Dearest Dear TV,
I’m in the (fittingly, for a discussion of Lena Dunham) awkward position of agreeing with much of what Lili and Phil say in their excellent analyses of Episode 6 (“The Return”), while also getting the feeling that I’m generally less enthusiastic about the episode than the two of you were. This, for me, was the second episode of Girls that didn’t quite work (the first was Episode 4, “Hannah’s Diary,” the first one not directed by Dunham, which felt a little broad and unfocused to me). Lili’s remarks about the episode’s sly allusions to horror movie conventions is apt, as is her fascinating comparison to Twin Peaks. Clearly, “The Return” is deliberately “off-model” (as they say in the TV biz), and that offness provides its own formal pleasures, as well as pointing up how strongly defined the series’ style is already after just five episodes.
That said, the Twin Peaks parallel actually helps me to clarify what I found unconvincing about the episode. If Hannah reminds me of any character from that show, it’s Agent Cooper: she reacts to everything and everyone in Lansing, Michigan with the same mix of ethnographic detachment, unconscious condescension, and “when in Rome” gameness to the (admittedly much less alluring) environment around her. But Hannah is supposed to be from Lansing, and Dunham never quite succeeds in making me believe this. She should be Audrey Horne, or Maddy Palmer, in this episode, not Agent Cooper: a little removed, tired, or ashamed of her hometown perhaps, but not totally alien in it.
I actually think it’s an odd decision, given how closely Hannah resembles Dunham herself and her Tiny Furniture character Aura in most other particulars, to not make her a native of New York. (At the very least, she could’ve been from Long Island, like this episode’s co-writer Judd Apatow.) Here is probably the place to declare/admit that I’m a native New Yorker myself, and, to me, Hannah/Aura/Dunham is definitely a recognizable New York type: a child of privilege with familial links to the artistic avant-garde who quietly rebels against a life of nonstop glamour — or perhaps resists being held to its impossibly exacting standards — by emphasizing the parts of herself that are down-to-earth, unpretentious, and self-effacing. (I’m not describing myself, mind you — I’m pretty pretentious — but this thumbnail sketch could apply to plenty of people I grew up with, and knew well.) “I’m the nicest!” Hannah calls up to Marnie at the beginning of “The Return” just before she departs for Lansing, and it’s true: of all the girls in Girls, Hannah’s the only one you could accurately describe as “nice.” (Shoshanna is unmalicious, but way too self-absorbed and insecure to qualify.) But her brand of unpretentious niceness — and to me this is absolutely key to the show, and to its charisma — is the kind of niceness that is bred by constant proximity to pretentious meanness (to someone like Jessa, for instance). Hannah, in other words, can afford to be so nice, because, as she puts it in this episode, she knows that “the worst stuff that [she says] sounds better than the best stuff that some other people say.” Even if she never lets on or drops the mask of amiability, Hannah is judging you.
One thing I did like about this episode was the strategy of focusing entirely on one character: we see Marnie only briefly, at the beginning of the episode, and from a distance; Jessa is represented only as an uncalled number in Hannah’s iPhone, and Shoshanna not at all. So much has been made of Girls‘s repurposing of the structure of Sex and the City that it’s surprising — and, again, weirdly pleasing — to see the show break out of that mode so soon. (I’m not aware of any individual episode of Sex and the City centered on just one of the four protagonists; maybe one of you who’s more familiar with the whole corpus can enlighten me.) Since Hannah is, at this point, the only character in the show that I really care about, I was happy to see her get an entire episode to herself. (I wonder if Dunham and the writers are planning to give the same treatment to Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna as well; it’s unlikely to happen this season, at any rate, given that there are only four more episodes.)
So the structure was fine, but the tone was wrong: you can take the girl out of New York but you can’t take New York out of the girl, and I missed the sure sense of place that’s on display in the show’s first five episodes. The Lansing characters — especially the vacuous, beret-wearing Heather — all seemed overly sketchy, bordering on caricatures; at times the episode felt more like Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World or (shudder) a Todd Solondz movie than it did a typical Dunham production, all reflexive disdain for suburban oblivion. (I’m thinking especially of Heather and the Twistarounds’ performance of that Keri Hilson song at the benefit for Carrie Lawrence; though I did like Hannah’s subtly mortified facial reaction.) There were plenty of nice, understated moments — Phil and Lili have already catalogued a few, like Eric mentioning the job opening at the florist, or Hannah absentmindedly singing along to Jewel’s “Hands” — but they were ultimately outweighed, for me, by the false, ungenerous ones. (Not to mention the shower sex accident scene, which just felt like a weird Apatovian imposition — “we’re losing ’em! we need some old people fucking!” — kind of like the diarrhea sequence in Bridesmaids.)
I’ll stop there, because I want to hear what Jane thinks. But before I sign off I’d just like to make clear that I’m glad the show is taking risks and playing around with its basic formal DNA so early in the game. I just don’t think this particular experiment completely came off. On to the next one!
Not a professional advice-giver,