Oh, You Don’t Like the Girls of Girls? Who Said You Were Supposed to Like Them in the First…

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Jan. 9 2014 3:00 PM

Unlikable Characters

The girls of Girls are worse than ever, and the show is funnier than ever.

GIRLS episode 23 (season 3, episode 3)
Lena Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet, and Allison Williams.

Photo courtesy Jessica Miglio/HBO

“You two should enjoy your urine-soaked life fucking like the two feral animals you both are. You’re going to end up with a baby that you don’t know how to care for. You’re going to kill your kid. You’re going to give it spoiled formula. You’re not gonna get any milk out of those tits.” Welcome back to Girls. The third season, which begins on HBO on Sunday night, is just minutes underway when this speech is delivered to Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) and Adam Sackler (Adam Driver) by his jilted ex-girlfriend (Shiri Appleby). It’s a vitriolic, high-energy sign of the tart, taut season to come. If you don’t have something nice to say about Girls, that’s OK; Lena Dunham is going to get one of her characters to say it for you.

Willa Paskin Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

Over Girls run, Dunham has displayed a knack for strategically leaning into criticism of her show. Since the show’s debut as a now almost unrecognizably gentle and personal take on a certain kind of privileged young woman’s life in the city, Dunham and co-showrunner Jenni Konner have labored never to be caught flat-footed about her creations’ capacity to discomfit and enrage. The characters seemed selfish and abhorrent when they were well-meaning but lost and pampered college graduates? Check them out now that they are full-blown self-dramatizing narcissists. Girls is racist? Watch Hannah babble insensitively to the black guy she’s sleeping with. Hannah Horvath is not attractive enough to bang Patrick Wilson? She’s going to walk around in a bikini for an entire episode anyway. In Girls' second season, Dunham set about creating distance between herself and her increasingly ill-behaved alter ego, and that chasm only widens in the third, in which Girls and its girls are funnier and more cartoonishly sociopathic than ever. The show continues to engage with and undercut criticism about its characters’ myopia and flaws by owning it. If you don’t like them, who said you were supposed to?

Season 3 picks up months after the Season 2 finale, in which Adam romantically arrived to rescue Hannah from a memorably ear-damaging obsessive compulsive episode. The two are now living in functional, sweet, medicated domestic bliss, give or take the intrusion of a livid ex-girlfriend. Marnie (Allison Williams) is slowly recovering from being brutally dumped by Charlie, Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) is enjoying a sexual walkabout with NYU’s dimmest undergraduates, and Jessa (Jemima Kirke), keen to have her rent paid by her grandmother, is in rehab. The early episodes have a jaunty spring in their step, a new focus on jokes and punch lines. This is the first season of Girls that feels primarily comedic, and driving much of that comedy is the girls themselves, who over the first episodes flick on their inner-monster switch and take turns exhibiting glaring, hideous character deficiencies.

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In rehab Jessa, brutally and impatiently calls out pathetic addicts she’s much smarter than while refusing to take her own issues seriously. Marnie’s terrible taste and unstoppable control-freakery extend to her forcing Hannah, against her will, to publicly perform a song from Rent, a heinous crime indeed. Hannah exhibits a spooky level of detachment and self-involvement that, by Episode 5, has her treating funerals like networking events. And through all of this Shosh chirps out inanities like a valley girl robot, matching each profound observation with two about something like raspberry Red Bull addiction. Joining this menagerie of difficult women is the superbly cast Gaby Hoffman, who arrives in Episode 3 as Adam’s seriously unbalanced sister Caroline. She’s an all-powerful personality weather system, the living, breathing embodiment of Girls’ ethos: Who gives a shit if a person is unlikeable when she is this watchable?

It’s not all bad behavior. The girls have moments of caring and competence that make their fits of narcissism and one-liners of pure egotism even more jarring. In many of the episodes, Hannah has her old easy-going sweetness and joy, especially with Adam, and when she finally gets a job in advertorial at GQ, she shows real skill. Because of Jemima Kirke’s extreme swagger, Jessa remains more recognizably a real person than her girlfriends, even if it is a very rare kind of real person, one with so much innate charisma she can float through life controlling everyone around, distracting herself from herself. Marnie has suffered real, cruel heartbreak and tries, to the extent that she can, to self-improve. And in a late episode, Shosh snaps in a way that suggests an alternate-universe version of the show, Girls: The Shosh Perspective, that’s even more damning to its protagonists.

But Girls’ most sympathetic characters are now, unequivocally, its guys. In a piece about Fox’s Tuesday night comedies, Phillip Maciak writes about the rise of the “good bro,” a man who is  “masculine, friendly, sensitive to women … and, above all, committed to a kind of unfiltered truth-telling” and who exists in female-fronted comedies to span the “likeability gap.”

New Girl and Mindy Project were initially faulted for having protagonists who were, respectively, too twee and too mean. In order to counteract this, the Good Bro emerged on these shows because if the Good Bro is anything, he’s likable.

 Adam Sackler is a more serious, idiosyncratic fellow than New Girl’s Nick or The Mindy Project’s Danny Castellano, but the once depraved sex addict is now the show’s spiritual adult, its reliably humane and honest character, Hannah’s devoted lover and best friend. (Adam and Hannah are even having pretty vanilla sex these days.) He’s a pretty good bro.

Dunham and Konner have written character after character who see the girls more clearly than they see themselves, who challenge and question and call them out, and Adam is first among them. When Jessa asks Hannah to collect her from rehab, it is Adam who observes that it’s a bad idea to remove an addict from rehab early. When Hannah responds to a death with near-indifference, it’s Adam who is disturbed by her coldness, a sentiment seconded only by the ever-honest Ray (Alex Karpovsky) who tells Hannah, “Why don’t you place one crumb of basic human compassion on this fat-free muffin of sociopathic detachment.” It’s Adam who feels a sense of responsibility to the people he loves, no matter how difficult they are, and who, even though he can’t stand Hannah’s friends, comforts them when they start crying at the dinner table over tacos and ice cream.

Driving up to rehab Hannah tells Adam he doesn’t understand the nature of female friendship. “You’re right, and I don’t want to if it involves ignoring all logic and being totally hysterical,” he says. “Women get stuck in this vortex of guilt and jealousy with each other that keeps them from seeing things clearly.” Adam’s description of female relationships is narrow and offensive and, in the context of Girls, completely apt. There’s a lovely moment in Episode 2 between Jessa and Hannah, who may ride out their 20s with their relationship intact, but as a foursome, the girls’ future seems bleak. By the time they go on a group trip to the North Fork, culminating in a glorious and merciless fight, they are very clearly in the late stages of friend divorce. They are women who have outgrown each other, if in fact, they ever fit at all.

“I don’t care what my friends have to say! That’s like the whole point of friendship!” Hannah tells Adam in the first episode. This is very funny and impossible to imagine coming out of Hannah Horvath’s mouth at the very beginning of the series, when Girls was about young women deeply entangled in each others’ lives, and not just in purely dysfunctional ways. Since then, Girls has come a long way: It’s the sharpest show out there about the self-justifications of the self-obsessed and the immense power even of decaying friendships. That’s the price Girls paid for beating the haters at their own game: It learned to hate.

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