Sorta. This is such a half idea, but has legs, and so I’m sure it’s been written about… cleverly… 800 times… on tumblr… yesterday.
In fact in between when I first started drafting this and today, two weeks maybe, I’ve come across no less than three similar perspectives without looking for them. It turns out this comparison between Girls and Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm is a very common thought. There is however something ubiquitously uncommon about perceiving Girls this way. No one does it the same. Which as it turns out, earns Girls the title (wrestling not story) for the show “most about nothing.”
I really like Girls, but not half as much as I like talking about it. I’m fascinated by the way it rubs people, either softly or against the grain. When it debuted, everyone had something to say about it. That it was racist. Critics of it were misogynists. Groundbreaking television. Irritating characters. Everyone felt like they had to speak their peace about it, or at least respond to someone else’s piece on it. I quickly grew tired of that. Only because so many people had an opinion, it became overwhelming. And I think everyone had gut reactions. And it felt predictable. White people claimed it was racist. Minorities defended it. Women said they didn’t care for Lena getting naked and sensitive dudes defended its feminine themes. It was like everyone assumed what the typical response of their demographic would be, and went against it. But when everyone does that it, it’s no longer unique, and it feels cold and uninviting. Most of this is just an excuse for me to say that pop culture climate makes me uncomfortable and I like to let the dust settle before I go hollering through the streets.
So now that people have stopped trying to be the loudest polarizing voice, you can finally hear what people are saying. And it’s fascinating. Everyone now has a thoughtful, reasoned opinion about the show. There are fewer hardline accusations and labels. And yet, the opinions haven’t dissipated. Rare is it that I hear “I haven’t seen it,” or even a simple “eh.” There’s an extension to every reaction.
"I like that it portrays young adults as being unsure, but overly confident. It reminds me of people I know."
"I hate that they are so self-involved. It reminds me of people I know."
"I have to see three or four episodes to make a claim about each season."
"There are scenes that are just so full of wit and charm, that I watch it for that.”
And finally, most prominent is the claim/question about it being a descendent of Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld’s nothingness sensibilities.
Now of course, you can’t put a comedy on the air without it being compared to Seinfeld, and I believe all shows with layered story lines and range need to credit Jerry and Larry. But Girls, when it premiered, seemed like the least likely mimic, but as it’s evolved its made its viewers question the logical conclusion most risen to.
On two separate occasions friends of mine told me the show was just flat out bad this year, and part of their critique was that it was trying to be Curb and you could see that it was trying. Then another friend, weeks later, texted me to say it was the best season citing the same reasons as the show’s detractors.
The claim was the show was borrowing from Seinfeld because it was calling out unspoken rules and bizarre archetypes in our world. When Seinfeld introduced the idea of nick-naming someone based on their unattractive quality (man hands, close talker), audiences had one of two thoughts. Either “that’s what my friends do,” or “that’s what my friends and I should be doing.” It kind of merged the narcissistic shallow world with everybody else, and we all agreed that being selfish was funnier, even if it meant omitting empathy.
Lena Dunham’s show is of course not an exact copy. Girls doesn’t refer to someone simply by their quirky one-dimensional trait, but they do present people as caricatures. Hannah pushes the boundaries of acceptable small talk, Marnie dances and sings with no self awareness, Shoshanna is every aloof person you’ve ever dismissed and then heard them say something profound, and Jessa meets a recovering addict who she thinks is an intellectual, but is really just horny. It’s not the bizarro Seinfeld version of Girls, but it might be a reimagining of the same idea about a show about nothing. In fact, it one ups the premise by lowering the stakes. Adults talking about nothing has interesting stakes because they have jobs, but Girls is about children without careers and that really is nothing. What it lacks in stakes it makes up for it in authentic nothing. Who better to be consumed by emptiness than this generation of clown shoes?
Girls made me, and I suspect many others, go “ugh, people like that exist?” Entitled, poor-by-choice, self-important twenty-somethings are an unpleasant product of this country. Not because they’re actively harmful, but because they’re so passively unhelpful. The characters in Girls are only passionate about their pointless plights. They could all die tomorrow and the world would not take notice. Now that’s the case for most of us without children, but at least you’d have to find someone to cover our shift. People waver on the likability of every character on that show, except for Ray. Why? Because Ray has dreams and aspirations, but he also contributes integrity to the spectacularly unimpressive job market. When life gives him less, he demonstrates potential for more. Hannah is unlikable because she quits the coffee shop job every week because she thinks she’s deserving of more. Marnie offers her talents in a way that consumes rather than produces. Even when it’s about someone else, it’s about her. Jessa played the system so she didn’t have to be a cog in it, and Shoshanna is blowing minds with her social anthropology theories presented in twitter speak. Never on television has so much potential amounted to so much nothing. Even George disrupted the Yankees and assisted in the death of his fiancee.
