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

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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