Guys on Girls, Season 2
Are the men on this show interesting? Are they even men?
Posted Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013, at 10:23 PM
Photo by Jessica Miglio/HBO
David Haglund: Chris, your experience with this show has been more or less the mirror image of mine. You were not fond of Season 1—though you did watch it all the way through—whereas I found it complex, sweet, naive, infuriating... in short, I was smitten. But Season 2 has won you over, while I’ve been a tad disappointed (though I do think last week’s episode was much better than I initially gave it credit for). I’m curious to find out why that is, but first: What did you think of tonight’s episode, aptly titled “Boys”?
Chris Wade: Continuing that upward trend, I really enjoyed “Boys,” for the same reasons I’ve enjoyed Season 2 as a whole. Season 1 felt like the TV version of a New York Magazine trend piece—a grand, but vague statement on what it really means to be 24 in 2012 in Brooklyn. It didn’t make me laugh, the characters were off-putting, and the show was straining to say something about my life and the lives of my peers that I couldn’t identify with. That was a particularly disengaging combination. But I stuck with the series, and found things to like.
This season, I’m laughing out loud about twice as much as I did last year, and it’s become much more a show about its characters—who’ve grown to be interesting and specific, rather than mere types—and their relationships. Does that make sense?
Haglund: It does. And the world of the series has certainly expanded: At the end of last season, I simply hoped that Ray (Alex Karpovsky) would remain as a character—now we’ve gotten a whole episode devoted to him. And the show is going for big laughs more, I think, a development I haven’t always loved. This episode, for instance, was written by Murray Miller, whose major writing credits are on American Dad! and King of the Hill. Miller is also, I think, the first man to get sole writing credit for an episode of Girls. And he had to cover a lot of ground: Hannah agreeing to write an e-book, Marnie falling out with Booth Jonathan, the epic Staten Island saga of Ray and Adam…
Wade: It totally makes sense that Miller is a King of the Hill writer. The thing I loved most about “Boys” was the failed bromance between Ray and Adam—the episode gave the show’s male characters room for the kind of introspection and sensitivity you rarely see from young men on TV. Girls allows that vulnerability with its girls, and now we got to see dudes, specifically young dudes, go to that same place—to be sad, scared, confused, and irrational, without being morons or “pansies.”
Even the fact that it is a failed bromance struck me as exceptional. Most often, male friendships are portrayed as so easy and unbreakable as to be pretty much a force of nature. It was great to see two almost-compatible guys reach out to each other and not quite grasp on.
Haglund: And despite being similarly weird looking, even. That’s a good point about the bromance failing—the more obvious thing to do would have been to make them friends. But this episode was generally about failing at friendship. That scene near the end, with Hannah and Marnie on the phone, each of them separately deciding that she was not up to admitting to the other how poorly she was doing, was probably its highpoint—and the perfect inverse to Hannah and Jessa in the tub at the end of episode 4, wordlessly accepting each other’s mess (minus any misdirected snot rockets).
“Boys” was directed by Claudia Weill, who’s done a bunch of TV—going back to the Fast Times at Ridgemont High series—and it recalled something she made early in her career, an underappreciated 1978 film called Girlfriends, in which two women grow apart after one becomes married and the other pursues a photography career. The episode echoed that movie in various ways, not least in its abundant male nudity. (Jorma Taccone! Again! Girlfriends gave the world a whole lot of the surprisingly comely Christopher Guest.)
Wade: Last season I might have rolled my eyes at Booth Jonathan’s flagrantly despicable treatment of his now ex-assistant/girlfriend and Marnie’s oblivious acceptance of it. But now that the show’s gotten broader and funnier and more obviously removed from the reality it supposedly portrays, I just enjoyed it as pitch-black comedy.
Haglund: See, I found that whole plotline a bit too sitcom-y, albeit in, as you suggest, a fairly dark key. “Wait, I thought I was your girlfriend, not your employee!” (Sad trombones.) Also: crying on cue is obviously very hard: I didn’t think Lena Dunham pulled it off last week, and I don’t think Allison Williams managed it this week. A quibble, I guess, but it took me fully out of that moment. Still, the Marnie/Booth arc was in keeping with one of this season’s running themes: the awkward entanglement of romance and finance.
Wade: Yeah, more and more on the show we see characters equating material success with “maturing” or “being a grownup” or having a “functional relationship.”
Haglund: I think it’s something simpler than that. Rent is really high. It’s cheaper if you share it.
Haglund: Or if you get someone else to pay for it. Last week’s episode, too, was partly about the dream of New York real estate. Anyway, unlike Adam and Ray, I don’t expect Booth to ever become a more fully rounded character on this show, despite his petulant rant about how “no one even knows” him. This might have been his swan song, which I would not mind at all. Ray, on the other hand, though he still says somewhat hateful things from time to time—like his riff about “fucked-up, weird, little” Staten Island and all that stuff about the awfulness of the “in-betweens,” i.e., women who are neither adolescents nor fully into middle age—is obviously much more than a joke.
