“Guys, we’re so disconnected now. I thought that this would be a good opportunity to have fun together and prove to everyone via Instagram that we can still have fun as a group.” – Marnie Michaels
That quote is from the “Beach House” episode of HBO’s Girls, Season Three. The episode is the pinnacle of a blisteringly honest and brilliant third season that seismically shifts the series in new directions. In its short running time, “Beach House” typifies everything we’ve come to expect from the show, namely lead character Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) spending the entire episode hanging out of a lime green 2-piece bikini, and elevates it to Osage County levels during a hilarious moment of “truth telling” amongst Horvath’s circle of friends.
It’s an intense moment, at once comically cathartic and intensely uncomfortable. Many shows have attempted it, but not to this level of authenticity. Emmy voters take notice: these Girls are perfecting the art of aging gracefully.
During its first two seasons, the chorus of voices across the cultural landscape from online op-ed pieces to frothy TV news magazines shouted Girls praises or called for its damnation. Acclaimed creator Lena Dunham was hailed for her ascension into male-dominated television with a fresh, new vision of New York women who weren’t measured by their Manolo Blahniks. Equally, she was criticized for an early focus on boys, a whitewashed experience in a multi-cultural urban world, and… well… for being a plus-sized girl who liked to show some skin.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the various controversies, Girls received 5 Emmy nominations in its debut season, recognizing Dunham’s acting, writing, and direction as well as the series itself. It continued this momentum into its second, more uneven, season where it received an equal number of nominations, surprisingly omitting Dunham in the Comedy Writing category but including the great Adam Driver in the Supporting Actor category.
With its death-obsessed season three now fully revealed in all its naked glory, Girls should be on-track to becoming another major Emmy threat this year, rivaled only by its sister show Veep as the greatest comedy on TV. If Emmy voters would just overlook their lazy Modern Family tendencies, then perhaps one of these fantastic female-driven shows will shine on Emmy night.
Dunham steers her characters on a course for change over the Season Three arc. That’s hardly revolutionary. All great shows must have characters that change, evolve, or, in this case, devolve. The brilliance of Season Three lies in Dunham’s vivid illustration of her characters’ quarter-life crises. As guest star Richard E. Grant proclaims early in the season, “Of course, being young is terrifying as well. You have all of the knowledge, but none of the language to dissuade yourself from the horrible truths of the world.”
Taken independently, it’s a great line. It has a resonant, vaguely literary quality that demands quoting if not outright commitment to T-shirts. But considered in context of the show, it’s a beacon. An illustration that season three is made of stronger stuff.
Consider, for example, Marnie Michaels (Allison Williams), the “pretty one” who has vague aspirations of managing or perhaps owning a high-end art gallery. The real story behind her is that she self-soothes with dick. In Season 3, Marnie largely pined for the absent Charlie who eschewed her affections, as she repeatedly intones, during pizza night. Adding insult to injury, he releases You Tube video of Marnie’s truly cringe-worthy rendition of Edie Brickell’s “What I Am,” painting her as a shallow, Rebecca Black wannabe.
Marnie crumbles and attempts forward, self-empowering momentum but drags herself, her friends, and, rewardingly, the viewers into revisiting her past glories. One of the seasons’ highlights involved Marnie dragging Hannah (Dunham) on stage during her 25th birthday party to sing “Take Me or Leave Me” from the musical Rent. But her actions bleed into the “Beach House” episode where she (over)orchestrates an intended time machine weekend where all wounds would be healed and past triumphs would be revisited. Naturally, the plan fails miserably. Later in the season, Marnie does ultimately attempt forward momentum by becoming something of a low-rent Lucida Williams, but that only serves to land her another man, emotionally circling her back to Charlie.
Or consider Hannah herself. At the start of the season, Hannah conquered the OCD that threatened to derail her personal and professional life (as well as the show itself) and has sealed herself in a domesticated bubble with boyfriend Adam. She was also on the precipice of becoming a published author, albeit in eBook form. Things appeared to be moving in the right direction. Too bad Ray, with his Woody Allen voice and hangdog face, burst the bubble right at the start.
“That’s called life, Hannah. Everything dies.”
And death, it seemed, plagued Hannah all season. Death of her publisher. Death of her book deal. Death of her grandmother (lovingly rendered in a strong candidate for a Comedy Guest Emmy nomination by Oscar-nominee June Squibb). Death of neighbor Laird’s turtle. At one point, Hannah, accompanied by Laird, the dead turtle, and Adam’s sister Caroline, run and make merry in a cemetery. Courage in the face of death. It’s a nice moment as long as you don’t realize they dance behind a young boy grieving for his dead father.
Dunham uses death as the great metaphor for change, setting into motion her ultimate retreat from the adult world back into the world for which Marnie earlier pined. Hannah ends the season on a falsely upbeat note by accepting a position in graduate school, repositioning herself back in the comforts of education and, most interestingly, in the comforts of parent-funded education. Basically reverting Hannah’s 3-season character progression.
It’s a bold move for a bold show. A show that deserves far more positive attention that it traditionally receives. Yes, it should receive multiple Emmys. It’s a great show with heavy themes handled with grace and skill by Lena Dunham. But, at the end of the day, Season 3 provides so many small gems of humanity that linger in the soul for weeks. The image of Adam’s sister Caroline standing bottomless in Hannah’s bathroom crushing a glass in her hand. The “Margaret” story that Hannah pilfers to prove to Adam she isn’t dead inside. Hannah’s attempts to rekindle the sexual flame through a dominatrix outfit inappropriately paired with granny panties. Jessa’s attempt to euthanize an ailing artist who ultimately grows cold feet.
These moments are playful and sad and poignant and real. They are the hallmarks of a show that refuses pigeonholing into a genre. Perhaps that will be its ultimate downfall in the Emmy race. Voters don’t know whether to laugh or cry, but that’s what makes the show so brilliant. It echoes life that way.
Showered with Emmys or not, Lena Dunham is a winner.
And so is Girls.