TV, me and myself: Girls”R”Us
“Why didn’t you tell me you were suffering from mental illness? That’s something we can work with” Girls (HBO, 2012–2017)
I’m 8 years old, my room pitch-dark and my sweat ice-cold. I think I have just discovered anxiety. I know fear already: I sleep with an open door and a light on, but that is no solution, just the lesser of two evils; I obsessively picture strangers rounding the corner and coming into my room to get me, their creepy faces glowing yellow. Tonight, worried about the electricity bill, and I’m sure helpless as to what to do with me anymore, my mom has decided to try out the old no-checking-on-the-baby-even-if-we-hear-him-cry method: my door is closed, the lights turned off, and I’m freaking out.
This is the first time existential anguish hits me: I lie in bed and try to imagine what it might be like to be dead, to lose consciousness forever, to float in a starless void for all eternity. I panic. I try to lift my mind far up over the Earth, find out what lies beyond, the meaning of it all; but an invisible shield stops me, like the stratosphere turned solid every time I approached it lest I learn too much. But I suspect there is nothing to learn, and my heart shrinks at the thought until my chest becomes a walnut. It’s just a shabby deal, isn’t it? Human existence? Why would I buy a house on the condition that it be burned down? Immediately I know I shall always remember this moment and never again truly know peace. But then, years later, I watch Girls.
“Literature exists because the world isn’t enough” says Fernando Pessoa. I agree, if we take ‘literature’ to be an umbrella term that might include TV fiction. Life is most convincing to me when mediated by the silver screen: it becomes somehow elevated, meaningful; part of a plan and not mere chaos. Some make sense of it by concocting afterlives and gods; others shave their heads and meditate. Sadly, none of that works for me, so I like to amuse myself by imagining my life as the biggest show on television. Every milestone is an exciting season finale, every lost friendship an actor who didn’t behave on set. Feel like lying on the floor and crying? Lean into the drama and pretend you’re in a climactic musical montage scored by Snow Patrol; then it’s art. I wish I could be the kind of person who says everything happens for a reason, but picturing the random events that make up a life as post-its on a writers’ room whiteboard is the closest I can get. Just swap Jehovah for Ryan Murphy, or Allah for Shonda Rhimes, and you’ll get my cosmology.
And yet, though Glee (FOX, 2009–2015) is my creed and Pose’s (FX, 2018-) joie de vivre a great anxiety repellant, to belabor the metaphor a little more I’d call Girls my holy grail. I started watching the HBO show in the summer of 2013, only a couple of months after its second season finished airing. Contrary to what ABBA had me believe, my 17th year wasn’t the best or most eventful of my life: long-time friends and I were growing apart, social media platforms were becoming the majority shareholders of my social stock, and most nights I had more fun tweeting my new and exciting far-flung friends than going out with my local squad. All of this sharpened the suspicion that my interests now lied elsewhere, far from my hometown, outside my perfectly pleasant but boring life where no one was obsessed with Taylor Swift’s songwriting or grief-stricken after the sudden death of a Glee actor.
It is in this context that creator Lena Dunham came knocking on my door. I simply had to know what was inspiring such high word counts on my favorite TV blogs, so now some of my fondest memories from that cursed and hazy summer are of watching Girls in the hot wee hours. I didn’t quite get it at first. It was fun, sure, but not particularly funny. Comedic expectation left me puzzled: was I supposed to be laughing at this? (Every subsequent re-watch has made me change my mind: Girls is hilarious from the very beginning, and I too would love to be at least a voice, of a generation. I’ve since learned I tend to need two or three episodes to really grasp the tone of my favorite TV comedies. I love shows that teach you how to watch them.) But then, at the end of the third episode, two girls danced out their problems to Robyn’s Dancing on my own, and something clicked.
Girls spoke to me in that first summer as a kind of escapist fantasy just plausible enough to daydream about. Oh, to be 24 and make it work in the Big Apple! (I’m now 24 and Malasaña must be my Brooklyn for the time being.) Oh, the allure of writing for a living! (If my life were truly a TV show, this is what you’d call foreshadowing.) Oh, Lena Dunham’s scoliosis! (Ditto.) However, as time went on and teenage delusion faded into YA depression, watching Girls became a much more intimate exercise. What appealed to me now, and maybe had all along, was not an aspirational longing to have these characters’ lives (they don’t have it that great), but their manifold flaws. Hanna’s (Lena Dunham) neuroses, Marnie’s (Allison Williams) phoniness and complete inability to be herself and exist in the world… I’m convinced people hate Marnie because they see glimpses of their own psyche in her awful, cringey self. I felt smart for knowing and embracing that.
I love watching “difficult people” onscreen. E.g., Difficult People (HULU, 2015–2017). But also Veep (HBO, 2012–2019), It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (FX, 2005–2012; FXX, 2013-), Arrested Development (FOX, 2003–2006; not acknowledging the rest). I find it purging, cathartic, to witness my worst instincts cranked up to eleven within a narrative and stylistic frame that allows — nay, eggs me on — to laugh at them. Seeing these characters’ worst traits in my own self, even as mere potentialities, keeps them from developing. As if the act of looking into a grotesque reflection in a mirror locked it in the glass; the magic of television. Watching Julia Louis-Dreyfuss play a narcissist on my TV does for me what burning people in a cabin does for the Midsommar (Ari Aster, 2019) crowd. Laughter keeps at bay the worst versions of myself.
