The Monstrous Brilliance of Girls

Regardless of how you feel about the noise Lena Dunham generates, don’t let it drown this out: Girls was a truly great show.

Lena Dunham in Girls.
Lena Dunham in Girls.


Before Girls even began, feelings about Lena Dunham, its then 25-year-old creator, ran almost inconceivably hot. Heralded, decried, beloved, dismissed, Dunham was, depending on whom you asked, brilliant, unbearable, fearless, privileged, racist, fat, a product of nepotism, the voice of a generation, or some combination of all of the above. In the five years since, feelings about Dunham have not cooled, but they have stabilized, a roiling pot that has kept roiling—often swamping the television show that started it all and that begins its final, fantastic sixth season this Sunday.

From the beginning there has been a conflation of Dunham and her alter ego, the monstrous, hilarious Hannah Horvath. Girls, when it first arrived, was praised and critiqued as a kind of millennial ethnography, a reaction encouraged by the realistic tone of the very early series, long since abandoned. Horvath was taken to be a thinly disguised, lost version of Dunham herself—an ambitious but directionless Oberlin graduate with artistic aspirations kicking around Greenpoint on her parents’ dime, having complicated sex and waiting for life to happen. Hannah’s (white) friends were based on Lena’s (white) friends, Hannah’s tattoos were Lena’s tattoos, Hannah’s body was Lena’s body, Hannah’s voice-of-a-generation joke was maybe a not-quite-joke about Lena’s own. Hannah was imperfect, but dancing to Robyn late at night after crafting the perfect elliptical tweet for her 26 followers, she was also recognizable and relatable. As often happens with work made by women, Girls was not received so much as fiction but as memoir.

Swiftly, Dunham and her co-writer and producer, Jenni Konner, began to write their way out of this particular corner with glorious malice, turning Girls into a blood-letting satire inhabited by enormously watchable characters who could never be mistaken for aspirational ones. Hannah and her friends broke free from the bonds of realism and the handcuffs of likability to became riotous grotesques, larger-than-life narcissists stomping around New York like self-harming Godzillas. Girls’ satire is grounded in familiar human traits—the self-obsession, the gnarly striving, the destructive sexual passion, the competitiveness, the unexpected dashes of love—but these qualities are twisted and amped up, ordinary seeds tended into wild, disfigured, possibly carnivorous jungle plants.

But actually watching Girls has always been extra credit when it comes to being a member of the overenrolled Girls Think Piece Club. Who has two thumbs and an opinion on Lena Dunham? And they say there’s nothing left that unites this country! In a time when many celebrities strive to be as inoffensive as possible, Dunham is, instead, indomitably herself. Having to make one public apology is usually enough to cow a celebrity into safe politesse, but Dunham is indefatigably, uncontrollably impolitic and political, racking up inadvertent controversies and their subsequent mea culpas like pinball points. As Girls’ Hannah Horvath has become a fully fleshed comedic creation, firmly controlled by Dunham and Konner, Dunham has become the more controversial figure of the two. If Hannah was once taken to be a thinly disguised Dunham, Dunham is now seen by some as a thinly disguised Hannah, a talking, tweeting aggravation, much more likely to put people off her show than the challenging heroine in her show is.

After all, the irony of Dunham’s persona is that there is nothing that redeems it quite like watching Girls, something that Dunham-haters are unlikely to do. On Girls, Dunham skewers exactly the kind of blind privilege she is accused of having and makes the case for exactly the sort of stumbling learning she is constantly doing, all contained within a funny, self-aware, prickly television show that has—over its six seasons—proven Dunham’s talent, not her knack for sticking her foot in her mouth.

The new season is shiny and sharp, a neon-colored candy with a puckish and puckering quality. Over the course of Girls’ run, the protagonists have occasionally tipped over from being cartoonish into ultra-horrendous beastly besties, behaving so badly they barely resemble humans. As the new season begins, there are thankfully no monsters on hand, only fools. Hannah has just published a Modern Love column in the New York Times, about Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Adam’s (Adam Driver) relationship, and it has jump-started her career. Over breakfast with an assigning editor (Hannah eats breakfast, the editor has a coffee), Hannah blithely explains, “I feel like I’m perfect for the aesthetic of Slag Mag, because my persona is very witty and narcissistic … and the other thing about me is I give zero fucks about anything, yet I have a strong opinion about everything, even topics I’m not informed on.” And we’re off.

The first two episodes send Hannah out of the city on delirious adventures. For the aforementioned editor, she heads to Montauk surf camp. After some nice physical comedy involving spilled sunscreen and wetsuits, Hannah discovers she hates surfing. Her bad attitude is transformed by a chillaxed surf instructor (Riz Ahmed), who convinces Hannah it’s easier to love things than to hate them, sending her back to New York with a more positive outlook on life and the cheeseball anthem “She’s So High” ringing in her ears. In the second episode, Hannah takes a road trip with Marnie (Allison Williams) and Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach, who is so wonderfully awful as a self-dramatizing goofball that it’s hard to remember he was introduced as a dreamy, if self-obsessed, romantic lead) that turns into a laugh-out-loud send-up of a horror movie.

Peppered throughout these episodes are perfect, hilarious details: Elijah’s (Andrew Rannells) wardrobe, which includes an impeccable double-breasted white blazer and an “I survived season three of Ally McBeal” T-shirt, paired sans pants; Ray (Alex Karpovsky) and Marnie’s passive-aggressive exchanges of “baby”; an unbearable but accurate dissection of Paul Krugman; Adam and Jessa’s house of sexual horrors; naked yogurt-eating; and another contagiously energizing dance scene, a Girls specialty. All of this leads up to the excellent third installment, a bottle episode co-starring Matthew Rhys as a literary giant accused of sexual impropriety, that is a provocation to the think-piece economy, likely to be eye-rolling only to those who judge it merely by its premise.

Some people will inevitably react to the hubbub generated by this episode with a bit of eye-rolling: yet another Dunham-adjacent to-do! Get those Think Piece Club Cards out! But those will be the people who don’t watch the episode, which is funny, measured, and capped by a thought-provoking floppy penis gag. Whether you find all the noise Dunham generates to be cacophonous or harmonious, don’t let it drown this out: Girls was great.