Brow Beat

Guys on Girls: Girls I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down

Jemima Kirke, center, on Girls (HBO)

David Haglund: Last week, Meghan O’Rourke said it was time to move “the critical conversation away from what we ‘buy’ or ‘don’t buy’“ about the actions of the girls on Girls, as that debate reveals “just how powerfully internalized our ideas about how women should behave are.” I agree, and would suggest another reason for moving on: Girls is not a documentary; its artistic success (or failure) depends less on how precisely accurate it is with regard to the lives of privileged 20-something women in New York than how dramatically compelling its characters and stories are.

The same is true of, say, The Wire. Yes, both shows draw on real life for their material and must reflect our sense of it, but even “realist” series like these must work dramatically first and foremost.

So when I say that episode four of Girls, “Hannah’s Diary,” was, by far, the weakest of the season, it’s not because any particular event could not have happened in the New York City the four of us inhabit, but because those events were not dramatically convincing. Could Shoshanna bump into an old friend from camp and then try to sleep with him only to be rejected because virgins are not really his “thing”? Sure. Could Jessa have momentarily lost track of the kids she babysits at the park, only to be saved by the quick thinking of a fellow nanny? Of course. Might a nervous boyfriend read his sweetheart’s best friend’s journal and then angrily use it for a setpiece in his band’s next gig (what Dana Stevens brilliantly labeled an “emo auto-da-fé”)? I guess. But none of those storylines made dramatic sense to me. They felt rushed, and hackneyed, and, as L.V. Anderson said in the women’s chat, “sitcom-y.” (This was the first episode not directed by Dunham; perhaps she would have slowed down that scene between Shoshanna and her Jewish camp acquaintance, for instance, and made it work.)

Anderson also argued that this episode went “over the line” with its “offensively drawn” characters of color. I think “over the line” is an overstatement, but I do think Dunham and co. erred by looking for comedy in the differences between Jessa and her fellow nannies and Hannah and her new coworkers (one of whom is white—and is played by Lesley Arfin, a writer on the show and lightning rod in the debate about the show’s handling of race). The differences are obvious, and not very funny. It’s more interesting to watch them connect.

Speaking of connection: The one great scene was between Hannah and Adam, who, despite this episode’s problems, became an even more riveting on-screen couple than before. But we can get to that later. What did you guys think of this week’s episode?

Daniel Engber: I’m not sure I get your distinction between what’s dramatically convincing and what otherwise seems true. Here’s what I do know: I watched this episode in a state of confusion. And shock. The show I’d been in love with for three episodes just made a sharp turn toward—I don’t even know what to call it. “Sitcom-y” suggests a sense of purpose and professionalism. Jessa sitting cross-legged on the picnic table as she lectures her fellow nannies—one black, one Asian, one Latina, one ginger—on worker’s rights? It’s more like sketch comedy.

Forrest Wickman: I agree with Anderson that “this is the episode where Girls’ race and class problems became more apparent than ever,” and I agree that the comedy of the show shouldn’t come from differences. But entertainment should be allowed to shed discomforting light on such differences, rather than pretending everyone is the same. The widening, in this episode, of the Girls universe ultimately helped the show. If nothing else, we get a more accurate view of a character like Hannah when we see her in less of a socioeconomic bubble. And while American TV viewers may prefer to watch class distinctions play out in the pre-sexual revolution 1960s or among the early 20th-century British, they continue to be very real, and worth depicting, however awkwardly.

Meanwhile, upper-middle-class white men are still the show’s most consistently maligned minority group. Though considering that they dominate the rest of the entertainment landscape, perhaps that’s as it should be.

Seth Stevenson: It’s strange that we’re dinging Girls for being “sitcom-y.” It is, after all, a sitcom. I guess episode four confirms that Lena Dunham is not reinventing the medium from scratch—but that’s a pretty high bar. I’m happy just to laugh, to be entertained, and to recognize the occasional small truth.

For example: Ray and Charlie’s tune, “In Those Keds,” a funny and spot-on recreation of Brooklyn indie-fluff rock. Or Shoshanna telling that old camp friend she won’t “touch it” if they haven’t kissed first—then kissing for a quarter-second before making her junk-ward lunge. The show remains for me one of the better sitcoms on TV, even if it’s not reinventing the form.

Alex Karpovsky on Girls (HBO)

Engber: There were superb moments—like David, I think the scene between Hannah and Adam makes up for some of the episode’s failures. But let’s talk about what doesn’t make sense. Why does Ray tell Charlie that his girlfriend is boring and needs to be chained to the wall and fucked, and that he himself is a vagina and a tool? And if Charlie is such a chill dude that none of this bothers him, why does he freak out that Hannah called him a vagina and a tool in her diary, and implied that his girlfriend needs to be, if not chained to the wall and fucked, at least treated with a bit more vigor?

Haglund: Ray—however you may identify with him, Dan, and despite his occasional charms—is an asshole. And Charlie’s under-the-surface anger bubbled up in a previous episode, when Marnie said he needed to be a man and “not give a fuck.” He doesn’t understand why his niceness is a problem, and it’s getting to him.

