She’s painfully narcissistic, shockingly tone-deaf and just generally one of the most insufferable people you’ll ever meet.
- Ray (Alex Karpovsky)
This brutally accurate description of Lena Dunham’s character on her HBO series, Girls, (for which she also writes and directs), is strategically placed in the season five premiere which aired this week. A meta nod from Dunham, who has repeatedly shown that she is aware of what is said about her show, the description ensures that even though nine months has passed since we last saw the Girls girls (played by Dunham, Allison Williams, Zosia Mamet and Jemima Kirke), we the audience should know they are still the same people they were in season one: self-absorbed and oblivious of their own actions. Girls is divisive, as is its creator. Combined with the increasing trend in predominantly digital cultures to identify cultural artefacts like Girls in either wholly positive or negative terms, Dunham and her show have become to most, either the most refreshing contemporary contribution to Quality Television in a long time, or representative of everything wrong with the generation that are now referred to risibly as the Millenials.
Girls operates on a level of self-aware acceptance that many could argue is one of the definitive criteria of the Gen-Y cohort. Unfortunately, this self-awareness has, in itself, lead to a kind of self-importance that makes the show easy to dislike. From its debut, the series offered a distinct and convincing view of the life of young women in arguably the most caricatured place in the world, New York. The balance between the performances of self-awareness, and an insightful and pronounced understanding of its own form gave birth to the unique voice of the show. Primarily utilized to generate situations painted by awkward but accurately depicted humour, this self-awareness poked fun at the largely self-concerned generation. A generation that Dunham herself belongs to. Over four seasons this self-reflexivity has been done to varying critical success, but has ultimately painted a new picture on television screens. One which, to a large extent, is an intrepid journey into characters whom are regularly first and foremost described as ‘unlikable’ (in a similar manner to the cast of characters on Seinfeld (NBC, 1989)). Entering into its penultimate season, Girls is still very much the television think-piece that it was in season one, undeniably becoming – as put by a high-on-opium-tea Hannah Horvath (Dunham) in the series pilot – “the voice of a generation,” for better or for worse.
The season five premiere deals with a situation that’s all too familiar in film and television: a wedding day. This isn’t the first time Girls has visited the habitual plot. In its first-season finale Jessa (Kirke) surprised the girls, and audiences, by getting married to the peculiar Thomas-John (played by the superb Chris O’Dowd). Unlike Jessa’s unplanned affair this second wedding, belonging to Type-A personality Marnie (Williams), is meticulously planned and yet the episode progresses in a similar way to the many other television weddings that have preceded it: brief cold feet, tears, but in the end, a wedding. In a typically meta moment, Hannah reflects that “it’s like a really bad rom-com that’s really obvious and not funny.”
The only difference is, it is funny. Throughout the entire episode, the writing delivers countless public displays of self-absorbed pity and evidence of complete obliviousness to one’s outward persona. When Marnie bemoans the potential (and eventual) rain, Jessa responds with “Rain on your wedding day means wonderful things for your fertility. So I hope it does rain,” in a manner that only Jessa’s ethereal ‘hippie’ persona could, particularly after having spent the morning “bathing in the lake and then running naked in a field to dry off.” Moments earlier, fulfilling her duties as bridesmaid (which she “takes very seriously”), Shoshanna (Mamet), at lightning speed and “like a cartoon” animatedly tells Marnie why it was a good choice not to have a marquee: “Everybody hates tents. What is this? A circus? I don’t want no Big Top,” only to moments later whisper to Hannah that she in fact “loves tents.” Later in the episode Marnie attempts to explain her wedding’s aesthetic by saying, “Think Ralph Lauren and Jodi Mitchell. Artistic, but with a nod to my cultural heritage, which is white Christian woman.” Each of these moments are not jokes per se, but rather distinct formations of thoughts that people really do possess but rarely choose to say. They are representative of each character in the series, who are regularly more concerned with getting their point of view across, than coming across as narcissistic.
Girls has always done self-aware better than any other show on television. In response to some of the criticism of the show’s first season Dunham wrote a scene for the episode “I Get Ideas” (season 2, episode 2) where Hannah and brief love interest, Sandy (Donald Glover), discuss an essay she has written:
Sandy: It was very well written.
Hannah: I know. That’s the stuff I don’t need to hear. I just need to hear the stuff you didn’t like.
Sandy: I just didn’t feel like anything happened in it. Nothing was happening.
Hannah: Okay... Well… You know, a girl’s whole perspective on who she was and her sexuality changed but if that feels like nothing...
Sandy: [interrupting] Ultimately it just felt like when you’re waiting in line and all the nonsense that goes through your brain as you’re trying to kill time.
Hannah, of course, reacts poorly to being given some honest feedback, because as Todd VanDerWerff puts forward, “she’s at that place all young writers are when they’re in their 20s—pretty sure they’re hot shit and not ready to hear anybody who would disagree.” Hannah’s primary response to Sandy is to let him know that “Everybody else loved it.” The same critics who the writers subtly converse with in this scene were the same ones who condemned Dunham for labelling herself “the voice of [her] generation,” ignoring (a) her character was on drugs when making the statement and (b) by outwardly saying such malapropos statements to the world, Dunham was providing a direct social critique of her peers, who, as stated by VanDerWerff, all genuinely think they are “hot shit.”
Dunham and the writers repeatedly remind audiences of the level of personal involvement and socio-cultural engagement with which they approach their work. Dunham’s character enters season five wearing an “I Woke Up Like This” sweater, which is simultaneously a joke about Hannah’s unapologetically lazy attitude towards her appearance, a reflection of how much her age/gender/class group tends to love Beyoncé, and – meta, as always – a reminder of the kind of work it takes to produce a show as densely hilarious and socially conscious as Girls. This is outlined perfectly by The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber:
The song that sweater slogan comes from, “Flawless,” is meant to be an oxymoron: No one wakes up perfect, but there’s power in making it seem that way. In the world of Girls, you can extend the principle: No one is as effortlessly deranged as these characters, but there’s power in making it seem otherwise.
Girls is about a very specific time in the lives of its four main characters, and about telling their stories in a very specific, and regularly polarising, way. Hannah and her friends want to do and experience everything, but for the most part lack the skills, the wisdom, and the resources to do much of anything. Recent seasons have shown that the girls are, if not growing up, then at least trying out the customs of those who do, and if this first episode of season five is anything to go by, Dunham’s self-absorbed creations are more fascinating, funny, and focused (on themselves) than ever before.