As I have said many a time on this here internet, Girls is a bit overrated. It’s not the normal kind of overrated, in which everyone simply insists that something is excellent when it’s not. It is, instead, the kind of overrated that happens when everyone senses that an item in the culture constitutes a watershed moment, and the herd runs after it, and then finds they have to justify their wind-sprinting. In Girls‘ case most of the running takes the form of, as we joke here often, people writing personal essays about how much Girls says about them, about their lives. And since approximately 75 percent of the world’s known aspiring personal essayists seem either to live in New York or to dream, consistently, of being in New York, they all believe that Girls has deep things to say about their own experience. This results in a reality-free discussion of Girls about, I’d say, 95 percent of the time. The pieces are more about conveying a personal experience than writing about what’s onscreen.
The irony of Girls‘ third season, which begins airing this Sunday and of which I’ve seen the first six episodes, is that acclaim and fame are taking the show further and further away from reality. The show was not always, of course, “realistic” in any sense of the word. It was a stylized presentation of one young woman’s idea of what 20-somethingness in New York was like. And its attempts at being absurd — like having last season wrap up in a decidedly romantic-comedy-esque fashion — though they frequently missed their mark in terms of tone, pacing, or any of the usual hallmarks of dramatic skill, underlined that Lena Dunham and company were not here to show you what the world, writ large, was like. They were just showing you a small slice of an (already well-connected and relatively economically comfortable) artist’s life in New York, and trying to be funny about it, full stop. (That was what let them get out from under the criticisms of their representation, or lack thereof, of race, even as it always seemed that Dunham was being too coy when she claimed her vision was narrow: she called the show Girls, and was only half-kidding with the Voice of a Generation jokes.)
The problem is that Dunham is no longer living the life she was when she started Girls. In fact, I’d be willing to wager, no one involved with Girls is living the life they were just two short years ago. Then, they were not famous, and if they were still possibly a member of that vague class, the “privileged,” they had not yet managed to reach the fabled echelons of the “privileged and independently successful.” And as has happened to many artists who experience success, money and fame have not exactly sharpened anyone’s ability to deliver a project that actually, well, cuts at something, anything, whether it’s a truth about New York or an artist’s life or a “girl’s.”
We are treated, for example, to some running around about Hannah’s book deal, which, knowing as many aspiring personal essayists as I do, bears no resemblance whatsoever to the appetite or enthusiasm any book publisher in New York has for personal essays by unknowns. It feels churlish to complain that small details of “how the business works” are missed in this show — small details like the fact that Hannah should have an agent, or that there is, currently, no one I’m aware of paying out serious advances on ebooks — but the problem is that so many of them are missed that it’s just not recognizable.
There is, and always has been, a level of fantasy attached to Hannah’s career fumblings. But we’re getting to the point where the ease with which she finds book deals and writing jobs is actually killing the central will-she-or-won’t-she-make-it dramatic question of the show. Strokes of absurdity aside, I think we all know that that’s the real hook Girls has in its watchers, in the beginning: people related to the desire to do something creative, and to the myriad ways in which the world will try to stop you before you even begin.
But no one’s really stopping Hannah.
If this were a show that had enough other compelling characters and side plots, I would probably forgive it this central flaw, this season. I mean, the six episodes I saw were fine. They had a couple of great moments. I think you will be especially happy at the three-episode Gaby Hoffmann arc, which delighted me because she was usually the only one in her scenes who was actually acting, and I like good acting. But at this point, for most of the other parade of guest stars, being on Girls doesn’t seem to be about acting. It seems to be about being of-the-moment. But mostly the celebrity moment, that is, the otherworld in which life is one long parade of great dresses and film premieres, where no one asks any hard questions. Which can be relaxing, but it also means Nicky Hilton will attend your premiere.