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?