Girls thoughts revisited!

I almost invariably hate it when TV critics say that Show X was bad until Episode Y, at which point it miraculously transformed into something truly worth watching. It’s a common phenomenon when you’ve read enough TV crit, and when you happen to disagree with the selected turning point and/or the supposed problems that preceded it, it highlights the subjective nature of criticism, and thereby the unreliable nature of critical interlocutors, like pretty much nothing else, because it’s such an all-or-nothing proposition. “The show was basically no good until this happened, and then it became good”: Disagree with any element of that and it all falls apart, and you’re left looking at the computer screen and hollering “What are you talking about? The wigs during Game of Thrones Season One simply were not that distracting!” or whatever. You end up embarrassed for the critic who asserts that something that either didn’t bother you or didn’t wow you is in fact a self-evidently dispositive element of the show.

So I’m going to be as circumspect as possible when I assert that the third episode of Girls is a whole new ballgame. I got to the closing credits and found myself surprised that Lena Dunham was once again the writer-director, so different did it feel to me. I got the hang of the show, is part of it — okay, it’s a parody of these kinds of people, it’s making fun of them from within, very well then, game on — but so did she. The characters are now more consistent in their ridiculousness, more coherent as caricatures, rather than collections of random tics and neuroses stuffed into human-shaped containers. It’s like Dunham figured out exactly what makes each of them awful and pathetic and just kept hitting that soft/sweet spot instead of merely flailing around, careening into the nonsensical in an attempt to make everyone look maximally obnoxious at any given moment. Marnie’s off-putting alpha-femaleness felt cohesive: She was turned on to the point of rubbing one out in the ladies’ room by a guy who ran roughshod over her sense of decorum in much the same way that she shits on her boyfriend’s gestures of goodheartedness. Hannah clicked too, as a sort of human magnet for terrible, arrogant guys who use her as a beta test for establishing their new identities. Whatsername the idiot Brit worked like a Seinfeldian send-up of freespiritedness, insisting on wearing a see-through outfit to a babysitting job like Sue Ellen Mischke walking around wearing a bra with no shirt. And Shoshanna is settling nicely into the nerdy-neighbor role, the Skippy/Urkel/Kimmy Gibler of Girls.

I’d be pleased if the show continued to use new guys as a Lost in Space-style “monster of the week” feature, too, revealing a freshly terrible dimension of maleness with each new episode. Nice to see Jorma Taccone used as a Will Ferrel/Tim & Eric-style avatar of leering sexual overconfidence, for example; that Marnie gets off on it is a joke on her and him both. Hannah’s insufferable ex Elijah works in much the same way, as a swipe at her and himself both: “Beau is my lover” is a ridiculous thing for anyone to say, while the guilty-pleasure insensitivity “That fruity little voice you’ve put on”/”Excuse me?” exchange is paid back by his awesome, successful attempt to get the last word: “It was great to see you, your dad is gay.” Even the tangents the conversation go on are very funny in their weird specificity: Hannah offering “I’m seeing this guy, and sometimes I let him hit me on the side of my body” as proof of her sexual-experimentation bonafides was probably my biggest laugh line from the show so far. I’m sitting here imagining the negotiation process as to the acceptable hitting zones and writing a flashback episode in my head as we speak.

It wasn’t until someone pointed it out to me on twitter that I realized this episode also happened to be the one with the most “heart and soul” — the “Dancing On My Own” sequence at the end is the best example of course, but there were other flashes of it, particularly the brief but surprising and genuinely touching moment in which Hannah’s horrible fuck buddy actually, sincerely consoled her about her HPV diagnosis. (She didn’t expect it any more than I did; I’m glad Dunham stayed away from the easy joke there.) Normally I’d think this sends a mixed message regarding what kind of show this is, because honestly I think my muddled expectations for what I was watching were a big obstacle for enjoying what I got in the first two episodes. So much of the writing about the show treated it like “Finally, this voice is being heard! This world is being represented!” that I couldn’t help but judge it based on those merits, and the judgment rendered was “A) the voice is garbled, and b) yes, but so what? This exists isn’t a TV show, it’s a thinkpiece in TV-show drag.” Toss in the inconsistent characterizations and doughy jokesmanship and the resulting impression was even muddier and less appealing. But in this episode the writing was so much sharper both in terms of character work and basic funniness that you could get away with giving these dopes the happy ending of having a great time dancing like nobody’s watching in their apartment at the end of a long night. The sharpness leavened the warmness and vice versa.

