FILM JUNE 18, 2012
Mothers and fathers can breathe again, and leave their children of a certain age to the liberty of their own devices, and parental innocence. What age? Well, I’d suggest that it’s the under-26s, that being the new limit at which “kids” or fully grown adults, subject to STDs and other menacing acronyms, can remain on their parents’ health insurance. In the official description of the series, Girls, there was a “parental warning,” saying that elders might like to exercise caution in letting their young see the episode in question because of language, nudity, sexual content, and just the casual revelation that such things might be happening to their dear ones. In fact, the true warning was telling the parents not to watch, if they planned on sleeping or feeling good.
So the first season of Girls on HBO came to a close. Will there be another season? Yes, there will be, though the chance always looms that Lena Dunham, its 26-year-old creator, writer, director, producer, and actress may be drawn away on other dreams—like completing her novel, adapting Proust for Judd Apatow and Adam Sandler, or even doing a remake of The Magnificent Ambersons (in which she plays the revised part of the difficult daughter, Georgina). But what am I thinking? Why am I trifling with the idea of “too much” or burnout? Dunham gives every sign of being able to do all those things at the same time while becoming engaged to someone like Philip Roth or Gore Vidal, or both at the same time.
Many of us were taken with and alarmed by the offhand candor and open-minded nihilism of the early episodes of Girls, to say nothing of the way in which the modestly arranged Dunham (in a physical sense) was prepared to do on-camera routines pioneered by Jeanne Moreau or the pretty things in porn. A television series is as vulnerable and tricky an organism as democracy or Tim Lincecum’s pitching delivery. The best hope for a truly groundbreaking series is to be so offensive or impenetrable that it never gets renewed—that was the fate of Rubicon. Without that sublime death wish, a series risks learning its own ropes sufficiently to become entangled. As it discovers the routine that “plays,” that mechanism can turn into a habit, a parody of itself, and then camp. Girls did drift or falter along its way: The episode in which Hannah went home was a dead end, and the task of keeping up with the four girls all the time was testing.
But the real problem Girls faced—and it hovers over every TV series—was whether to let its rare life wander on without worrying, or make the whole thing lead towards a coherent, dramatic, and come-uppanced ending in which Hannah broke down and admitted she needs help? In episodes eight and nine, there were signs of the series drawing breath for such underlined Conclusions: There was a very good fight between Hannah and Marnie in which they broke up as roommates and began to see how totally unsuited they were; and there was an even better scene in which the blithe, witchy Jessa was read a quiet lesson on her abiding fears by a former employer.
These were scenes from a soundly constructed drama such as Hannah or Dunham might have studied in college, whereas the danger and delight in Girls was its confidence that it could do whatever it fucking liked, especially in the matter of how people fuck while chatting away and trying to ignore the boredom of that big commercial, f*******, for their young lives.
There are hints that Hannah needs a breakdown in the way some of us need a vacation. Is she overweight, is she a writer manqué, is she an unreliable friend? The answers are yes all the way, but does she have the time for a breakdown, or is she of that career-orientation that knows you can go into therapy or take SSRIs, or you can just ignore the whole thing? At the close of episode ten (the last), Hannah falls asleep on a late-night subway in an empty carriage. When she awakes, her handbag has gone and she doesn’t know where she is. So she ends up walking alone on a beach. This is the kind of Fellini-esque Big Ending she might have thought of weeks ago and was determined to use, let the symbolism fall where it may.
I’m certain that Dunham (dragging her producer Judd Apatow along behind her) could rescue Hannah from that bare stage and go through the matter-of-fact craziness of young life in a beached economy—is that what the beach really means? Two of the girls, Jessa and Marnie are partnered off, with maximum implausibility, so their breakdowns are clearly available. The third girl, Shoshanna, has lost her virginity and probably picked up something to take its place. The most likely setting for the next series could be a hospital in which they have all been dumped. If you’re going to find a setting that has serious symbolic value, a mental hospital is about as good as you’ll get (remember Thomas Mann)—apart from an office where demented talents are trying to put a TV series together.
For the moment, Girls has been a marvel, often quite shocking, usually very funny and frightening in ways that suspense and horror genres will never understand. Lena Dunham is an unpleasant genius who must know that everyone around her is longing for her to crack up. So probably she needs to get on and have a preemptive breakdown. In which case I trust her to be on heavy medications while organizing a deft, delirious, and damning show. She has already made a good movie—Tiny Furniture—but I think she was waiting for weekly TV as surely as Lucille Ball and the six people in Friends, all of whom now are old enough to be her shattered parents. Girls has been a major event, fluctuating in quality, ugly when it might have been lyrical, penetrating when it was ready to be banal. Parents have been warned, and we should all take heed, that Hannah and the others could be mothers next time we see them. But still in some hospital.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.