Like many who watch HBO’s now long-running series Girls, I have a love/hate relationship with the series. Or maybe casually like/hate is a more accurate representation. The show has always had so much potential, but the constant insistence that it’s a culturally revelatory work or “the voice of a generation” that showered its initial run was woefully misplaced. Though Chris Cabin wrote earlier this week about why he would disagree with my alternate title for the series, “Irritating Jerks,” I still find it apt. But there have been plenty of series about selfish jerks that aren’t as endlessly frustrating as Girls. Yet, I continue watching.
And maybe, for the first time, there seems to be some payoff. The show has struggled, like its lead characters, to definite itself over the years, and to capitalize on what makes it occasionally great. But with Season 5, Girls feels like it’s finally becoming greater than the sum of its selfish jerk parts. Some of the show’s best episodes have been when it leaves the city, and two of the new season’s first four episodes joyously flee the confines of Brooklyn, and New York in general. There’s also less of a focus on Hannah (Lena Dunham), and more time spent with (to excellent effect) Jessa (Jemima Kirke), Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), and Elijah (Andrew Rannells). There’s enough Adam (Adam Driver) and Ray (Alex Karpovsky) to keep things entertaining, but also enough of Hannah and Allison William’s Marnie to keep things forever frustrating. In doing so, perhaps, finally, Girls has found the right balance.
The show it at its very best when its meditative and driven by vignettes. The season opener, “Wedding Day,” (directed and written by Dunham, who then hands those credits off to Jesse Peretz, Jenni Konner, Bruce Eric Kaplan and others throughout the rest of the season) features some typically Girls-ish moments, with Marnie being a passive aggressive Bridezilla, and Hannah making everything about herself. But what’s the most striking thing about the episode is is that it’s a sumptuous visual journey. Dunham has become an increasingly skilled director, and she uses that to full effect in the country setting of this episode, including a gorgeously crafted scene in the rain between Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and Ray. Dunham uses these natural elements to their full effect, including a summer storm, natural lighting inside of the house, and a great visual juxtaposition between the women and men’s dwellings and places of preparation.
A similarly unique aesthetic exists in the third episode, “Japan,” (directed by Peretz) that should make most viewers suddenly desperate for a Shoshanna-centric Tokyo-based series. As Jessa aptly comments, her stint in Japan has made Shosh “more like a cartoon” than ever before, but the episode’s wandering narrative through both Shosh’s regular life in Japan and a particularly colorful and strange night on the town with her co-workers is reminiscent of something from Louie. It’s a postcard to a particular moment in time, and because of that, it makes Shosh’s decision at the end of the episode (of whether to ultimately stay or return to New York) one that suddenly has emotional weight, whereas at the start there was none.
It’s in these ways that Girls is finally coming into its own, and allowing itself to not just be a crass quasi-comedy and commentary on Millennial stereotypes and the outrageously irritating affectations of the young, monied, and bored. That still exists (like Ray’s run-ins with an overly PC rival coffee shop, and Hannah’s obsession with herself and with her body), but the show’s better moments are ones where Adam and Jessa spend an afternoon together tooling around the city, or when Hannah has to go confront a man who her father just had sex with to get his wallet back. These lead to wonderful, unexpected places both episodically and in a larger context within the show, and succeed in giving more nuance to the personalities and relationships on the show than a hollow shouting match over makeup before Marnie’s wedding could ever hope to.
Like the girls, Girls continues to redefine itself and try out new things, but so far in Season 5, it’s also found a reason to keep ambivalent viewers watching. In “Old Loves,” the fourth episode of the new season, the theme seems to revolve around the mistaken desire of getting exactly what you think you want. For once with this show, the question actually becomes hugely emotional, interesting, and urgent. As relationships falter, struggle through, and take on new shades of meaning as they become grounded and real, Girls begins to really build something wonderful. Dare we call it … maturity? Let’s hope it lasts.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — A great start
Girls Season 5 premieres Sunday, February 21st on HBO.