Wade: Booth worked well as a foil to what’s going on with Marnie, but I agree that this is probably just about enough of him. Though I actually found some sympathy in his wine-smashing rant—as the Dude would say, “You’re not wrong, you’re just an asshole.” The difference between him and Ray is that his dickishness comes from selfish indulgence, whereas Ray’s comments about the “in-betweens” and the “fucked-up, weird, little island” stem from how much he identifies with those people, and how much it upsets him.
Wade: Yeah. Ray is the fucked up little island, Ray is the lost pit bull with no home. He’s got no apartment, not many real friends—hence the reaching out to Adam—no career prospects, no money. And to make matters worse, he’s falling in love someone he doesn’t think he should fall in love with, and whom he doesn’t think he deserves because he’s such a loser—and it’s killing him that he might drag her down with him. He feels like an outsider with only bad options, so he sees other people that way, too, and it makes him angry, because he knows he’s one of them.
Haglund: I’m not sure I buy that reading when it comes to our lady of Staten Island, the one who so memorably labels Ray a “dick-licker.” The show emphasized the difference between her and Ray, and to an awkward degree—she was, essentially, and very loudly, a working-class caricature. Girls frequently trucks in caricature—Booth Jonathan, e.g., is a cartoon of the rich, pompous artist. But the show seems less sure-footed when creating characters who move in less rarefied circles. That’s not to say that Miller and Weill et al didn’t know what they were doing here: Ray shouts that she has “no morals because” she was “raised on a fucking trash heap,” bringing classism as starkly as possible to the surface. I still wish his antagonist had gotten the chance to surprise us just a bit somewhere in between calling him a kyke and a faggot.
Wade: I’m taking Girls less seriously than that, I suppose; yes, she’s outlandish, but she’s funny, and another perfect twist of the knife in Ray, who gets totally called out and emasculated by this girl who’s way tougher than him. He’s flailing to get the upper hand here and to compensate for his helplessness, but she’s tough as nails in a way he just isn’t, and she totally has his number. “Yeah, then what are you doing her in the middle of the day, don’t you have a job?”
Haglund: Emasculated is definitely the right word. She also calls him a “loser,” which is exactly what Ray called himself in one of my favorite scenes from this season. The big subject of “Boys,” besides failing friendship, was, obviously, trying—and possibly failing—to be man. Ray calls Adam’s apartment “very masculine,” and only agrees to join his return-the-stolen-crazy-dog adventure when he realizes what Adam wants is “extra muscle in case shit gets real.” On the ferry, he tries to connect with Adam as “honest men” who have the same “meaty ideas.”
And this all followed Shoshanna’s telling him it was his “duty as a man to go” pick up Hannah’s copy of Little Women—which led to that rather cute meta exchange about whether he was a Marmee or an Amy. “You’re probably the dad,” Hannah says, “who dies of influenza at the war.” Later Ray says he feels like he has, in fact, become Shoshanna’s father—and the episode ends with Tegan & Sara’s cover of “Fool to Cry,” by the Rolling Stones, which was a nice touch. (“I put my daughter on my knee, and she say/ Ooh, daddy, what’s wrong?”)
Wade: I loved that when Ray showed up in that very masculine apartment, Adam was just mangling two pieces of wood nailed together with seemingly no purpose. Both these characters are compelling precisely because they seem so confused about their masculinity.
Haglund: Is Adam confused about it?
Wade: Well, Adam has a very clear idea of how to function as a man, but it’s masking his possibly psychotic seething maelstrom of uncontrollable anger and sensitivity and pride and vulnerability. If Adam wasn’t confused, he’d be Ron Swanson.
Haglund: Even Adam’s bit of “poetry” employed old-fashioned imagery about the sexes, with his extended metaphor about winning a prize at a carnival, and Hannah seeming to him as “a giant tweetie doll” he’d get stuck carrying around. Again: romance and money.
Wade: Adam’s fascinating, and Ray’s becoming one of the most endearing characters on the show. Also: more Shoshanna, please. She’s amazing. And Mamet is just brilliant at playing her.
Haglund: She is good, and I suspect we’ll get more of her in the remaining episodes. I didn’t think the one devoted to her in Season 1, with the old friend from camp, worked all that well, but maybe they’ll get it right this time. Anything else you’re hoping to see more or less of?
Wade: I think the Ray/Shoshanna relationship has a lot more story in it yet. And I’m happy to see Hannah continue on her self-centered path, because she’s at her funniest when she just doesn’t get it. Anyway, Girls has really got me now.