Broken record time: I find comedy series confounding to write about, because for me writing about TV is calculating how details of setting and shooting and performance add up to something, but with comedy you can’t solve the equation because the need for jokes is an undefinable variable. The joke needs must be king and it trumps all the usual concerns, even on series with heavy narrative serialization and a lot of dramatic moments the inclusion of which used to create “very special episodes” but which are now pretty common across the board. (Scrubs, an overlooked single-camera comedy trailblazer, did this in literally every episode.) Girls is basically a dramedy that has more in common with Mad Men than with Arrested Development, but it still throws those confounding curveballs, exaggerating specific aspects of the characters and milieu for comedic effect. (“Specific” is key here, of course — it’s not flat-out ridiculous — but still.) But just because I don’t write about it very often doesn’t mean I don’t like it an awful lot.
Judging from twitter and Google Reader posts I tried not to read for fear of spoilers, this past week’s episode, “Another Man’s Trash,” was something of a breakout for the show, and having seen it it’s easy to see why. For starters, TV nerds no doubt have to appreciate the humor in borrowing a bottle-episode structure but having half the cast stuck in the bottle be Patrick Wilson.
But its real brilliance is in creating suspense based solely on the show’s established story structure. We’ve all seen Girls before, and we know that anytime something’s going well for Hannah, someone says something that destroys the magic and brings it all crashing down — she’s getting along great with a job interviewer until she makes a date-rape joke about him; she’s having the coked-up time of her life with her gay ex until he tells her he fucked her female best friend, etc. So you spend her entire lost-weekend idyll waiting for the other shoe to drop…
…and it legit seems like it won’t! Hannah and her handsome doctor Joshua keep having sex — lots of it, all over his splendid house, driven by frank and honest statements of arousal and desire that took her months to get to with her ex-boyfriend Adam, if she ever really got to them at all. They lounge, they joke around, they sit quietly reading and eating, they tease each other, they go to sleep and wake up and do it all again. For once she seems able to accept that she and a romantic interest (substitute “friend” or “professional peer” and it’d be the same deal, for her) are on a level playing field.
Why? At one point Joshua tells her she’s beautiful, and when he asks her doesn’t she think so?, she replies something like yes, but that’s not the feedback she’s used to getting. That’s the key here: Joshua’s very existence is the new feedback. Physically stunning, smart, successful, kind, wealthy — Hannah’s holding her own with someone who’s all these things. One of the reasons I love Downton Abbey and Mad Men so much is their emphasis on how the emotional feedback people receive from their friends and colleagues shapes who they are able to be and become; this is the best feedback loop Hannah’s had in ages. If you’ve ever had one of these whirlwind weekends (or whenever) where your every waking and sleeping moment is consumed by someone wonderful you’re in the process of discovering and being discovered by, you know exactly how powerful, arousing, fulfilling, transforming that feedback loop can be. And don’t mistake me—it’s not at all a situation where “oh, someone good likes me, now I feel validated as a person.” It’s more like she’s thrown herself into the deep end and realized she could swim like a motherfucker all along.
That’s her undoing, of course. She believes herself to be totally safe, so after her inhibitions are worn down by getting all light-headed and passing out in the shower, she lets loose with a torrent of pure Hannah solipsism for which Joshua is completely unprepared. It’s heartbreaking to see how Hannah’s emotional awareness works — how she’s initially totally clueless that she’s coming on too strong, that she’s treating Joshua like a journal rather than a person with his own emotions and agency, that she’s being enormously condescending and dismissive to his life; but how the very moment she senses the possibility of rejection, she picks up on those cues and attacks them like a shark that smells blood in the water. She’s clueless unless and until she picks up on someone reacting negatively to that cluelessness, at which point she becomes an emotional Sherlock Holmes.
It was very funny, very sexy, very specific, and very sad. We’re lucky to have the show that gave it to us.