Why Do I Watch 'Girls' When I Hate All the Characters?

Do you really need to enjoy the characters to enjoy the show?

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Complex Original

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The fifth season of Girls premieres on HBO this Sunday, which means the annual cycle of hate-watching is beginning a month later than usual this year. The TV streets debated about the merits of the show most in its first two seasons, criticizing its overwhelming whiteness, touting its portrayal of female friendship, questioning how empowering its handling of sex truly is, praising its inclusion of feminist issues, knocking its lack of intersectionality, heralding its dialogue, and being baffled by its blind classism. The fields were never more ripe with think pieces, yet reviews were never better. Since then, the amount of praise has regressed towards the mean. The show’s Metacritic score has gone down each year, from 87, to 84, to 76, to 75. Ditto for Rotten Tomatoes, though the numbers have been less pronounced.

The same oversights still plague the show, with Donald Glover and Jessica Williams’ short stints making only a dent in the show’s looming white wall, and the characters stumbling their way into jobs and between apartments they shouldn’t be able to afford. With five seasons already finished and one more to be filmed, we can’t, unfortunately, expect that to change. But what has shifted is the characters’ bearability, or lack thereof.

The flaws of Hannah, Marnie, and Jessa, especially, have gone from being part of their characters to consuming them whole. Their insufferability informs each arc, each interaction with each other and the more functional human beings who receive far less screen time. Their collective narcissism is a bulldozer plowing its way through Brooklyn and, occasionally, Manhattan. And while some disasters can be exhilarating to watch, this one is just exhausting.

So why the fuck am I still watching them?

On its face, Girls is about the awkward, anxious, uncertain, and sometimes disastrous transition from college to “real” adulthood. But that’s really just a set-up; the heart of the show is the distance that grows between friends. None of the four core characters are as close to each other as they were in season one, with Marnie moving out of her and Hannah’s apartment as just the first of numerous schisms. The girls are there for the key moments—the goodbye brunches, the impromptu weddings, the open mic appearances, the departures from rehab—but they aren’t truly there for each other. As Marnie says to Hannah in Sunday’s premiere, “It has literally been years since you checked in with me, to see like where I’m at.” In rare a moment, Marnie isn’t being hyperbolic. Throughout the great Charlie disaster of season two and the subsequent recovery attempts in season three, Hannah was nowhere to be found, absorbed in the false starts of her own writing career and budding relationship with Adam.

The unfortunate truth, which many of us have trouble accepting in our own lives, is that none of these people should be friends with each other anymore. A person’s longstanding involvement in your life isn’t a sufficient enough reason on its own to keep them there. Sometimes this divide can come from something as innocuous as increasingly disparate interests and priorities, and sometimes it can come from outright toxicity.

The toxicity in Girls is often frustrating to the viewer, but it’s a necessary force in the development of the show and the dismantling of its relationships. It’s not necessarily fun to watch, but it’s real. Nights like the infamous Bushwick warehouse party fade into the past and give way to a drunken, long overdue airings of grievances that are both cathartic and cruel. If the friendships were worth saving, these climaxes would serve as a catalyst for growth. But the characters remain the same shitty people. And in hindsight, that Bushwick party wasn’t as fun as it may have seemed.

It took until the end of Girls for this to become clear: the peak of the girls’ friendships occurred in college, before the show started.  

Hannah’s lack of empathy and inner monologue dominate every conversation she’s a part of. Jessa is a giant flake who’s overtly manipulative whenever she is present. Marnie would control the rate of Earth’s gravity if she could, and her naivety creates expectations that no one could possibly fulfill. Shoshanna is also naive and blunt to a fault, but her behavior isn’t nearly as repulsive, and she gets the least screen time of the four. There may be people who can bring out the best in them (a la Hannah and Adam or Shosh and Ray, platonically), but after this long it’s clear the girls can’t play that role for each other.

Again, this is not fun to watch. The show is not always Hannah sniffing coke while Icona Pop’s “I Love It” blasts. But it’s a part of “real” adult life that is worth exploring and makes Girls stand out from its peers. Some of the best sitcoms are drenched in real-life despair. Louie isn’t fun, and no one expects it to be. It delves into the roughest parts of (deeper) adulthood while using comedy therapeutically. Girls does the same thing for young adulthood. Maybe the instinct should be to stop asking how Girls could be more fun—much like we should stop telling women to smile—and just allow it to bum us out by its relatability. 

In season five, and the final one after, I don’t want to see the characters find their perfect job or relationship. I don’t want to see them magically grow up and start treating each other better. I want to see if they find the courage and awareness to call off their friendships. It’s the only way to vindicate watching a group of narcissists let each other down for six years. Otherwise I’ll be the one looking back, reconsidering my choices of the last decade, wondering why I never called it quits.

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