Guys on Girls, Season 2
Will the characters on this show ever grow up?
Posted Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013, at 9:15 PM
Jemima Kirke as Jessa Johansson and Chris O'Dowd as Thomas-John.
Photo by Jessica Miglio
David Haglund: Damn, Seth, that was a good episode. In 29 minutes we got multiple cringingly funny dinner-party conversations, a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf-style young-marrieds throwdown, poignant and unexpected declarations of love, and a bathtub scene with snot humor and pathos in equal proportions. It went from spicy to sweet and then back to spicy. What did you think?
Seth Stevenson: I enjoyed the heartfelt moments more than the punch lines. Was Ray’s subway platform breakdown the most earnest scene in the history of Girls? Some emotional shizz right there.
Haglund: Apart from the quip about his only valuable possession in this world being a signed picture of Andy Kaufman, there weren’t any jokes at all. And it got me. You’re right that when the episode went for laughs—like in the opening scene, where Hannah, in her continued moral freefall, kicks Elijah out of their apartment and keeps the furniture—it didn’t always get them.
Stevenson: Some of the humor—buttplug panic, artisanal mustard mockery—felt a little easy to me. (I prefer more conceptual gags, like last week’s suggestion that playing Duncan Sheik could be an enhanced interrogation technique.) I also didn’t fully buy Hannah’s outrage over the Elijah-Marnie incident. I could understand her being thrown for a minute or ten. But implacable anger? Seems over the top. The vulnerability shown by Ray and Jessa at various moments went a long way to humanizing the episode, though.
Haglund: The Elijah-Marnie hook-up might prompt a coked-up outburst, but does seem unlikely to spark a considered overhaul of one’s living arrangements. On the other hand, maybe Hannah just saw an opportunity to make a change—or realized that, with the sugar daddy gone, she’d be picking up Elijah’s share of the rent before too long, and so needed a more well-to-do apartment-sharer stat. I wouldn’t put it past her at this point. In this episode, Hannah was basically just the oblivious narcissist around which several more interesting people revolved.
Stevenson: While I take pleasure in the show, and find it brilliantly funny at times, I am increasingly realizing a problem I have with it: I find very few relatable characters and moments. I had wacky interludes in my own youth. But this is not what my emotional behavior looked like in my 20s, and it’s completely alien to me in my 30s. A show like this eventually needs to hook us by making us feel something, I think. Jessa’s despair after her breakup, or Ray’s coming to terms with his failings and screwing up his courage—these are human rites we can all empathize with. Speaking of, did you see Jessa’s crash and burn coming? Do you think Thomas-John is out of the picture permanently?
Haglund: I do think we’ve seen the last of Toj—and, sadly, Big Toj, too, hilariously played by Griffin Dunne as a bit of a lush with an awkward fondness for the cinematic treatment of schoolgirls in love. (Like Jessa, I loved his way.) And while I can’t say I saw that crash and burn coming, it made perfect sense. Jessa’s marriage to a straight-laced finance guy was impulsive and always seemed precarious. My 20s didn’t look like this either, by the way, but that’s not a barrier for me to enjoying the show. There are things I recognize; I haven’t done anything great with condiments myself, but some Audrey-like go-getter recently opened a mayonnaise store a few blocks from my Brooklyn apartment. Mostly, though, I enjoy the characters on the show’s own terms, from the “little fucking Ewok in capri pants” to the dumb hipster munching Thomas-John’s hay. (Obviously I like the show’s way with language, too.) Are you enjoying this season less than the first?
Stevenson: I have always loved Griffin Dunne’s way—especially in After Hours, where he played a straight-laced Marnie type who gets entangled in a night of downtown Manhattan madness. As for this season, there are still great lines and performances—Jessa at the dinner with Toj’s parents, for instance (“I wish there was a Lord, but I know there isn’t”), was a delight to watch. But the show felt sooooo fresh and new when it first came on, and it feels less that way now. Partly I’ve grown used to it. But it has also become a bit more conventional. It’s less often doing something that I haven’t seen on TV before.
