HBO’s ‘Girls’ Is Defiant in the Best of Ways

HBO's 'Girls' Is Defiant the Best

How naive am I, to think I could enjoy my Panda Express while watching Sunday’s “Girls” on HBO. Titled “On All Fours,” the episode danced through cringe-worthy scenes that left me with an amalgamation of emotions I could only shake off by Swiffering the living daylights out of my apartment afterwards.

I tried to text friends about it, but no one else was watching, at least not in my phone book list that night.

Of course, my work Twitter feed slowly became a breeding ground for commentary on the episode. The TV industry folk that I follow dubbed the episode “historic,” “shocking,” “disturbing,” and “graphic,” among other hashtags and emoticons. It seemed like everyone in the world was commenting about the episode, even though the episode drew just under 700 thousand viewers.

Here I’ll state the obvious: “Girls” generates the kind of numbers this season that would spell immediate doom for a program on any basic cable net, while simultaneously setting off a domino effect of blog posts and articles dissecting the show’s characters and plot points. The Lena Dunham dramedy scraped past the one million mark with DVRs, but again, “Big Bang Theory” reruns on TBS can triple these numbers on an average night.

Even with paltry numbers, “Girls” has become a cultural touchstone, and a lightning rod for rants, raves and tweets. In my world — that of a twentysomething living in Los Angeles and working at an entertainment trade — the program is part of my TV and professional vernacular. But yesterday, as every online pub added their two pennies to the Adam-sex-scene debate, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was succumbing to the problem that at times plagues anyone working in showbiz: the bubble blind spot.

The phenomenon arises when your professional and personal life skews your perception of a show’s relevance compared to, you know, the rest of America. How do we make sense of how important “Girls” seems to be to millennials and baby boomers’ impression of Gen Y when, really, not that many people are watching? Can something really be a cultural touchstone when most of the culture is tuning in to something else?

Am I just following too many TV critics on Twitter?

Of course, as a premium cable net, HBO does not rely on ratings the way the Big Four or basic cable nets do. The channel is concerned with its subscriber base, as well as bringing attention to the network, helping remind people to subscribe — or remind them why shelling out the extra cash in their cable bill is worth it.

Nevertheless, ratings do affect the paybler’s programming calls. “Enlightened,” dubbed one of the “best shows that no one’s watching” by some critics, hangs in the cancellation balance after a beautifully composed second season that averaged around 250,000 viewers. Should “Enlightened” be cut from the lineup, it would be proof that HBO does have a certain commercial bar that needs to be met, no matter how great the program is.

Even execs at other nets will acknowledge HBO (and pay cable, more broadly) is the place for show creators to spread their creative wings without the nagging pressure of Nielsen ratings. Because of this, HBO has incubated valuable talent like Dunham, offering her second and then third seasons to create programming that both offends and awes, while not nitpicking the live broadcast numbers.

In “On All Fours,” Dunham proved that she is willing to do what most shows clinging to Nielsen numbers would try to avoid: make the viewer cringe, look away and feel isolated. Maybe even change the channel.

This approach has stirred conversation and debate even from journos who are ridiculously far from “Girls’” supposed demographic.“Did Lena Dunham Go Too Far?” articles asked regarding the bodily fluids featured after a particularly tough-to-watch sex scene. Some media members even tweeted that reactions to the “Girls” sex scene with Adam made them “worry” about Gen Y-ers and what they’ve “been raised on.”

But the presence of these emotional knee-jerks from auds is exactly why “Girls” is a force to be reckoned with, even though the program’s numbers could be sneezed out in a handful of minutes on “American Idol.”

As the season two finale of “Girls” approaches this Sunday, the program has distinguished itself as more than just a forum for Dunham to be naked in, as some pop culture commentators view the show. “Girls” is, of late, a fundamentally defiant program, flipping the bird to viewers who want to see all of the leads in each episode, spitting on the shoes of auds that want sex scenes that reside comfortably in propriety’s confines. Those hooked find themselves asking, “Why are we randomly at Jessa’s dad’s house in Poughkeepsie for an entire episode?” yet continue to watch. “Girls” forces its loyal viewership out of their expectations of TV’s traditional narrative arcs. The show shocks more than the beheadings on sibling series “Game of Thrones,” with the mere overzealous use of a Q-tip.

To do all of this and maintain an audience — no matter how small — in a TV era where choice is boundless is impressive.

