Variety TV Critics Discuss the Legacy and Impact of ‘Girls’ (Part 1)

In advance of Sunday night's series finale, Variety's TV critics take a look back at what the show succeeded at, what it meant for criticism, and what it means now that it's almost gone

Courtesy of HBO

When “Girls” premiered in April 2012, it was almost all that the TV aficionado community could talk about, and it made a giant splash in pop culture, too. Nearly everyone had a strong take on the show Lena Dunham created. Below, Part 1 of Variety’s TV critics’ reflections on the show’s legacy and impact — and why they’re both happy and sad that the story of Hannah Horvath and her friends is wrapping up. (Part 2 will post Monday after the finale.)

Sonia Saraiya: I’m so happy “Girls” is ending.

Don’t get me wrong, Mo — I’m not trying to slam the door on its way out. This last season of “Girls” has genuinely surprised me with its grace; I think Lena Dunham and the rest of the cast and crew may have been hankering for a curtain call, too. Dunham’s sensibilities are rooted in cinema, and she’s at her best when she’s telling a complete story — whether that’s those jarring and lyrical standalone episodes like this season’s “American Bitch” or the closed loop of Season 1, which ends with the best directing work Dunham has done. That this sixth season has felt revitalized is another indicator that ending “Girls” was and is the best possible thing for the legacy of the show.

It’s also such a nice little counterpoint to most of the rest of television, cementing “Girls”’ ongoing legacy as a show that stands out from the crowd. TV shows don’t always get to decide when and how they end; even when they do, they can be absolutely maddening. If the season so far is any indication, Sunday’s finale of “Girls” might be the happiest we all collectively feel about an HBO half-hour that — deservedly or otherwise — defined a shift in contemporary comedic storytelling. As tumultuous and passive-aggressive as my relationship with it has been, watching all of us watch “Girls” has been one of the most fascinating and foundational experiences of my career.

Maureen Ryan: I agree. And I also think the show has stepped up its game in its final season. Not that there weren’t good episodes and arcs in every season, but at times, “Girls” could feel a bit patchy and repetitive. This season, I feel a sense of purpose and urgency about everything that occurs, as the characters all grapple with choices and situations that are important and reflect truly adult-sized challenges. And yet, this season, “Girls” has slowed down when in has needed to, to savor the important moments among characters who are looking past their own immediate needs and figuring out who they want to be in their 30s and beyond.

Adam and Hannah talking on a park bench in the April 2 episode was positively lovely — as well as being Peak Adam and Hannah (well, almost as Peak Adam and Hannah as Adam running down the street to find Hannah as he FaceTimed her through the streets of Brooklyn at the end of season two). Ray smiling on a merry-go-round, every word that Elijah has said, Shosh’s sly asides and Jessa’s freakouts, not to mention Marnie’s dawning realization that she’s not the only human being in the world — it’s all been fairly entrancing, not to mention concise and bittersweet.

And of course, there was one scene that made me cringe with its tin-eared framing (Elijah and Hannah holding a long argument in a kitchen full of Asian workers whom they elaborately ignored was… not maybe the ideal choice for a show that’s always had a problematic relationship with characters of color). But the truth is, I’ll miss reacting to “Girls” and pondering the issues I’ve had with it and celebrating everything smart and good about it (and there was always a lot of that). The show never stopped giving us things to think about — what more could critics ask? And yet, we’ve been talking about “Girls” for a long time — it feels right to let it go now.

Saraiya: One of the reasons I’m so happy to put this show to bed is because sometimes it feels like reacting to this show has actually been my career. The first time I wrote about “Girls” it was for pennies at a now-defunct blog-like publication, my first “paid” writing gig and my first job in New York City, too. The premiere enraged me — Dunham’s now-signature combination of provocation (challenging our sense of decency, ambition, and worthiness), erasure (of people of color), and inclusion (of the female body in its many beauties and indignities), was both incredibly relevant and terribly threatening to the life I felt that I’d barely begun to create. At the same time, the conversation around “Girls” was the first one that I felt like I might have something useful to say about it.

I know a lot of millennials have reactions similar to mine — this weird sense of wondering if “Girls” was really a show about us, or if it just used us to make a point about other people. Or if it was a mistake to think it was ever about representation at all, or if it was weird and maybe bad that sometimes we saw ourselves in these characters, these Brooklyn interiors, these familiar city streets. And as absurd as it is that I am including memoir in this conversation about “Girls,” that is what this show does to me. Is it terribly selfish of me to say that one of the main reasons I’m happy “Girls” is ending is that so I can once again clearly see where I end and where Lena Dunham begins?

