevate rather distract from the discreteness of each episode. It’s almost a shame when the larger arc of the season begins to reveal itself – I’d happy watch a thirty episode season of these characters just hangin’ out, doing their thing. It certainly doesn’t hurt that this was the funniest season yet; after all, if you believe the Emmys, this is a comedy show.
Girls produced a season of television that was often messy and often flawed; yet while I might quibble over the show’s use of its secondary characters or wish that they would just abandon the notion of a television season altogether and embrace the chaos of life, these are minor complaints. Girls’ third season was on the whole excellent, demonstrative of a show maturing along with its characters.