‘Girls’ was a millennial mess — just like the rest of us

A celebration of the most millennial of HBO comedies as airs its series finale

In a stroke of millennial unoriginality, I belong to a group of four close friends (aka a text thread) trying to make it in various creative endeavors in a bustling city. Well, in Austin. The four of us — a copy editor/baker, a graphic designer, a writer and a whatever I am — solidified our friendship, in fact, around “Girls” viewing parties. 

Sometimes weekly and sometimes sporadic, these get-togethers have been rich with Queen Helene mint julep face masks, cheese from the nice grocery store and wine from the cheap grocery store. Such an arrangement is not unique for Sunday night TV. In fact, I’d wager communal viewing was baked right into the development of “Girls.” HBO, after all, aims to create appointment television. It’s probably, despite overreaching spiritual comparisons to the contrary, the show’s truest link to its predecessor, “Sex and the City.”

Now, as “Girls” signs off, I find myself defensive of Lena Dunham’s divisive little duchy of auteurship. When it debuted in 2012, the comedy bore a lightning bolt scar as big as any you’d see at Hogwarts, marking it both special and responsible, somehow tasked to represent an entire generation of twentysomethings. The setup — narcissistic writer Hannah Horvath (Dunham), basic princess Marnie Michaels (Allison Williams), bohemian tornado Jessa Johansson (Jemima Kirke) and neurotic naif Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) trying to make it as young adults in New York City — put the requisite sitcom archetypes in place. If the show succeeded, it was bound to become a cultural flashpoint, and it did. If it didn’t, it would still probably inspire academic essays, just 20 years after the fact, once its box sets had been relegated to an indie video store somewhere in a college town.

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My friends’ lactose-rich rituals launched conversations about jobs, families and boys, the stuff of any given “Girls” plot. I always picked and chose the parts of myself I saw reflected in Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shosh. Mostly, it was the stuff about being poor and professionally frustrated, not about tripping on molly in mesh tank tops (though there was that one South by Southwest party). 

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There’s a temptation with a show like “Girls” to take the characters’ wins and witticisms for yourself and shun their warts. As the curtain falls on a tremendous final season, many culture critics have taken to defending the show against such selective mirroring. Bustle vouched for the cracked veneer of ever-selfish Marnie (sort of), saying her “struggle is a pantomime of our own struggles when tumbling down the rabbit hole of rapidly dwindling prospects.” The New Yorker, in a “hey, wait a minute” take, vouched for the setting of Dunham’s show as a world of its own making, not some simulacrum of Brooklyn that many pundits tried to cram it into, a fit as ill as Hannah into any number jobs she tried to hold down. Like her turn as a substitute teacher, which at times felt like a criminally negligent endeavor.

If “Girls” was not an anthropological expedition into borough life, and if its characters were unjustly villified as if they owed the viewer good behavior — what a boring thirty minutes that would be each week — what was the point of it all, aside from being an entertaining TV show? It certainly was that, especially anytime Andrew Rannells’ Elijah was on screen. From my perch of smoked gouda and Two Buck Chuck, it’s an ode to the pain and discomfort that make you a little better than you used to be.

Lena Dunham the series finale of HBO's "Girls." (Mark Schafer/HBO) (HBO/TNS)

At the risk of speaking with the premature perspective of a Thought Catalog essay, though that ship has already gone full Magellan, one’s twenties disabuse you of any illusions about yourself. Throughout the run of “Girls,” a flock of millennial gargoyles took bruising licks and dispensed them in kind, often careening through perilous passageways on their own in gorgeous bottle episodes — the secret weapons of the show — and occasionally rejoining each other in a toxic flight pattern. Hannah struggled with money, mental illness and a never-healthy relationship (with brawny, strange Adam, played by Kylo Ren himself, Adam Driver). She ultimately found some semblance of a W2 to back up her claims of being a writer. On her own, she learned lessons alone in rooms with men, whether a townhouse idyll with a doctor or an on-assignment fling with a surf instructor that led to pregnancy and newfound maturity. 

Marnie, seemingly a control to the other girls’ experimental groups in season one, perhaps took the Humpty-Dumptiest fall over six seasons. She started as the kind of girl you’d imagine Brian Williams’ Yale-alum daughter would be in real life, with a Charlotte York-style gallery job, a steady boyfriend and stern, put-together advice for the human chaos theories around her. But then her own worst impulse, extreme unearned confidence, led her to chase a futile music career and a futile marriage with an emotionally unhinged addict. When briefly freed of the inhibition of being herself, she found clarity about her crumbling marriage underneath the waters of Central Park, if only for a frustrating moment. 

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It’s Jessa, the self-described sociopath, who took all this damage and gave it her own name, wreaking disruption and broken relationships in her aimless, palpably pained path of unsold baby clothes and one schumcky Chris Dowd. I told a friend midway through the current season that I was glad the show had finally doubled down and explicitly painted Jessa as the bad person she’s always been. She’d been excommunicated by Hannah, forced to confront that Adam still thought fondly of that former relationship and found that her Loki-like proclivities left her ultimately alone and unfulfilled. But my friend had a different take. Jessa, she said, wasn’t a bad person — just a person, damned to make mistakes in the way that she’s been consigned by both nature and happenstance to make them. And the worst part is that she knows it every single day.

The younger Shosh, on the other hand, always looked in on her friends’ foibles from the outside, navigating virginity, unemployment and accidental crack smoking with three examples of what not to do in close proximity. Her season five sojourn to Japan was an exercise in isolation that anyone who’s ever moved to strange place for a job or loves Sofia Coppola can understand. One got the feeling that as a defeated Shosh walked through an empty Tokyo night to a haunting cover of “Life on Mars,” she arrived wherever she was going sans a sliver of youth she had at the beginning of the stroll.

Shosh, often the lone voice of sanity, turned out to be the key to endgame all along. In its most meta moment, season three’s (!) “Beach House,” a then-still-puppyish Shosh drunkenly lays into her ersatz friends at the end of a disastrous coastal weekend. Disastrous except the choreographed dance number, of course. She calls out the stench of narcissism clinging to the gang, particularly Hannah, with a brutal specificity and cathartic salt that both spoke for her id and the viewer. I always thought that another Defcon Shosh carpetbombing would be a fitting end for the series. In the show’s penultimate episode, Dunham and co. delivered just that, as Shosh bit into the friend group’s collective cyanide pill and broke up the fearsome foursome once and for all in a gutting bathroom fight, a twist Buzzfeed called “refreshing.”

As that friendship ends, and as the show ends, so end my viewing parties. My friends, though, have only grown closer, I’d like to think. We’ve chugged each episode with glee and chased them with talk of the jobs we lost, the jobs we wanted, the boys we thought were cute, the boys we had broken up with, the families we weren’t talking to, the family members who had died and our own inability to deal with each and every one of these things in a manner resembling calm, cool collection. Personally, I felt like I could have used a Shosh every now and then to shake me out of myself.

I’m grateful, ultimately, for a show that turned out not to be an aspirational fantasy but instead cautionary folklore for my pals, and those like us. The “Girls” might not have made it through six seasons intact. But thanks to Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shosh, my friends and I took a course together in what it looks like to fall flat on your face into a puddle of your own awfulness. Cheese in one hand and wine in the other, we’ll know what to look out for, I hope. But I don’t think I’m as afraid for things to get messy as I might have been otherwise.

And oh, they’ll get messy.


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