Ryan: I do get that. And one of the things I most regret about mid-period and late “Girls” is not writing about it more — in large part because just so many damn things were conflated when it came to this show. Like you, I saw myself on the screen, and like you, I was frustrated by the show’s limitations, which were also television’s limitation but those problems, for a host of understandable reasons, were discussed with a special and sometimes almost frightening intensity when it came to “Girls.” Part of the reason I’m also feeling nostalgic about it is because, for a while there, it seemed like it was sustaining television’s Thinkpiece-Industrial Complex largely on its own — I miss those days, and yet I don’t. There was so much to unpack there, and there wasn’t always time to write the kind of take that would be fair to all sides and also be readable and even vaguely original.

In any event, over the years, I kind of wandered away from writing about “Girls,” partly because TV kept on throwing hundreds of new shows at us. But the main reason I didn’t write about the show was that, for long stretches, it was very hard to tell where the criticism of the show began and where the coverage of and cruelty toward Lena Dunham ended.

Don’t get me wrong: Dunham is a grown-up who got a bunch of money from HBO to make a TV show, and along with that kind of gig comes public scrutiny. That’s normal. But so much of the writing about “Girls,” whether from critics, reporters or the public at large, was abnormal.

Saraiya: I don’t mean to diminish what you’re saying, because I do think the backlash against “Girls,” which I have to admit I participated in, was much more personal than it would have been for a male talent. But at the same time were actually quite a few things to be frustrated about in that first stretch of episodes — like the show’s mingled privilege and self-pity; like its self-satisfied proclamations of truth-telling for a generation that did not really want that. The show got compared to “Sex and the City,” and though that’s only loosely relevant, what it definitely had in common with that show is how removed it seemed from what most Americans were going through in 2012. The recession was still haunting so many of us — especially the young people saddled with student loan debt who couldn’t find jobs after graduating. To them — the people Dunham was ostensibly portraying or speaking to? — seeing such an incredible, vision-driven, auteur project handed to a 25-year-old, no matter how talented, felt like salt on a wound.

I’ve come around to thinking that while Dunham is provocative, she’s often provocative in the best way. I certainly have had trouble seeing it in the past. But for someone who considers themselves relatively open-minded, it was astounding how often “Girls” managed to get under my skin — challenging assumptions I have about my own work, my own body, my own relationship to privilege. Her use of nudity has made me examine my own prejudices about women’s bodies on television, even as I roll my eyes at yet another scene where Hannah is improbably nude in front of several friends and relatives.

Ryan: I have never been that naked around my friends; I mean, I know I’m a Midwesterner, but so is Hannah? Then again, I don’t think Hannah was meant to stand for anyone but herself. She was a voice of a generation, not the voice of a generation, though to read the coverage of the show, you’d think that distinction didn’t matter. But given how few people under 30 get to make TV shows at prestige outlets — and how few women had gotten to make TV shows anywhere by the time 2012 rolled around — I can understand why “Girls” ended up being not just a phenomenon, but an array of litmus tests about a whole array of subjects (white women, women’s bodies, white feminism, Brooklyn, dating, millennials, and so much more). “Girls” blew up partly because there had been so few protagonists like Hannah before, and very quickly, “Girls” became what I call “an X-ray show”: What a person wrote or said about the show told me a lot about where their head was at. Another X-ray show that partly overlapped with “Girls”: “Breaking Bad.” If someone came at me aggressively with the thought that Heisenberg was a misunderstood badass and his wife was just a killjoy nag who needed to get with the program of badassery, I hit “Mute” on Twitter and moved on. Life’s too short, etc. But, come to think of it, “Girls” was just as interested in power dynamics as “Breaking Bad,” but those questions about aspiration and independence were framed and explored in radically different ways, obviously.

Saraiya: You’re right: Like it or not, this show has set the tenor for some of media’s most interesting conversations about gender — and race, too, albeit mostly in terms of how “Girls” has disappointed us. It continues to be fascinating that Lena Dunham and Donald Glover, two extremely talented artists, came together in the second season of “Girls” for a highly scrutinized, brief, and completely implausible love affair that was supposed to say something about the show’s relationship to race. I feel like that will be a footnote in both of these creatives’ careers for decades to come, just because of how narrowly it encapsulated a specific moment’s weird anxieties about race, gender, and class.

Ryan: The thing is, there was Dunham the human being and artist — who made mistakes, and who walked some of them back successfully, went on to make more mistakes and also did a lot of interesting, thoughtful things that contributed to the culture, or at least to the cultural conversation. Then there was “Girls” the show, and at a certain point, it became impossible to untangle the dialogue about them both. Molotov cocktails were being lobbed at the show and the person on a regular basis, and even as you might admire the hotness of a take, it all got fairly exhausting. Especially as a woman in the TV criticism game, I honestly just got tired of trying to engage with the systemic misogyny that affected the coverage of “Girls” and the social-media conversations about it. That said, I was deeply affected by what women of color wrote about “Girls.” I dislike the phrase “started a conversation” (because too often, white people start conversations about race and then end them the second they feel uncomfortable), but “Girls” took the conversation about who got to make TV shows that had been rumbling in the background and brought it into the foreground, and that was a very good thing. But when it came to those conversations around the show, allow me one rant: Anyone who tried to make the case that Dunham was the beneficiary of nepotism — and utterly failed to cite the hundreds of other cases of nepotism and privileged access at a dozen other prestige outlets — please, retroactively, feel free to launch yourself into the sun.

