After five seasons on the air, Girls has become a bit of joke. Initially praised for its overt ties to that other acclaimed HBO drama about well-to-do young women living in the Big Apple, showrunner/writer/actor/director Lena Dunham’s cast of millennial New Yorkers has become every bit as entitled and odious as Sex and the City. Hannah Horvath as a stand-in for Dunham herself is often dragged through the proverbial mud, as her preening self-aggrandizement often seems to echo that of the actress who portrays her in real life.
In 2014, Dunham published her memoir Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” to many an upturned sneer and catty retort. The book was met with mixed reviews and labeled as being beholden to the kind of sexual libido, “guided mostly by a Woody-Allen-with-a-uterus kind of whimsy.” At best, certain critics found Dunham’s propensity for sexual confession, “lovely, touching, [and] surprisingly sentimental,” while others found the entire ordeal sordid and lacking in discretion, with the entire affair resulting in not one but two instances of criminal indictment in regards to certain instances of disclosed sexual promiscuity and malfeasance.
Meanwhile, Girls found itself in hot water not long after its first season run. Despite generating plenty of buzz at the 70th Golden Globe Awards ceremony as the Best Television Series in the Comedy of Musical category, the show soon predominantly fell out of favor in the public eye. For some, the initial promise of Dunham’s heartfelt testimony became too self-indulgent. Week after week, Hannah Horvath and her entitled comrades became an undeniable burden on the attention of viewers, as their trials and tribulations began to ring a little false when aired by some of the most privileged young actresses in recent memory.
Despite manufacturing plenty of angst and despair to echo that of the newly educated working class of the 21st century, none of the characters that make up Girls proved outwardly sympathetic. Over the course of the show’s first four seasons, Hannah sees herself in one cushy writing job after another, only to bow out of each and every one when her ego isn’t stroked sufficiently enough to her liking. For many recent college graduates in positions of commensurate talent and personal drive, these instances of selfishness on the part of Dunham’s fabricated self are grating, and serve to build-up a fair amount of ill-will for the character and the world that has been miraculously bequeathed around her. Girls might be a show about 21st century inner-city young adults, but in its unrelenting narcissism it never allows the viewer to empathize with any of its protagonists.
Yet isn’t that the entire reason why the critically lauded and awarded first season was so compelling in the first place? Hannah Horvath is a grossly over-privileged and luxuriantly educated member of the dwindling upper-middle class. As such, her social indiscretions ring with a certain clarity specific to satire, not melodrama. Girls is a show about characters who may not be sympathetic or emotionally attractive, but are reflective of a very real generational temperament that afflicts many recent college graduates entering the work force with degrees whose real-world significance has been rendered opaque-to-irrelevant.
Generationally, Hannah Horvath is the direct descendant of Carrie Bradshaw. Only due to the gap between the two in terms of decade and age, one thrives in a 1990s, Bill Clinton-era American fantasy, while the other toils under the yoke of the post-9/11 economic apocalypse. Sex and the City may have once been a reality wherein the kind of privilege on display might be rendered pruriently amusing, whereas in Girls the same is seen for its underlying nihilistic hedonism. Girls is the successor to Sex and the City, though its associated decade marks it as the dark horse answer to the preceding generation’s unchecked largesse.
There is little doubt that many of the frequently cited denunciations of Dunham are without merit or ground. Yes, Dunham is a highly irritating voice, whose persistent need to expose herself, physically, emotionally, and intellectually, often yields lesser and lesser reward. But in her excessive desire to over-share and pontificate upon her immaturity, hers is a voice that serves to speak for an entire generation of lost souls in kind. The intangible value of a college education is now so ambiguous that a character like Hannah Horvath, however annoying she may be, is not without some merit in terms of manifest truth.
As the show’s triumphant return-to-form fifth season stands as proof of being, Girls offers an unflinching depiction of a generation that yearns for the fruit of long-promised adulthood, only said paradise now appears to be irretrievably lost. In the years since Sex and the City initially aired on HBO in the late-1990s, New York has become a haven of unaffordable luxury. The self-involvement of Carrie Bradshaw has since been replaced by the outraged 99% represented by Hannah Horvath, however hypocritical such a distinction and means for character contrast may be. Girls has always been about depicting the inconvenient reflection of a generation of young adults in premature decline, whose vices and shortcomings often belong to an idea or assimilation of success and identity that they can only ever form a close approximation of assimilating.
Dunham is a hard pill to swallow, and Hannah Horvath is no Carrie Bradshaw. Dunham offers freely of herself in an effort to offer those of her generation still struggling to find a voice and economic stability the example of her own past transgressions, and Hannah is the tragic-comic manifestation of all of that angst. Girls might not be for everyone, but in its unflinching portrayal of other young adults struggling to make ends meet and establish a name for themselves amid a socio-economic climate that doesn’t always appear to need them, it is a show still worth watching, and one that more viewers should proudly declare as being among the very best TV shows currently on the air. Dunham doesn’t apologize for being herself, and neither should you for still watching Girls.