And from a programming standpoint, HBO continues to let “Girls” defy the need for ratings that compete with those in its timeslot, like History’s “The Bible” or AMC’s “Walking Dead.” Even “Sex and the City,” which “Girls” drew nonstop comparisons to during its first season, was pulling in millions of viewers during its glamorous run. “Girls” will never have that level of glossy, broad appeal, but that’s turning out to be a positive thing because, in this sense, HBO has given “Girls” the permission to explore and provoke.

We are in the bubble, but witnessing something important, all several hundred thousand of us.

The whole “Girls” shebang could be summed up in the final scene from Sunday’s “On All Fours.” (Warning: spoiler alert.) Hannah sits on the edge of her bathtub without any accompanying music, a creative choice maintained throughout the episode that made the viewing experience uncomfortably intimate and raw. A bandage is over Hannah’s left ear, which she damaged by puncturing her eardrum with a Q-tip. Viewers have already witnessed Hannah pulling a splinter out of her upper thigh, Marnie singing a horribly awkward rendition of a Daft Punk song to a room of confused onlookers, and Adam dipping into his sexual deviancy with a girl who finishes the encounter with a vulnerable “I, like, really didn’t like that.”

Then, Hannah — but really, Lena Dunham — picks up another Q-tip and begins to aggressively dig in her healthy right ear. You cringe one last time.

It is defiance at its finest.

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  1. Tamara Ikenberg says:

    Is showing some fake sperm on HBO really that big a deal? I think nawt. it’s NOT REAL FOLKZ

  2. Dan north says:

    “… Then Hannah- but really, Lena Dunham- picks up another Q-Tip amd begins to dig in her healthy right ear. It is defiance at its finest…”

    I interpret this moment- and several like it in the Series itself- very differently. Hear me out.

    After the first season prompted many online screeds about Dunham’s damning depictions of 20-something self-indulgence and narcissism, it seemed as if Dunham
    Herself retooled her PR patter to join the chorus of critics, much like Spinal Tap’s reaction to the naked girl on all fours on the cover of their album, “Smell the Glove”- “We’re making FUN if that sort of thing!”

    “Yes, of course, Ms. Dunham. Sorry- we thought you were being unironically vain and shallow, not mocking it.”

    Season Two seemed then to mark a hast retreat for her lead character- into ARTISTIC SERIOUSNESS AND DEPTH. How? Lets give her an as-yet-not-mentioned mental disorder like OCD, and depict her as emotionally and intellectually unstable. “Wait Til you see what she does with a Q-Tip! She’s BONKERS! (And therefore profound.)”

    Yet the transparency of the gambit is itself the telltale sign of its arbitrariness. Had these aspects of her character been better foreshadowed – they wouldn’t feel so tacked on and false. They Qtip / OCD revelation adds nothing to the character. Since they were never properly hinted at before, they feel like hammy attempts to give a shallow protagonist sudden depth… Ultimately unsatisfying, at lease for those who have been counting on the show to offer genuine character development.

  3. Val Addams says:

    My problem with this season is not the sleaze or darkness, but the inconsistency. Each episode seems to turn into some new territory that previously was nowhere in sight; especially this sudden plunge into Hannah’s OCD. Did I miss something? I don’t recall any indication this a problem she had (even if under control) until suddenly she has full blown OCD, and can’t cope with anything. And did anyone think Marnie’s ex would react to her embarrassing performance at his party by resuming his lust for her? Few motivations make sense. And despite Adam’s sexual self-sabotage he somehow remains more likeable than the show’s women. Did we really need the shot of semen on his girlfriend’s tits? I’m surprised Dunham refrained from having him cum all over her face. The show has really gotten out of control, unlike Enlightened which just ending an exciting season with a victorious final episode that was absolutely breathtaking.

  4. My girlfriend and I watched the first episode of “Girls” and we were so disgusted by Lena Dunham’s character that we haven’t watched another episode since. I am happy for Lena Dunham, for her success at such a young age and for the Emmy’s she won, however, that being said: if she is the voice of my generation, I am embarrassed by what she seems to be saying about it..

  5. As middle boomers – so not the target audience I assume -both my wife and I think this is one of the best things on the box right now. In the same way Homeland is always swinging for the fences, Girls gets grand slams and strikeouts. We love both shows because they are not afraid to try to be excellent (don’t always succeed but try) and unlike most of the middle road crap on TV, they do not shy away from the fact basically good, smart people can do awful and stupid things, just like in real life.

