Girls is the antithesis of the modern sitcom, most notably in the way it depicts sex as awkward and only intermittently satisfying — as opposed to the happy, off-screen "banging" that's talked about on shows like How I Met Your Mother and is only occasionally disrupted by cute-as-a-puppy instances of impotence. This week's second-season finale closes with a skewed take on a romantic comedy cliché, as Adam responds to a phone call of distress from Hannah by dashing out of his apartment at night without a shirt on, taking the subway to her place, breaking down her front door, and lifting her out of bed in his arms.
It's an unusually fast-paced, big-screen sequence for the series (created by and starring Lena Dunham), but it's also rooted in an essential truth of sitcom life: Your friends are always there for you (warning: earworm). The small-audience Girls has played with this convention and, like its treatment of sex, has taken it to some dark places. As someone who has experience with depression and social withdrawal, I found it rather disturbing, and I wonder if Hannah's situation is becoming more common in American life — especially among the growing unmarried population.
A sitcom character who becomes depressed and isolates himself is usually a dependable source of laughs. On a recent episode of far more popular The Big Bang Theory, Raj spirals into depression because of his loneliness, and we see him lounging in his apartment in his underwear, eating take-out food and drinking with abandon. If it weren't for his mussed-up hair and a big stain on his T-shirt, he'd look as if he were on the best vacation of his life. After his friends (who are also his co-workers, as often the case on sitcoms) visit to express concern, he pulls himself together without much effort.
On Girls, Hannah's social withdrawal is much less attractive. Her obsessive-compulsive disorder returns, and her facial tics are not played for laughs. She robotically eats Cool Whip (probably attracted by its lack of taste), cuts off most of her hair, and can't stop herself from jamming a Q-Tip so far into her ear that she ruptures an eardrum. One friend (Jessa) is incommunicado, and another (Marnie) lets herself into Hannah's apartment only to give up and leave before she can discover Hannah hiding behind her bed. Hannah finally calls ex-boyfriend Adam, an alcoholic with anger issues who once scared her enough that she dialed 911 to get him out of her apartment. The sequence of Adam running through the streets of Brooklyn is superficially romantic, but it doesn't take much squinting to imagine him, with hairy face and naked torso, as a nocturnal predator. He's no Matthew Perry, and it's hard to rest comfortably with the idea of Adam as someone who can bring Hannah back to mental health.
I was fascinated and unsettled watching the episode — as well as the previous episodes in which Hannah edges toward a breakdown. I've experienced depression and social anxiety all of my life, and there's something very tempting about a breakdown, or a call for rescue, as it's often depicted in popular culture. As a teen, I saw something heroic in Timothy Hutton's suicidal-but-savable character in Ordinary People (which may mean that the film didn't achieve the tone it was trying for), and I can't help but envy TV characters, like Big Bang's Raj, who can fall apart with the knowledge that his endlessly patient friends will step in to save him.
One trigger for Hannah's breakdown is missing a deadline to turn in a manuscript for an absurdly unfocused e-book. The meta-joke is that her publisher/editor wants autobiographical stories about terrible sex. He gives her a contract with an advance but almost no guidance, just hoping that she'll somehow come up with something buzzworthy. When Hannah fumbles the assignment, some viewers may see a comeuppance for her pretension. ("I may be the voice of my generation," she says in a season-one episode, though she's high on opium tea at the time.) But she punishes herself more effectively than does the publisher, who threatens a lawsuit to get the advance money back.
As a writer who lives alone, I can identify with Hannah's predicament. The best thing for her would be a job where she could interact with, and learn from, more experienced writers, as opposed to hiding in her bedroom and waiting for inspiration. But such opportunities are vanishing in today's media world (as I noted in my post about the closing of the Boston Phoenix), and I don't think this phenomenon is limited to journalism. I know people in other fields (sales, education, public policy, nonprofit institutions, etc.) spending more time at home or other socially isolated work environments with little guidance other than emails and conference calls.
In such a situation, the idea of a bare-chested Adam busting down your door to break your spell of isolation can be appealing. But in contrast to Big Bang and similar shows, Girls has not used the friendly intervention as a happy conclusion, but rather as a cliffhanger to make us uneasy until the series returns next season. I'm kind of glad for the break; I can catch up on the relatively cheery escapism of The Walking Dead.
Cross-posted at Robert David Sullivan.
Two more recommended posts on Girls. First, Todd VanDerWerff on the show's depiction of Hannah's OCD:
There are very much people who are defined by their mental illnesses, who are swallowed whole by depression or anxiety or schizophrenia or you name it. But there are also people who have milder conditions, ones that are livable, with the proper coping mechanisms. (Honestly, this probably describes essentially everybody on Earth who’s in a secure enough place to not be worried about their own survival 24/7.) The problem with most mental illness narrative is that it essentially turns mental illness into the omnipresent villain, which is not exactly how such a thing operates for everybody on Earth. Mental illness can come and go. It can get worse, or recede. [...]
I like the basic impulse, but I also don’t know why the show couldn’t have pushed Hannah’s already existent anxiety to a darker, more self-defeating place.
And Jamie Weinman with a theory on why some people get so irritated at the very mention of Girls:
People are inclined to get angry when they think they’re being told what’s hot. The ideal thing, from a marketing standpoint, is either not to make the push so obvious, or to back up the push with huge popularity so that no one can deny that this is the in thing. But with Girls, people who don’t like the show may feel that its constant presence in the news is the result of someone trying to put something over on them.