As the podcast “Girls in Hoodies” points out, Girls, borrowing an idea from Seinfeld, yadda-yaddas over traditional compelling narratives like Hannah’s introduction into the professional literary world. We’re left to watch the vapid aftermath of Hannah worrying about how her book deal will be affected by someone’s death. When she gets a job at GQ, it’s not about writing for a big magazine, or dealing with deadlines, or blowback, or even office politics really. It’s about the fucking snacks! Later she gets depressed when her co-workers echo sentiments of taking the corporate job under the naive assumption that it would be temporary. She vows to write every night, but fails immediately when her fatigue from the working world claims her on the couch and she dozes off. Given a job with potential to create and instead she eats and falls asleep.
That episode forced in me an uncomfortable transition from “ugh, people like that exist” to “ugh, I exist like that.” I shared in both Hannah’s complete narcissism and the fear of settling. Fearing my occupation would get the best of my ambitions, I bought a calendar to mark off the days I write, but sometimes I’m too tired from a job that I keep telling myself is temporary, and so I don’t write. Even Hannah’s empty selfishness in the face of death rang a familiar tone.
A few years ago at a company Secret Santa, I didn’t get a gift because my co-worker’s dad suffered a heart attack. I didn’t say anything, but I confess that I felt a little cheated. I vowed never to participate again, but found that stance to be aggressively unsocial in the workplace. “No, I don’t want to participate in gift giving because I never give a gift, and I’m certainly not going to just give someone something without the guarantee of getting something in return!”
Giving equal weight to material loss as life lost is quintessential Larry David. It’s George trying to get discounted plane tickets at a funeral. It’s Larry stealing Funkhouser’s dead mother’s flowers, and then perfume. In fact, I thought my experience was such a Larry David idea that I wrote a spec on it (I know LD doesn’t write full scripts, but it was more just a thing to see if I could do it). Then two years later, Girls writes a similar story but again with bigger stakes because the girls care less, and the person who died showed a personal interest in Hannah. It’s nothingness depicted as void of character. I had a shameful “that’s what I do” moment, and it only made me like the show more.
The episodes where the characters are forced to accept that their talents may not be what the world has been waiting for are so personal to my own fears of meaninglessness that they haunt my quiet thoughts. Everyone thinks they’re destined for their American Dream, because that’s what we teach, but not everyone is. We know what we want, and more importantly, what we don’t want, but some people have to be what they don’t want so that we have mailmen, retail sales people, convenience store clerks, and truck drivers. The arrogance in thinking that you don’t have to pay your dues because you’re “you” is an honest bummer. It’s the essence of Girls, and of Seinfeld. It’s fortunate people who think that by virtue of their good fortune they are forever entitled to an easy life. And it’s out of these people’s outrage at life’s denial of that belief that makes us laugh.
Even when Girls elevates the stakes with which the characters are gambling with, it reverts to nothingness. In this latest episode the girls all came clean, or at least were forced to recognize some common truths about their character defects, courtesy of Shoshanna. I thought this was the most mature thing they’ve done on the show. The show is often a portrayal of kids trying to do what they think will make them an adult, but this kitchen vent was them acting the way adults probably should. Occasionally, be direct. But as Hannah demonstrated, being direct doesn’t equate to change. Hannah said she has no signs of changing. That may seem immature, but it’s true, and most of growing-up is acceptance. People remain who they are, and remaining stagnant is just another form of nothingness. In life you will have planned and unplanned adventures, debauchery, and change, and when people ask you what you did, you don’t say “nothing.” You say “nothing” when you sat around all day, fantasized about a more complete future, but inevitably just watched TV…or complained to someone…or thought about sex…or got lost in drugs and alcohol….or waxed clever on the internet. All of which Girls encounters.
The show is so much about nothing that it’s even ambiguous and empty in its point of view. I’ve played witness to fantastically complex exchanges of ideas about whether the show is disapproving of Hannah’s behavior, or it’s trying to present a character of sympathy. Yet in contrast to almost everything I’ve just mentioned, everyone agrees there’s an expectation that the show be more clear in its perspective. But if it did, then it would be about something, and it’s really aiming to be about nothing.
The characters and their ideas make for the truest show about nothing, and that’s why opinions about it are so remarkable. People at this point in history, and I suspect for all of time, but particularly now, can’t accept nothing. They require, they yearn for, meaning. More than any other show, Girls has brought the high school essay format to television consumption. Saying “I like it” was suddenly not enough for a show like Girls. “I think it’s funny,” or “I just don’t enjoy it,” became insufficient. We had to say how we felt about it and why, using supporting evidence. Girls is plainly about nothing of substance, but we as conscious devourers of art are not compatible with nothing, so we reverse engineer an opinion as a response to being captivated by it’s lack of sentiment. On the tiniest level, people’s ideas about Girls is equatable to cultivating a faith. I’m intrigued by this thing BECAUSE I don’t understand it, so I create these parameters of belief to give purpose to my interests.
Am I saying Girls is a religion? No. It’s no more a religion than human conception. How we choose to interpret the world doesn’t change what the world is. Of course Girls is art, not science, so the lens by which it’s viewed perhaps does have some bearing on it’s existential theme. Or maybe it’s just a fully realized, brilliantly executed show about the vastness of perky nothingness, and we should all just curb our enthusiasm.