Girls does that and more. What I found special about it is what puts most people off: its constant refusal to either fully condemn or applaud its characters’ behavior. It’s neither parody nor blind love letter; or maybe it is a love letter, but a very honest one, and truth is often ugly. Girls lives in the murky in-between, a river carving its winding way between the shores of unambiguous generic classification. One can’t expect anything but deep frustration if they watch this show like they might Veep or any kind of anti-hero narrative, reveling in the schadenfreude of seeing bad people be put in their place (personally I’m a sociopath and Team Selina); or like they might enjoy aspirational sitcoms a la Sex and the City (HBO, 1998–2004), uncomplicatedly rooting for their TV friends to beat the odds and become the best versions of themselves, their victories almost as tasty as one’s own (although that’s also not the most fun way to enjoy that show). No, those aren’t good lenses through which to peek at Hannah’s life. At least not all the time.
You might need special glasses, for Girls keeps flip-flopping between those two modes (as I said, I love shows that teach you how to watch them). Just when Jessa (Jemima Kirke) does something so infuriating that you want her to get killed off, the show pulls you right back, insisting on her own suffering, the roots of her behavior; in other words, her humanity. It also works the other way around: right when you might be rooting for Manie, forgiving her past mistakes, and clapping at some newfound maturity, she reverts back to old habits. This constant sleight of hand, while understandably confusing and frustrating to many, is beautiful to me. Real, honest. To use a loaded term: relatable. And to use some more, wonderfully validating of my own personal growth, which made the accusations that these people were the worst almost triggering. But I am like that, I thought. At least I can be, sometimes. I definitely have it in me.
If we consider its leads to be anti-heroines (which I don’t think they are, but just in opposition to the easy-to-root-for protagonist), I don’t think Girls works at a big enough remove for people to watch and comfortably feel superior. That’s what they find hard to square: whose side is the show on? (Both? Why are there any sides?) Is it in on the joke? (Clearly!) I only spend so much time dissecting what viewers might dislike because it’s what I love the most, where I feel lies its brilliancy. Identifying with these girls is I think easy to do, but very hard to swallow (because it’s too plausible, too close; not for nothing Tony Soprano is an easier anti-hero). Girls’ greatest charm (besides Shoshanna’s (Zosia Mamet) coked-up diction) is its insistence in its characters’ humanity and right to make mistakes, to not always learn from them, to have the messy character arc we don’t always see in the movies but experience in real life. The two-steps-forward-one-step-back kind of storytelling might not be narratively satisfying to all, but it’s how people grow. Girls gave its characters ample space to do so, and it did the same for me.
If at first Girls made me romanticize New York and casual sex, it later did the same for the less glossy parts of growing up: the recurring mistakes, the uncertain identities, the unmet expectations. It had a unique way of taking one’s feelings seriously, no matter how immature. Sure, the waves of childhood dreams would still crash against the walls of adult reality, but Girls told you those waves mattered. Nothing in that seafoam to be ashamed of. When Hannah says, “I’m an individual, and I feel how I feel when I feel it”, it rings both funny and true. You roll your eyes and nod at the same time. This ability to both parody and celebrate the pettiness and self-absorption of being young and forging who you are, all at once, seems to me the key to a sane and healthy existance. A skill only available to attentive Girls watchers, and maybe the Dalai Lama. Maybe.
I said above that watching life on TV makes me feel better about it. I hope it’s clear now why this is specially true of Girls (at least for as long as I relate to Britney Spears’ “Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman”). But there’s even more to it. Says Georges Braque: “Art is a wound turned into light”. Like a musician so good that they make what they do seem easy, Girls made that wound-to-light transmutation seem available. I had watched plenty of TV with a strong authorial voice before, even if I’d never thought much about it. But somehow this was different. Maybe it was her young age, or the identifiable subject matter, but Lena Dunham’s modus operandi was to me a revelation. You can engage in this way with your own life? Take everything that’s ever happened and transcribe it into art? Turn wounds into light? I can’t explain how this was new or in any way remarkable to me. All art is to some degree autobiographical; and certainly, all the music I listened to was. But perhaps I had never recognized it in my temple, my shelter: TV.
All this ranting ultimately comes down to the philosophical notion that — stop me if you’ve heard this before — art gives life meaning. That night at 8 years old, alone in bed and terrified, I was desperate for meanings. Good or bad, wonderful or hideous; anything to fill the void, resist the chaos. If nothing has meaning except that which we grant it, art is the only thing I can hold on to when my mind wanders into those dark and cosmic places. And by art, I do mean television. Hard to believe it was ever dismissed or frowned at, this medium that deals in the most human of currencies: time. An ongoing TV show can feel like a twin brother, pencil marks climbing the door frame as you both grow side by side. In the comparison you might find your fears, your dreams, your faults. Validation, companionship, and something close to inmortality.
In Girls’ last season, when asked about her goals for the next years of her life, Hannah says: “I want to write. I want to write stories that make people feel less alone than I did. I want to make people laugh about the things in life that are painful”. Why would I buy a house on the condition that it be burned down? To cover the walls with picture frames, the creaking floorboards with intricately patterned rugs. To write. I guess I’ll live to write, write to live. Dunham’s brain and mine vibrate on a similar anxious wavelenght: I’ve read how she’ll be having fun at a party and suddenly remember it’s all going to be gone someday, then freak out that no one else is screaming about it. She seems to have found her peace in writing. So have I, and Girls reminds me every time I forget.
The aphorism that life’s impermanence is what gives it meaning is a lame attempt at consolation that I’ve never confused for wisdom. Marnie singing Stronger? That I can get behind. Girls bestowed my young self with every meaning it could long for. For years it brought me lovely salmons, but as the saying goes, it also taught me how to fish them. Now when cold sweat dampens my sheets after my mind decides to ponder the unanswerable, I get up and write about it. I’m yet to find something more life-affirming. Why would I buy a house on the condition that it be burned down? I guess to paint it pink.