Ray and Charlie are an amusing pair, perhaps this episode’s minor revelation—the major one being Hannah and Adam’s hallway heart-to-heart. That scene, which Dunham in particular totally nailed, showed why Girls is not Entourage or Sex and the City or Friends: The emotional complexity of that situation—trying to break up with someone not because you don’t have strong feelings for them, but because you know they’re not good for you—was rendered more exquisitely than even very good sitcoms render such experiences.

I also loved the decision to leave Hannah’s awful eyebrow makeup, applied by one of her new coworkers, on for that speech. It lent an absurd comic note to that otherwise heavy moment.

Stevenson: Yeah, I thought there was a ton of truth in both break-up scenes. Hannah’s monologue is touching in its honesty, and deepens her character in a way that the previous three episodes didn’t: She finally has some agency, finally talks about what she wants and what she won’t put up with. (Though yes, she eventually caves. But I think she made some progress! Like the caving came from a slightly healthier place inside her!)

And Charlie is trapped in an emotionally confusing, no-win situation that he can’t yet see his way out of: If he’s a nice guy, he’s a chump. If he’s an asshole, he’s an asshole.

I did hope the Slate women might delve a little deeper into the sexual harassment plotline. I couldn’t tell if the show wanted us to pooh-pooh Hannah’s concerns and deem her too unworldly—her older coworkers have made their peace with the inappropriate touching and counsel her to do the same—or if we were meant to be outraged on her behalf and demand she show some backbone. And I wondered if her inability to stand up to her boss in the workplace spurred her insistence on standing up to Adam in the hallway.

Lena Dunham on Girls (HBO)

Haglund: I think we’re meant to empathize with her cluelessness. As for what spurred her stand with Adam: Wasn’t it pretty clearly the conversation with her coworkers? Whatever one thinks of the peace they make with their handsy boss, they know Hannah shouldn’t put up with Adam’s inconsiderateness, and they tell her so. That’s a moment where Hannah connects with her coworkers—and it works. She needed some guidance from grown-ups, and, for once, she got some.

Wickman: That moment also contrasted interestingly with the overly broad bit between Jessa and her fellow nannies in the park. Hannah’s coworkers, who are apparently in dire enough financial straits that they’ll trade sexual harassment for perks like an iPod Nano, suggest that she’ll get used to it (and also give her some beauty advice that, to say the least, isn’t right for her). Jessa, meanwhile, attempts her best Cesar Chavez among the babysitters, claiming, unconvincingly, “I’m just like all of you.” She, too, is in no position to preach to others. Dunham has already perfected a sort of artful exhibitionism, but I was glad the show tried to reach beyond her narrow world—while pointing out that stretching beyond what you know has its own pitfalls.

By the way, the best line of the episode is the one Dana Stevens mentioned, when Hannah confesses, “I can’t take a serious naked picture of myself. That’s just not who I am.” It harkened back to when she told her parents “and then I’m busy becoming who I am” in the pilot.

Stevenson: I saw a little Liz Lemon in Hannah Horvath this episode. Ray thinks her panties are crotchless—then realizes it’s just underwear with holes in it. Later, the silly eyebrows. These felt like they could have been Tina Fey gags. 30 Rock has gotten some guff for turning its accomplished career woman into a fountain of self-effacement and humiliation. But I guess it’s OK for Hannah to be a train wreck because the character is still finding her way, professionally and personally.

Engber: How good is Adam Driver, by the way? With each passing episode I’m more convinced that he’s got this whole thing on his naked shoulders. In general, I find the boys on the show to be better actors than the girls. Lena Dunham is very funny, but has a tendency to ham it up for reaction shots (like those eww-faces she makes while getting the office massage). Alison Williams is perfectly OK, in the sense that she appears to be playing herself. Jemima Kirke seemed false in the playground, and then even more so when remembering her lonely childhood.

Christopher Abbott on Girls (HBO)

But the guy who plays Charlie nails every line. And while I hate what the script has done to Ray in this episode, Alex Karpovsky is a virtuoso at “soulless hipster douchebaggery,” as Dana Stevens pointed out. And Adam Driver—he’s a genius. From the backwards-chair-sit in episode one, to the way he leans on the doorframe in the hallway scene and extends his face forward, trying—really trying!—to understand what the hell it is that Hannah is trying to say, he’s a master of physical dramedy.

Haglund: I completely agree about Driver and Abbott and Karpovsky. But Allison Williams still needs practice—and both Kirke and Dunham are terrific! The supporting players are generally excellent as well: Richard Masur, who played Hannah’s handsy boss in this episode, was—like male workplace figures Chris Eigeman and Mike Birbiglia before him—expertly cast.

Stevenson: Driver has the ability to turn from doofus to sweetie and back on a dime. And I love Dunham’s reaction shots—her unblinking stoneface is masterful. I could watch her and Driver scrunch their noses at each other for hours.

Engber: I resent the show for wanting me to care as much, or even half as much, about Jessa, Marnie, Shoshanna, and their various man-problems as I do about Hannah and Adam.

Stevenson: I hope Hannah and Adam can put up with your smothering kind of love.

Wickman: Don’t trap them in a prison of your kindness!

Engber: Maybe they should just cut me off. The stump will heal.

Read what the women of Slate thought of this episode over at the XX Factor.