  6. Clorinda Donato says:

    As a babyboomer parent, I have been fascinated by the depiction of parent. Hannah’s parents who have finally earned a bit of peace struggle with their daughter who bounces back to them, falling back into her former neediness and self-destructive patterns. The parents feel badly, but at the same time, they just want a break. They didn’t ask for this New York style psyche coming from some bury town in America and they always look like they just want to cover their eyes and hope it goes away. Having raised three kids and experienced much of the craziness from kids, to their friends, to their friends’ parents and relatives and back, I can’t believe how incredibly true most of what “Girls” portrays rings for me. It is interesting that my husband hates the show, not wanting to believe, I think what he is seeing, or maybe hoping it isn’t or wasn’t so with his own kids. It is painful to watch, but it is, all the same, a very accurate portrait of the day to day life of young adults who have finally worked their way completely out of any of the old fallbacks that once existed, i.e., religion, parents who are always there for you, best friends who never betray, school teachers and mentors who want the best for you. It’s hardly the case anymore.

  7. michael says:

    As a male, Gen Xer, I realize that I am far from the targeted demographic for this show, so I have watched it more out of curiosity than anything else. Hoping to like it, as I am a big fan of creativity, uniqueness, trend-setting…I can certainly appreciate something, even if it is not made with me in mind. Yet, when you have go to such lengths, to explain the importance and relevance of a show, as this article attempts to do, could it be that the show is simply just not that good? That although the characters are odd and have all of these eccentricities, they’re not that interesting or likable? That in its attempts at lighter moments, it’s not that funny? I am sure that there are some young ladies, and some men, who will identify with some of the chaotic characters, that’s the case with any show. But I have tried to figure out what the show is about? Again, I am probably missing something here, but good is good, quality is quality and, after a while, although you don’t want to say that the show “sucks”… it kind of does. And I am amazed at how some write ups on the show are trying to make sound more important than what it is. And by the way, I don’t know any women who watch this show. (All my female friends were big fans of Sex and The City, a show which, like it or not, knew what it was and…until the end, was good at it).

  8. elisa says:

    I would like someone to please explain to me why the hell does anybody ever watch this show? There’s not a single positive thing on it, it’s all dark and dirty and twisted and, above all, just degrading. Certainly nothing I would ever watch; life’s too short to fill my mind with such garbage. I’ve never met people like that so I don’t relate, and I wouldn’t want to meet people like that, so why would I ever be interested in watching a couple of weirdos have explicit dysfunctional sex? Complete and gratuitous degradation and violence handled the wrong way, with no class and no brains. And I should point out that I do enjoy great shows that feature violence, like The Sopranos, but that kind of television is just miles away from what Girls will ever dream to be. Since when degradation of human beings (regardless of whether it’s a female or male) is good television, a “cultural touchstone” or even “art”? Don’t let the “cool tag” heaven knows why this show has play you. This is not the kind of content anybody should be watching, it just dehumanizes us. It’s not “watching something important.”
    “In “On All Fours,” Dunham proved that she is willing to do what most shows clinging to Nielsen numbers would try to avoid: make the viewer cringe, look away and feel isolated.”
    Come on, tell it like it is: that is simply called soft porn.

  9. K. D. says:

    Oh, come on, Al. The problem with this whole monsoon of GIRLS dialogue – particularly among the blog circles and media – is they so easily succumbed to the element of shock…FROM A WOMAN! When used in past Judd Apatow projects, mostly with boys, they call it juvenile. Now, with girls, they applaud it as gutsy. Gimme a break. After watching all of Season One, the enjoyability level had simply fallen, and drastically. After this season’s first three episodes I had had enough of the self-absorbed, clueless, or painfully stupid behavior exhibited, and with tragically few redeeming qualities.

    By chance, I caught Sunday’s episode, and thought, “What, Hanna thinks she’s Vincent Van Gogh, now? Or, Adrian Lyne? Then, Todd Solondz? Shocking. Disturbing. And also, quite lame. Adam’s a douche bag, what a news flash. In the end though, it was just implausible, un-entertaining storytelling.
    Sorry. I’m out.

    And I doubt I’m alone, either.

    • Diane De Wilde says:

      The only interesting episode was the one involving Jessa and her father. The show’s characters are boring and the writing, as well as some of the acting, is simply, not good! Sorry, I tried to like the series, but it is a show that tries too hard to be “cool” and misses the whole point of a series which is to get viewers to want to watch it and anticipate the next episode. Does the series do this? No, it does not.

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