Honest, unlikeable, addictive: 'Girls' is not a comfort show

The final season of 'Girls' confronts the audience with what they think they've always wanted.

by Madeline Killen | 4/11/17 1:05am

I used to think of myself as a person who likes large quantities of good books, small quantities of good movies and miniscule quantities of very, very bad television. While I never missed an episode of “The Bachelor,” that one episode would fill my brain-melting quota for the week — that is, until a spring break wisdom-teeth removal gave me a week in bed on Percocet, and an unsuspecting Tinder match gave me his HBO GO password.

It was this perfect storm of binge-watching conditions that led me into the prickly grasp of Lena Dunham’s critically-acclaimed and generally-loathed “Girls,” a show that makes me hate myself as much as “The Bachelor”does. Admittedly, it also sends me searching The New Yorker’s archives for Emily Nussbaum’s opinions on each episode I watch.

I’m obviously late to the “Girls”game — the show premiered in 2012 — but I have the unique advantage of having seen every episode of the show ever released during the past two weeks. When the show ends on April 16, it’ll have been only three weeks after I saw the premiere. You know how it feels to come back from an off term, and it seems like everyone’s hair has gotten longer in fast forward since you weren’t there to see the gradual progress? Without the five-year gap, that’s been my “Girls” experience; the characters’ entropy from likable, if flawed, to purely detestable has occurred at whiplash-inducing hyper speed.

I doubt I would’ve made it this far into the show had I started watching five years ago. But as things are, I’m continuing with “Girls” until the bitter end, which feels a little like eating most of a cookie, deciding it’s not a really great cookie and sadly finishing it out of obligation.

Dunham’s semi-autobiographical protagonist, Hannah Horvath, is loathsome. Dunham herself might be, too, although I’m largely basing that assumption off of her close friendship with Taylor Swift, aka Known Loathsome Human. Yet, here I am, hanging on even through the most loathsome move this show has made: Horvath’s final-season pregnancy.

I find this pregnancy loathsome not because Horvath is as unfit a future single mother as ever there was one, but because it is really driving home a point that I’d rather “Girls” not make so fervently. Dunham’s decision to knock up her television alter ego is likely one of the show’s most self-aware plot devices to date.

While we’re all used to sitcoms deteriorating into implausible by the end of their lives, “Girls” is nothing if not calculated. Horvath’s pregnancy very clearly harkens back to the show’s female-centric television predecessors — Miranda Hobbes’ (Cynthia Nixon) surprise season four pregnancy in “Sex and the City” immediately comes to mind, as well as the abrupt ending of “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life” that shocked fans last year.

With the pregnancy connection in place, it’s easy to spot more parallels between “Girls” and shows like “Sex and the City” and “Gilmore Girls.” We have the witty repartee, the female writer protagonists, the total disregard for cast diversity and the incessant tone-deaf focus on upper-middle class problems.

However, “Gilmore Girls” and “Sex and the City” offer us a gleaming portrait of what our lives could’ve looked like had we been born prettier, richer and sassier. “Girls,” in contrast, almost plays out like a horror story of self-indulgent privilege.

When Marnie (Allison Williams) begs off comforting her boyfriend Ray (Alex Karpovsky) after the death of his best friend in order to attend some ridiculously-named Soul Cycle parody, our stomachs turn with disgust, but no part of us is shocked — “Girls” is a show about selfish people being terrible, and we knew that going in.

This is where “Girls” becomes so polarizing: its refusal to plunge into escapism is what makes it both so unwatchable and so brilliant. What sets the show apart is its honesty, and Hannah’s pregnancy acts as the hinge to connect “Girls” to its less honest television forerunners.

“Girls” is a show about shows about girls, and Horvath’s ridiculous pregnancy isn’t any more ridiculous than the other TV pregnancies to which it seems to allude. Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel) is selfish, immature, unemployed, lazy and couch surfing when she drops the “Mom, I’m pregnant”-bomb at the end of the “Gilmore Girls” Netflix revival. She’s pregnant by a man who’s engaged to someone else; Hannah Horvath is pregnant by a surf instructor who has a long-term girlfriend.

Miranda, while the most productive citizen of the “Sex and the City” gang, is essentially guilted into having her baby by its father, her bartender ex-boyfriend who eventually becomes her husband and moves her out to the suburbs, a modern-day “Taming of the Shrew.” Miranda’s baby is sold to us as a happy ending, and while Rory’s is a little more ambiguous, we know that she’ll eventually be fine due to her golden-girl status and grandparents’ money.

Hannah Horvath should not be fine by any stretch of the imagination. Her friends are flakes and/or snakes, her parents are dealing with their own marital issues and she is possibly the most selfish and immature character on television right now.

Yet somehow, out of nowhere, Sunday night’s episode offered Hannah a safety net in the form of a lecturer position at a vague upstate university. It appears that the university reached out to her, an “internet writer,” to serve her an idyllic life on a silver platter in exchange for telling groups of first-year students “about the internet.” She takes the job.

Hannah’s move upstate rings hollow because “Girls” has never been a show with perfectly tied-up storylines, but it perfectly mirrors the happy endings of the shows it mimics.

While I cringe watching Dunham’s show, I run back to “Sex and the City” or “Gilmore Girls” after a week of papers or a day of boy drama — they’re comfort shows, but “Girls” is a very uncomfortable show.

With only one episode left of “Girls,” Dunham asks us point-blank if babies and ’burbs is what we’ve wanted all along from her assembly of female characters. Will that make us feel better? Will that make us finally like her? Are we happy now?