Anyway, that’s where I stand on Girls as of episode three, and as best I can tell I stand alone. The people who like the show seem to have liked it from the start, and that goes double for the people who love it. Meanwhile I don’t think it changed many, or any, detractors’ minds other than my own. So it’s entirely possible I’m seeing something only I can see and embarrassing myself by molding it in no uncertain terms into a verdict on the show as a whole. Best I can do is put it out there and ask: Are you with me on this, or am I just dancing on my own?

10 Responses to Girls thoughts revisited!

  1. Myles McNutt says:

    One thing I would note: most critics who wrote the early raves saw all three episodes. Personally, I watched the first two being a bit more tepid on the show, but the third was a turning point, and I then revisited the first two episodes afterwards with a slightly different eye. The circumstance of how we see the episodes does feel like a major variable here, and I do think this third episode played a role in the disconnect between initial conceptions of the pilot and the reviews.

  2. Tim O'Neil says:

    Three episodes in its perhaps my favorite current TV show. But I did think this episode was weaker than the first two, because in some ways it seemed to be pulling its punches. I’m surprised it took a number of people so long to figure out that we were supposed to be laughing at, rather than with these twits, and where this episode faltered was where it pulled back and started to humanize them. The ending with them dancing to Robyn was completely unnecessary – if there’s more feel-good shit like that the show might find itself compromised by misplaced sympathy towards people who should by any stretch of the imagination not need any help to be as monstrously unlikeable as possible.

    Seriously, why did so many people get tripped up thinking that the show was something other than it was?

  3. Kiel Phegley says:

    I fell somewhere in between the two of you on this. I think the show has marginally sharpened up over its episodes, though I didn’t think it was all that bad to begin with. It feels like a pretty steady climb from decently funny to pretty funny to me.

    And not to say I’ve got some kind of second sight on this, but I’m flummoxed to hear that anyone took these characters as “real.” I always saw them as self-effacing caricatures, and I think that was particularly pointed to in the “Sex And The City” joke in the first episode. Like, that show was such a fucking cartoon (and was way up its own ass at the same time) that I was always amazed at how many women took it up as either representative of what they thought their lives were or what they wished they could be. “Girls” seemed to me to be saying right out the gate “If you see too much of yourself in our characters, you’ve got problems.” I thought all the blog rage over the show was about the world, fake as it is in tone, that the show was building rather than its ability to actually recreate a version of the real world on film, but I guess I didn’t read enough of those posts (and thank God I didn’t!).

    In terms of the heart that shows up this week, I don’t think it’s at odds with the way the characters – or caricatures – are presented. That’s a common balance for comedy shows to strike these days. Leslie Knope or Michael Scott or Liz Lemon are all over the top in their presentation but still have touchpoints as characters that make you care for them or root for them. The presentation may be different in “Girls” but the endgame is the same.

    • I tried to make it clear from the first review that I knew she was making fun of these people; my main beef was that the way she was doing it was sloppy and not particularly funny. But yeah, I get it now, it’s totally The Office: Greenpoint.

    • Tim O'Neil says:

      I guess I just don’t see why the show has to make that turn to humanize these people. We didn’t need to have the people on SEINFELD humanized, they were all pretty relentlessly terrible without any leavening of sympathy. I don’t WANT these characters to be human – this is class warfare, after all.

      • Jim says:

        The flip side of that, though, is wondering why people find it so hard to believe that there are people walking around in Greenpoint who are actually like this. If anything (based on the time I spent there this weekend), this show seems like a toned-down version of that world structured to Apatowian comedic beats.

        Beyond the “I have firsthand experience of Greenpoint” gambit: am I the only person who could, pretty regularly, turn into a giant, self-absorbed, clueless asshole when I was in my 20s? I do find it odd that many Girls haters insist on a clear-cut, properly balanced moral universe that they’d probably not be crazy about living in themselves, should the rules be enforced so stringently. Or, in Tim’s case, there’s a need to justify the value / enjoyment of the show by transforming its characters into caricatures: that’s an interesting misreading (“This is a show about horrible things happening to spoiled brats, and look at how dumb they are!”), but I wonder how long it will prove to be a satisfactory lens. I’m more inclined to side with critiques who point to Girls as yet another example of how White television is (as long as they don’t blame this particular show for the sins of decades of programming).

        I really like Girls. I will also note that Seinfeld justifies my right to continue to act like a sociopath during my 30s, and I look forward to some comedy genius filling the now-empty 40s gap before I enter Curb Your Enthusiasm terrain.

  4. James says:

    I haven’t watched yet but I’ll definitely keep your switchback in mind when I do. Any new show is usually an acquired taste for me, I need more episodes before diving in.

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