TODAY'S TV fan spends a lot of time subconsciously managing a personal tolerance for despicableness. Bad behaviour -- from the violently criminal down to the basically ill-mannered -- carries the day, but it has to be a certain flavour of bad for a show to really work, and tastes do differ.
Here on the couch, with remotes in hand and the broadband flowing like a river, we deal all the time with despicableness, because our best and favourite TV series are nearly always built around flawed, often very unlikable people -- mostly men -- who make terrible choices and suffer a provocative degree of narcissism. Despicableness is seen as a sure way to hook us in. I'd love to start watching a few shows about intensely likable people, but I can hardly think of any.
The likability factor once more brings me -- unwillingly, this time -- to the overanalyzed subject of Hannah Horvath, the still-24-year-old protagonist of the HBO series Girls, which returns for a third season Sunday night. "I just don't like you," a new character tells Hannah at her new job, midway through the new season. "I don't like your face. Your mouth -- I just want to rip it off your face."
I wouldn't go that far, but I do interpret the scene as yet another subliminal admission by Lena Dunham (Girls creator and celebrated showrunner, who stars as Hannah) that she is essentially trolling for outraged responses from her detractors and fans alike. The point of watching is to exhaust oneself by tut-tutting Hannah for her perpetual entitlement and self-sabotaging journey toward adulthood.
At its best and worst, Girls enables an ongoing conversation about a very real generation gap. People older than 35 can use the show as a way to decide if people under 30 are as inept and self-absorbed as they're depicted (mostly anecdotally) in media reports and socio-psycho-economic-demographic studies.
Rather than rise up against the very narrow millennial stereotype depicted in Girls, viewers in their 20s are drawn to it, and drawn to affirming the show in quasi-critical essays and recaps posted online. And I do understand why: Girls is about a despicably self-centered young woman and her mostly despicable social circle. It is both an indictment and an exaltation of an entire subspecies of young adult.
In this season, all of Girls problems and quarter-life crises remain firmly intact. The once-ascendant Marnie (Allison Williams) is now just heartsick and aimlessly adrift in her dreams of singing success (and singing humiliation, via an Edie Brickell cover on YouTube); Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) regrets dumping Ray (Alex Karpovsky); the cartoonishly irritating Jessa (Jemima Kirke) is tormenting her fellow addicts at a bucolic rehab centre upstate.
The grittiness of Girls crossed a line last season into abject disgust. The show became less about satire and more an obsessive downer. It's a lot less fun now. When watching these new episodes, I found it impossible to complete any sentence along the lines of "I hope (blank) happens to (blank)," not counting my hope that poor Adam (Hannah's increasingly complex boyfriend, played by Adam Driver, who now provides Girls' only gravitational pull) will come to his senses and flee. I don't hope anything happens to Hannah or Marnie or especially Jessa, because Girls forgets to offer any payoff or engagement as a TV show.
Early in the season, Hannah confronts mortality. An acquaintance has died, but all it triggers emotionally is a worry about how this death might affect Hannah professionally. Adam, now saddled with representing Girls' mere hint of a moral centre, is once more baffled at her selfishness and her inability to process feelings.
"Why are we fighting about this?!" Hannah asks, looking up from her computer screen, where she has been reading anonymous comments about the death on Gawker.
"Why aren't you mourning quietly?" Adam wants to know.
Because she doesn't have it in her. We are talking too much about a show that is only about the hollowness of empty, despicable people. Ignoring Girls doesn't mean you're old or missing a joke or even that you're anti-feminist. To the extent that I can confer it, I'm giving those of us who have had enough Girls permission to get on with our lives, for whatever reasons, including unlikability.
-- Washington Post-Bloomberg