The first episode of Girls wasn’t that long ago — it’s been almost exactly four years since it aired. Given that, the characters haven’t really changed all that much, at least not in the Breaking Bad-ish mode of deliberately drastic character arc (though given the force of the Internet hatred of Hannah Horvath, you’d think she’d, like Walter White, been an accomplice to infanticide) or in the Weeds/Leftovers mode of completely switching location and the people that come with it. But within cultural discourse, the show has, to its detriment, been bestowed with something of an alternate life — becoming the intangible shapeshifter of online criticism’s (sometimes accurate) projections.
A televisual Lana Del Rey, the show was first ecstatically received and approached with near-prophetic reverence in the ways people praised it for seeing into the millennial American zeitgeist. And thus, so too poured in the type of criticism awarded false prophets: this show wasn’t about Girls, it was about these girls, and particularly, these privileged white girls. The fight over whether the show was satire or an empathic character study — or what it actually was, a sometimes failed, sometimes painfully astute on an almost episode-to-episode basis combination of both — took on a separate life within the media. The debate at times seemed larger than the show itself: Splitsider, for instance, collected a list of 24 pretty massive thinkpieces from its first season alone.
And then there was the question of the show’s actual quality wavering in Seasons 3 and 4, as its loose temporal structure began to create a sense of purposelessness. Now, however, at the end of the exceedingly sharp Season 5, the show seems to have come back into critical favor, reaching the levels of praise the first season initially received. This, for the first time, made me — and might make you — want to revisit the first season.
When I rewatched the pilot recently, I was indeed struck by the fact that it’s only been four years. Media impressions of Girls (including my own!) metamorphosed almost weekly to the extent that it now feels, as far as its public image goes, something like that Robin Williams character Jack, who aged four times as fast as other kids on the playground, looking a full Robin Williams when he was actually 12 or something.
The show itself may not have changed all that much, but looking back at the pilot through the thicket of cultural commentary, you feel you’re watching a historical relic. And so, I decided to reexamine the pilot through both the notion of what the show would become, as well what thinkpiece infinite regress (yes, perpetuated here) would make of it, to try to get a reconsidered grasp on what the show was trying to do in the first place.
Parents, Money and Creativity
It’s now exceedingly telling that the first scene in Girls was about parents and money — and, particularly, parents’ money. The series very memorably begins with Hannah’s father telling her they’re preparing her for “one final push” — and her mother clarifying that they’re cutting her off financially, as she literally cuts her off at the dinner table when the waiter asks if she’d like anything else. It’s clearer now than ever that we’re not supposed to feel sorry for Hannah here — the responsibility for the situation is mostly on her, a character who’s been jobless on her parents’ dime for two years as she’s compiled a small packet of writing and done an unpaid internship. But it’s also on the state the creative world was in in 2012 — where the only doorways were the illusions provided by internships from companies relying on free labor to make up for the financial strife of the era.
Soon after the first episodes aired, the show would be criticized for the what was perceived to be the nepotistic casting of its four leads — it was lambasted for doing its small part to perpetuate the sometimes insurmountable power hierarchies of the creative sphere that it so often skewers. Beyond that, of course, was the show’s whiteness. What people may have seen as Dunham trying — and failing — to express the woes of a mythical creative Everygirl in an inclement national economic/artistic phase now reads as something very specific to a likewise very flawed — with equally deliberate specificity — character: Hannah had more agency than most, and unlike Dunham, was still unable to really do anything with it.
Knowing that in four years these financially comfortable characters would still not have really “figured it out” suggests more a study of stagnancy and aimlessness within privilege than a plea for pity or even empathy for Hannah’s condition. “Do you know how crazy the economy us? All my friends get help from their parents,” Hannah says during the scene. It now brings to mind a piece on the show that’d later be written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who said, “the problem isn’t the Lena Dunham show about a narrow world. The problem is that there aren’t more narrow worlds on screen. Broader is not synonymous with better.” Indeed, it was in its narrowest moments where the show would read the most vividly as the scrutiny of a strange white, upper middle class, condition.
There’s a scene in the pilot that draws immediate parallels and contrasts to Sex and the City, and in doing so denotes what some of Girls’ key strengths and shortcomings would be over the coming seasons. In a self-referential gesture of a show about four white, bourgeois women friends in New York City on HBO, the very first episode sees Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) meeting up with her cousin Jessa (Jemima Kirke) at her NYU dorm, and proceeding to want to categorize them both as SATC characters. “You’re definitely a Carrie, with some Samantha aspects and Charlotte hair — it’s a really good combination… I’m definitely a Carrie at heart,” she continues, then sheepishly adds, “But then sometimes Samantha comes out.”
This now seems less of a vie for a similar authority over feminine archetypes that SATC tried to sustain than an immediate acknowledgement of this show’s differences — namely, that the characters would not have the same familial, congenial, supportive connection that the characters on SATC did. Rather, Shoshanna is trying to find commonality between herself and her vastly different cousin by sifting through an old code of televisual friendship. This is both honest but also foreshadows a huge problem for Girls. While Sex and the City wove a temporally cohered story of tightly knit friendships, Girls would ultimately derail for a while when it decided to abandon, simultaneously, both temporal consistency and create fissures in these friendships, leading audiences only with a not-always compelling set of variables.
One of Girls‘ consistently best traits was its hyper-specific dramatization of sex. It was rare that you’d get as lucid a sense of character dynamic on the show as when two people were fucking. The almost lyrical discomfort of these scenes would come to be one of the show’s trademarks, and a precedent is set with the pilot’s scene involving Adam and Hannah — who are still very casual at the beginning of the series. During this scene, Hannah talks persistently about whatever banal thing comes to mind, while Adam fucks her from behind and ultimately suggests, mid-pump, instituting a “silent time.”
The scene certainly incriminates Adam in a sense: after a harrowingly, masterfully choreographed scene about questionable consent in the third season — in which Adam’s sexual proclivities actually do come across as predatory — looking back at this, we see in Adam a penchant for dangerous objectification. Meanwhile, Hannah’s inability to get out of her head speaks to the issue of bumbling narcissism that would so upset people about her character. Both of their flaws, that the show would have a field day elaborating on across five seasons, were brought out in the first sexual encounter they have onscreen.
What’s even more fascinating is seeing Lena Dunham’s body from this first episode and being aware of the extent to which the show’s creator/star’s physique itself would be think-pieced. In the scene, Adam squeezes and points at her tattoos, asking why she got them. She asserts that in high school she gained a lot of weight all at once — she felt out of control of her body, and in attempt to reassert authority, she stamped it. There’d be a deluge of critiques and celebrations about the use of nudity — and the meaning of Dunham’s body — on the show, and this initial scene, where Adam tries to decode the ways she’s chosen to present it, bears particular weight given where the show, and its critics, would go. Dunham’s body, like her show, would become the interplay of assertions of creative control and the media’s consistent, inevitable usurpations of her authority — and following that, she’d just take control again, repositioning her naked body once more within a scene of her own design, waiting for it to take on a life of its own online. Hannah is a fiction, but she shares the same body and tattoos as Dunham.
In the fifth season, Hannah sits in for a nude portrait: something someone does for themselves with the notion that other people will project their own subjectivities onto it. In the same vein, across the separate series of series we’ve made from Girls online, the pilot now seems not just four years — but also thousands of voices — away from the series Dunham, herself, continues to make.