Saraiya: I hear the sun is nice this time of year.

Ryan: Truth be told, at one point or another, I wanted to launch all these characters into the sun (not Laird. Never Laird.). How aware was the show of just how off-putting its characters could be, and how much was that awfulness intentional and/or artistically valid? But an even bigger question became, to me, why can’t we talk about the artistic accomplishments of this show — which were staggering when “Girls” was on its A-game — without running a simultaneous referendum on whether Dunham was a worthwhile human being or not? Because we seem to be able to have conversations about “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos” without doing similarly intensive and frankly exhaustive dissections of the personalities and personal histories of those shows’ creators. Or if we do talk about male creators, they are usually framed in heroic or semi-heroic terms as brave rule-breakers and admirable rebels. We could have a whole other conversation about why female TV creators aren’t characterized in the same mythical terms, but maybe we’ll have time to do that when we’re less overwhelmed by the sheer amount of TV we’re contending with this month. (Thanks, April 2017!)

In any event, recalling those early days of the “Girls” conversation, there was a swirling mass of sometimes fetid hostility toward Dunham, and as television exploded, it became easier just to back away from the field of battle. I also think that, among those of us who write and consume a lot of TV criticism, we just got a little bit tired of talking about “Girls,” even as we continued to watch it and think about it. I do kind of miss the fact that one show could be this dominant among what the Brits call “the chattering classes.” Do you think that kind of moment could come again? Or am I being too precious about that kind of cultural moment — do you think it’s happened since and may happen again? I just don’t know. The truth is, even though “Broad City,” Amy Schumer, “Fleabag,” “Transparent” and “Insecure” — all of which could be said to be following in Hannah Horvath’s footsteps — have had “moments” of various sizes and impacts, but will any half-hour show dominate critics’ brains the way “Girls” did for a couple of years there? I dunno, maybe we don’t need it to. But I wonder.

Saraiya: But I have to say, I think Dunham was doing something quite different than “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” and “The Sopranos.” Those weren’t autobiographical. “Girls” quite brilliantly eroded the division between fiction and reality — so brilliantly that it kind of blew up in all of our faces. I don’t think Lena Dunham is just like Hannah Horvath, but the two are a lot alike — and both say and portray things that more often than not seem designed for maximal discomfort.

One of the things I find most off-putting about “Girls” is its actual comedy — the awkwardness, tragedy, and shame that are exacerbated for an audience presumed to be amused by it. It’s a brand of comedy that Dunham, Jenni Konner, and Judd Apatow made together — Apatow took it to “Love” — but it worked for me kind of despite itself. I’ve never watched so many episodes of something that has actively repelled me quite so much. And yet I watched every episode of “Girls,” and most of the time, I thought about them, too. Jury is still out, for me, on whether or not that was a type of narcissism — they’re just like me, but on TV! — or a true appreciation of the form. I think Dunham knew something about me that I didn’t know myself, though: Something about being annoyed, week-to-week, kept me engaged in the show’s narratives.

Ryan: As I was reading your words, I was nodding my head — and realizing that “Girls” had something in common with really good reality TV: Even as you judge the people on screen, and think you’ve got a better grip on things than they do, you can’t look away, and you realize that half the reason you’re fascinated by these individuals is because they’re not all that different from you. There’s definitely an element of voyeuristic schadenfreude when it comes “Girls” (and I am legally allowed to use that phrase because I was an English major).

Saraiya: (And here I am with this silly International Relations degree, which only lets me use the word “realpolitik” without flinching.)

Ryan: Even though I am an Old, I had student-loan debt, too; please forgive my moment of liberal-arts-degree-using pretension. But yes, I agree; Dunham and her directors played skillfully with the question of whether we were meant to judge Hannah and her friends or identify with them — or both. I think what ultimately saved the show from becoming too caustic or self-involved was the fact that it was ultimately really sincere. Hannah wasn’t only a joke, and her friends weren’t always awful, and it’s also undeniable that their ability to get in their own way was often very, very funny. Like you, I sometimes wondered, “Why am I still watching this?” but at the same time, I knew I would never give up on “Girls.” How could I? Not only was it interesting to think about and ponder, once I’d started down the road with these nerds, I couldn’t not find out what happened to them.

Saraiya: Whatever else you can say about “Girls,” it had a clear vision and a lot of people who were on board with that. I’m looking forward to seeing, Sunday night, how that vision chooses to come to a landing. We’ll be back Monday to discuss the finale.