Haglund: That has become a running theme of this TV Club. And I agree. But as long as Girls does relatively conventional material this well, and with this much range, I don’t mind at all. I liked Marnie’s one-liners in this episode (“So where do you get your headbands?”), and I loved both that dinner scene with Toj’s parents and, especially, the huge fight between Jessa and Thomas-John that followed. (I’m so glad Jessa punched Toj square in the face, rather than slapping him.) That throwdown was not only gripping, but funny: When Toj said that, thanks to all the Buddhas Jessa has placed around his swanky apartment, “it looks like whenever we’re having sex we’re being watched by a bunch of fat babies,” I laughed, hard. And I was left curious to see what Jessa does next—as well as where Shoshana and homeless Ray’s relationship goes from here. Are you disappointed enough to stop tuning in?
Stevenson: I’ll keep tuning in, for sure. I have faith this season will find its stride. But so far it’s not as charmingly weird as it used to be. Ray earlier in the season revealing his desire to pet a pig’s hairless skin as some sort of courtship ritual with Shoshanna—that was weird, and awesome. More of that please. The Jessa/Toj fight was great. (Though Jessa really should have listened to my podcast on negotiation before accepting an $11.5k divorce settlement from a finance guy.) Jessa is still ethereally strange, and endlessly entertaining, but, when you think about it, sort of a horrible person.
Haglund: They’re all horrible people! Or not all, perhaps, but Hannah certainly is right now, and Jessa, like you said, and Charlie’s girlfriend Audrey. Marnie, at the very least, has terrible taste in men, and Shoshanna seems to have questionable taste in everything but men. (Speaking of questionable taste, what happened to Questionable Goods? I thought the old Ray-Charlie musical project would come up when Shoshanna was chastising her boyfriend for his lack of extracurricular activities.) You like Noah Baumbach movies, right? The Squid and the Whale? Everyone acts pretty badly in that, too. And it’s great.
Stevenson: At the end of The Squid and the Whale, the Noah Baumbach stand-in played by Jesse Eisenberg has gained, we presume, some perspective on life and his own behavior. Girls is in its seventh hour or so at this point and has been pretty bereft of that sort of thing. Shoshanna has developed a little; Ray and Jessa seem on the verge of realizing things about themselves. But everybody else just floats along on a river of clueless selfishness. That’s OK for a Seinfeld-type show, where no one ever learns anything and it’s all comedy. But I’d hoped Girls would have more heart and be more thoughtful than that, and would let its characters grow from week to week, because it doesn’t need to run for 180 episodes. Maybe I’m the conventional one? Or maybe I’m just impatient, and there are revelations galore waiting around the corner?
Haglund: Maybe. Ray and Jessa do seem on the verge of epiphanies of some sort or another. Charlie and Marnie are maybe a little farther off. And Shoshanna’s doing fine for an undergraduate—although if she was an actual friend of mine I’d probably be worried about her dating a 33-year-old. I disagree with you about The Squid and the Whale: If that movie had a sequel, we’d probably see Eisenberg’s character acting like a jerk in college, and then maybe fitting right in with the oblivious narcissists on this show. The characters on Girls do need to learn, and to change—for better and for worse—over the course of the series, and I think they will. (Both Marnie and Jessa told someone to “grow up” on this episode; along with butt plug and butthole, those were the words of the day.) But that sort of thing tends to happen slowly in real life, and it should happen slowly here, too.
Stevenson: That’s fair. I think mainly what’s happening is that I was blown away by the show’s first season, and now it’s turning into... another show. It rarely startles me anymore, or wows me with its formal experimentation. And I’ve yet to become so engrossed in the characters’ emotional narratives that I can’t live without knowing what happens next.
But I do love its way. Perhaps the show is like Jessa, who says she’ll look 50 when she’s 30. Girls in its second season looks a bit like it’s in its eighth. It may have lived too fast.
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.