Do we really need another person on the Internet writing about the oft lauded and oft criticized self-indulgence that is Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls? Hasn’t everybody from The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum to, um, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar written about it enough? Well, no. Anytime a show claims to be the voice of a generation –as Girls essentially did in last year’s pilot through Hannah Horvath, the self-centered mouth of Lena Dunham’s aspiring writer and TV-version of Lena Dunham — it deserves to be pushed and criticized to the fullest extent.
Is Girls the voice of a generation? A voice of my generation? No. It’s the voice of a small sliver of a small sliver of a generation: mostly white, privileged college graduates who are now living in New York. The first five episodes of Season 2, however, have not steered from that exclusive territory, but rather pushed it into adulthood. That is, the second season is not so much about laughing with our four favorite female buffoons. It’s about laughing at them as they face life’s harsh realities, even if those realities at times venture away from reality into territory that’s a bit too absurd or unrealistic (bordering the latter seasons of the U.S. version of The Office). When contemporary artist and biggest asshole of the show Booth Jonathan (played by The Lonely Island’s Jorma Taccone) traps Allison Williams’ Marnie in his latest video art instillation (a sequence of disturbing videos set to Duncan Sheik’s “Barely Breathing”, equally disturbing) and then forces her to look at a doll while he has sex with her, we laugh, but the show loses its sense of place and time.
At its best, however, season 2 of Girls has been a better, urbanized adaptation of novels like Tom Perotta’s Little Children or Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road than, well, the respective film adaptations by Todd Field and Sam Mendes (and not just because Patrick Wilson plays the exact same character in the fifth episode as he does in Little Children). Essentially, Girls has responded to the critique that the show was too white, naked, and cringeworthy by becoming whiter, naked-er, and cringeworthy-er.
Sure, there have been some less-than-stellar moments in the first half of the second season. Hannah dates Donald Glover’s token black character (who also happens to be a Republican) Sandy. Dunham humiliates herself by writing for Hannah a laundry list of “liberal causes” to spew to Sandy, including freaking out about the number of African Americans on death row and about the availability of guns. Dunham pairs Hannah’s forced self-righteousness with Jessa’s even more forced know-it-all reference to the Glass-Steagall Act, as if to say to her critics, “I once read a newspaper” or “this show exists in reality.”
Hopefully, however, Girls continues to take worthwhile risks, like exploring Sofia Coppola-esque rich people ennui in a self-referential way. When the show insinuates that money doesn’t buy happiness, it simultaneously laughs at the idea of Maslow’s hierarchy itself: Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, Shoshanna, and their male counterparts and many of the show’s other male characters strive to achieve some hilariously impossible version of happiness. The most recent episode of Girls traps the audience in the digs of Patrick Wilson’s Joshua (not Josh), a brownstone that’s in the same Brooklyn neighborhood as Hannah’s place. He’s a character that would seem yuppie at best and suburban-chic at worst to his brainless hipster neighbors. As a successful, recently separated doctor who cooks steak and drinks red wine, it’s safe to say he doesn’t fit in. The beginning of the episode features Hannah, who has been throwing the trash from the coffee shop at which she works in Joshua’s trash because she’s too shy to tell Ray (brutally honest coffee shop manager and Shoshana’s boyfriend) that she lost the dumpster key, apologizing to Joshua for the trash situation. She then kisses him, and the rest is history, or at least a two-day fling, which ends with Hannah metaphorically taking out the trash, potentially throwing away all memory of her short relationship with Joshua.
See, Hannah doesn’t just have sex with Joshua during this fling. She tearfully confesses to him that she “just wants to be happy” without realizing that he himself isn’t happy and that she sounds ridiculous crying about wanting to be happy. The episode’s steady direction allows the audience to recognize that there’s something beneath the surface of Hannah and Joshua’s little fling, namely both characters’ not so valiant attempts to salvage what little happiness they might have left, or perhaps to look for or create happiness when it doesn’t and can’t exist. The lighting and the framing of the shots tend to illuminate Joshua and Hannah enough for the audience to see what’s going on but far enough to make you feel like you’re a voyeur, invading their privacy.
What will go unheralded but is key to understanding this episode and the season and series as a whole is an extremely subtle musical choice the morning after Joshua and Hannah’s first night of sex. As they’re cuddling on Joshua’s couch after he calls in sick from work, Father John Misty’s “Nancy From Now On” appears to be playing on a record in the background. Father John Misty is Joshua Tillman (formerly known as J. Tillman), ex-drummer of Fleet Foxes who, in some sort of Kerouacian splendor, grabbed a bunch of shrooms, embarked on a road trip, and recorded an album. He released his great debut as Father John Misty, entitled Fear Fun, last April. Fear Fun is a delightful departure from the great but not quite original folk of Fleet Foxes. Like a Tom Waits or a Leonard Cohen, Father John Misty is a character himself: he creates a coked-up, drugged-out Seventies universe and laughs at it even though he’s a part of it. In a recent interview, Tillman deadpanned, “Someone at a show in Santa Cruz told me I kept floating down out of the sky to comfort them during a DMT session. I told him that didn’t really sound like me.”
On Fear Fun closer “Everyman Needs a Companion”, Tillman sings, “I never liked the name Joshua / I got tired of J.” Not only is this lyric the inverse situation of Patrick Wilson’s Joshua, but it hits at what makes Girls scary. Girls suggests that what we really want is not necessarily happiness, but individuality, and that individuality as we think about it is farcical and constructed. One of the most hilarious moments of last season involved Hannah at a Bushwick warehouse party talking to Tako, a friend of her boyfriend Adam’s from AA. “I can usually tell when someone thinks it’s with a ‘c’,” Tako similarly deadpans. But she’s serious.
You’re supposed to laugh at this moment because you know that weird girl, and because it’s hilarious and absurd, yet accurate. What the moment really says, though, in conjunction with its condescending portrayal of every uniquely dressed weirdo at the party, is that amongst a sea of white, upper middle class faces, these people are just trying to get noticed. And that’s not an endeavor worth crying about, but worth laughing at. Because, really, actually, what’s in a name?
Jordan Mainzer is a staff writer at FP and the editor of art, architecture, and design blog DRA. He recently wrote a review of Foxygen’s We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic. A recent graduate of Brown University, he now lives in Chicago.