The third season of Girls has started filming in New York, and someone is already up in arms over it: Christopher Abbott, who played unlovable sad sack Charlie, has reportedly left the show over creative differences with series creator Lena Dunham.
This kind of frustration is unsurprising. Girls (and Dunham) has been the subject of sweeping criticism since the pilot aired a year ago. Over two seasons, the critically acclaimed, Golden Globe-winning HBO series has been attacked from every side – for its characters’ entitlement, for glorifying unhappiness, for its complete lack of diversity within the half of society its title is supposed to reflect.
These are all reasonable arguments against the show. But Girls is not supposed to be perfect. Dunham is not perfect. Neither of them has to be. Dunham writes about life’s inevitable imperfections, running a show that, despite its valid flaws, is relatable and familiar.
“On a practical, real-life level, I wanted to talk about that moment between college and adulthood that felt so floundering,” she told Alec Baldwin on his WNYC podcast, Here’s the Thing.
Dunham holds up a frightening, if somewhat exaggerated, mirror to the way we interact before we start families, even if her characters are often far-fetched archetypes. As Chloe Angyal wrote for The Atlantic magazine, the characters in Girls have reasons to be floundering in spite of this privilege. Yes, they’re objectively unbelievable, but this is supposed to be a comedy: The characters are also subjectively familiar, whether they remind you of a distant Facebook connection or a trusted confidant.
Dunham’s own hopelessly entitled character, Hannah, faces the prospect of taking care of herself for the first time, which everyone goes through at some point, however late in life. No one has as much imaginary money as Girls’s Jessa has to travel wherever she pleases, but there’s always someone around who makes you question how stagnant your own life can be. Shoshanna‘s neurotic tendencies make her feel cartoonish, but she unexpectedly emerges as the show’s strongest voice of reason – doing so, like in life, when it’s least expected. Marnie struggles to decide exactly who she wants to be, gets sidelined every time she comes close to reaching it, and tends to react poorly – but who reacts well?
And then there are the boys of Girls. Men prone to typing “misandry” in all caps on the Internet tend to reject the characters for being conveyed as hypersexualized or infantilized; as cartoonish as they’re portrayed, though, they do things a lot of men do. Sometimes they’re too familiar; by the end of the first season, I was taking stock of a decade’s worth of interactions. Have I been as sickeningly doting as Charlie? As dishonest as Elijah? As abrasive as Ray? As out-of-sync with the person next to me as Adam? (It becomes harder to relate to Adam toward the second season’s end, though, once you’re reminded of the character’s difficulty with the concept of consent.)
Dunham doesn’t fit her characters into standard life arcs; she focuses on dealing with the roadblocks to life goals rather than speeding past them for the sake of tying a nice little bow around her narratives. The second season’s finale shows just how little the characters have grown, culminating in a supposedly happy ending that’s actually heartbreakingly sad. Dunham is not the first writer to ever tap into a generation’s malaise, but she’s a 26-year-old woman running a critically acclaimed HBO show about the realities of women like her. That’s no small feat.
Despite the show’s strengths, moments and plots on Girls can be hit-or-miss. It took a few episodes for Hannah to actually feel like a person instead of a walking sense of entitlement, for one. And some plot lines feel forced: When that same character’s childhood obsessive-compulsive tendencies returned in the second season, it was jarring. Her chief symptom – repeating actions eight times – is a realistic sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but its sudden introduction felt too forced.
Dunham still has time, though, to learn from her mistakes. Girls is already more sharply focused than her debut feature film, Tiny Furniture. She also has mentors in the writers room to guide her, including executive producers Jennifer Konner and bro-comedy kingpin Judd Apatow.
“We sit together at the beginning of the season and really talk [it] through,” she told Baldwin. “It’s like a giant therapy session where we work out the emotional arc and then we go to it.”
And comedy veteran Apatow has taken Dunham under his wing, offering script notes and scene ideas. “You’re constantly letting me know what’s allowed, because you spent so much time learning the boundaries and then defying them,” she told Apatow in a Skype chat with Fast Company magazine last January.
There is no way, short of a book, or at least a months-researched 20,000-word feature for The New Yorker, that anyone could defend Dunham or her show against all of the arguments that can be, and have been, levelled against her. By the way, she’s writing a book. And contributes regularly to The New Yorker. Dunham tends to be one step ahead of the game; whether you agree with her or not, she will be making money to frustrate people for decades.