Girls S01E05: Hard Being Easy

Five weeks into the opening season of Lena Dunham’s ‘voice of a generation’ show Girls, the hoohah seems to have dissipated and the show can get on with the funny business. The criticisms made of the show could easily be applied (and with more accuracy) to almost any current sitcom, but it seems to have been a victim of its own promotion and the slight hysteria surrounding it in the industry press. At heart, Girls is a pretty straightforward show that tries to paint some impressively complicated (read: WTF) relationships, but fares less well in making them engaging. Most of the girls’ relationships have such glaringly comic flaws it’s a stretch to feel bad for them when it goes belly up. Or any other number of positions considering this is HBO and there’s a quota to be met for boobs/side-butt.

Anyway, this episode picks up in the immediate aftermath of Charlie and Ray’s discovery of Hannah’s journal (or notebook) documenting her thoughts on Marnie and Charlie’s relationship. It’s tricky to follow Charlie’s motivation through the whole affair. Given what we know about him, is he really the type to make a scene in the biggest public forum available to him? On the other hand, Marnie’s given more than a couple of hints that Hannah is pretty much on the ball, so is that just an inability to process some of his latent fears about their relationship? In any event, Charlie struggles to figure out who to blame, Marnie struggles to accept any culpability, and Hannah struggles to muster even basic empathy. “Hey, Marnie, if you had read the essay and it wasn’t about you, do you think you would have liked it? Just as like a piece of writing?” is a helluva line to drop just there.

I guess this is a decent litmus test for your experience of Girls: when you hear a line like that, do you get a shiver of recognition of your own worst impulses, or just get shoved another click away from an already pretty obnoxious character? At what point do the empathetic needs of fiction clash with what is simply a rather honest attempt to present a character’s experiences? How much do you bother separating your opinion of Hannah from that of Lena Dunham? To go the simplest route, the visceral effect it had on me was to care a whole lot less about what happens to these guys. When Hannah confronted her douchey boyfriend in the last episode, there was a moment of bravery: confronting not only a deeply selfish man but all the weaknesses in herself that led her to tolerate him. Her capitulation may be ‘realistic’, but it’s a huge disappointment. More later.

Of the four eponymous Girls, Jemima Kirke’s Jessa seems to be having the most fun. She also plays a recognisable, believable, but odious character, a daughter of wealth who feels within her rights to lecture all and sundry about workers’ rights or her experiences living in Thailand. She also plays her pitch-perfect. This week she is getting herself made up in her employers’ bathroom using the lipstick belonging to the wife of overfriendly Jeff. I really hope there’s an interesting twist coming along somewhere and this plotline resolves some other way, but going on everything we know about the show and about these characters, the married-employer-sleeps-with-young-carefree-notwife ending feels dismayingly inevitable.

Although she’s getting dressed up in someone else’s house for plot reasons, she’s getting dressed up generally to meet an ex-boyfriend who just wanted to get back in touch. Nice try in this show, buddy! Naturally, he is in an unconventional relationship (with Gillian with a hard ‘g’, a 38 year old small press owner), wears a cool hat and has a cool beard. Furthernaturally, they both jumpcut back to Jessa’s flat and have rough sex leaning out the window while Shoshanna hides, watching, in her wardrobe. Poor Shoshanna, this is literally her only input this week. Things can only get better?

Hannah’s story involves failing to seduce her handsy boss. That whole plotline verges into some pretty ambivalent territory. We’re led to believe there is a zero sum game between either a boss who is strict about professional standards or who enjoys touching you at work, and it’s noticeable that none of the employees discuss what happens if you say you’re uncomfortable: it’s a bit of a cop out that allows him to appear relatively harmless. It’s a subject that needs close and careful attention, and when the show has already presented a number of sexually predatory or exploitative men, this strand seems much more unsavoury than it otherwise would, and some control over the show’s messaging needs to be employed. <britta> When things get morally unsavoury in the characters’ personal lives, it’s funny (see Jessa’s comeuppance when she ignores the kids to deliver a lecture), but when the same is true in real world terms (playing sexual harassment at work for yuks), the comedy suffers, which for a sitcom should probably be the bottom line. </britta>

To resolve Charlie/Marnie’s tale, the couple are having sex in a pretty cool looking home-made bed in what appears to be the brightest, airiest apartment in New York. Charlie says some kinda heartbreaking stuff about him not wanting Marnie to leave, how he doesn’t want to feel safe and then be abandoned again. It’s at this point Marnie remembers why she dumped him originaltimes and decides the breakup was the right thing to do. Ouch. But that’ll have to wait til next week to resolve.

The show closes with Hannah saying what we’ll have to assume is her last goodbye to Adam. Having tried to dump him last week it turns out he was happy enough with the arrangement. Hannah uses his bathroom, and appears close to tears. This is the only time, to my memory, that Girls has shown this kind of private moment of weakness, and it was surprisingly moving. Fortunately, because this is a comedy, remember, she finds Adam masturbating and inviting her to join in a weirdly controlling kind of S&M fantasy. Hannah uses this opportunity to express some of her resentment of him, and it’s a pretty neat encapsulation of their relationship: Hannah does something “to get a story”, and is rather a secondary player in Adam’s sexual adventure. Again, we’re going to have to wait til next week for the dénouement, but I hope to Christ that’s the end of it.

So, another kind of painful half-hour of television, but I’ll give it one thing: it’s rarely dull. The show’s sexual politics are pretty normal, the experiences nothing massively out of the ordinary, but it’s well-written, well-executed and yes, often funny. And there aren’t many shows that give their biggest emotional payoff while the lead character’s on the crapper.

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