‘Girls’ returns: less important, more enjoyable, just as funny

Lena Dunham’s Girls, complete with uneroticised nudity, awkward sex and millennial angst, is back

Lena Dunham: Girls was cursed with importance. As its importance wanes, we can stop wondering about the significance of each detail

Lena Dunham: Girls was cursed with importance. As its importance wanes, we can stop wondering about the significance of each detail

 

It feels like all the “hot takes” on Girls (Monday, Sky Atlantic) are now taken. No other programme got the same spotlight in the US culture wars over the past five years.

There are relatively few op-eds on how Rick from The Walking Dead promotes middle aged body positivity or how Sons of Anarchy nails the nuances of male friendship. Just by dint of being female-focused and unapologetic, Girls was always going to be presented as “important” or “right” or, just as often, “vacuous” and “wrong”, and thus deserving of micro-analysis.

This week, writer/star Lena Dunham even got namechecked by disgraced far-right boyband gonk Milo Yiannopoulos on Real Time with Bill Maher (Monday, Sky Atlantic) when the half-baked pederasty-apologist suggested Dunham was at the epicentre of liberal thinking, in the same way, presumably, that Alf Garnett, Adenoid Hynkel and the most racist of the Smurfs are at the centre of his.

I think Bill Maher was making a point. A stupid and unnecessary one

What was that incoherent transphobic chuckle-bigot doing in a real television and not a cardboard one created for him by his mother? I suspect Yiannopoulos was “starting a conversation”, which is the default position of people too ideologically empty and dead inside to actually sustain and finish one, and I think Maher was making a point. A stupid and unnecessary one: “I am Bill Maher and I can do what I want, liberal cry-babies!”

Still, it was nice when panellist Larry Wilmore told Yiannopoulos to go f**k himself.

Okay, sorry for that tangent. While Dunham still attracts the ire of both the left (for her privilege and sporadically silly comments on race/gender/abortion) and the right (because she’s a woman who makes comments at all), the hot-take train has, thankfully, moved on from the show itself.

It was, and remains, the story of privileged, self-absorbed New York twentysomethings told with a deadpan aesthetic more like indie cinema than classic US sitcom. The main thing that has changed, really, is the culture around the show.

There are now several other programmes that blur the boundaries between comedy and drama while exploring the existential angst of millennials. These all owe a debt to the success of Girls, though they often come from less privileged, non-white perspectives (Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, Issa Rae’s Insecure and Donald Glover’s Atlanta, to name the best ones).

This makes Dunham less of a “voice of a generation”, and thus less of a target for every navel-gazing think-piece, and it also lets her off the hook slightly when it comes to representing every kind of millennial (early seasons were rightly criticised for their gleaming whiteness).

In the new series, all the standard Girls tropes are there – uneroticised nudity, awkward sex, traitorous friendships (boyfriend-stealers, mainly), gleeful references to pop culture (this week: Teen Witch!) and walk-on characters who exist purely to satirise millennial vacuity (Shoshanna’s entrepreneur friends and their empoweringly expensive women-in-business mixer).

Some of the characters have begun to revert to caricature, which is a risk that comes with lasting six seasons. This has happened less often, to be fair, than it did in Sex and the City, the programme that first showed journalists that the virgin/whore template was limiting and that there might be as many as four different kinds of women (We knew this already with men, thanks to The A-Team. Are you a Hannibal, Face, Murdock or BA? Take our quiz!).

Dunham ripped the glamour out of Sex and the City and added scatology, snark and a millennial anxiety about authenticity

Sex and the City didn’t cast a shadow over Girls. It shone a torch and pointed a direction. This week’s episode even contains a Chris Noth reference, though, tellingly, Hannah (Dunham) mentions him as “the guy from Law and Order” not “the guy from Sex and the City”.

Dunham ripped the glamour out of Sex and the City and added scatology, snark and a millennial anxiety about authenticity. The world of Girls is made up of overly self-aware but clueless cynics critiquing themselves out of existence as they rub shoulders with wide-eyed true believers who are, in turn, ridiculed for their sincerity (sometimes the cynics and true believers are the same people).

Last week, Hannah got to hang out with Riz Ahmed’s version of a manic pixie dream boy and vomit off the edge of his bed. This week, she ends up gooseberrying along on Marnie and Desi’s romantic weekend in Poughkeepsie, where they discover that idiotically soulful Desi is a manic Oxytocin addict. This shouldn’t be a surprise.

There is an inept, hilarious and disturbing altercation at this point, but Desi’s anguish and self-harm provide an opportunity for Hannah and Marnie to reconnect. Yes, their self-absorption in the face of someone else’s breakdown is mildly infuriating, but Girls is still funny and intriguing and original. As an uncompromising show about young women created by a young woman at a time when there were few on television, Girls was cursed with importance. As its importance wanes, and we can stop wondering about the significance of each detail, I’m enjoying it more.

Anyway, that was my “hot take” on Girls and bonus drive-by “hot take” on race-hate jokester Milo Yiannopoulos. Now for my “cold give” (is that a thing?) on something more important, Ross Kemp: Libya’s Migrant Hell on Sky One (Tuesday). You should watch it.

Kemp delves bravely into actual trouble spots and asks people in difficult circumstances difficult questions.

Eastenders star Ross Kemp was once best known as half of a pair of scowling, angry potatoes (the Mitchell Brothers) planted and cultivated by the lady from the Carry-On movies. But something happened. Ross Kemp caught journalism.

His early documentary career featured tough-guy posturing designed for Eastenders fans who thought that Grant Mitchell was a real person, but now, though there are still occasional macho asides about gun calibres, Kemp delves bravely into actual trouble spots and asks people in difficult circumstances difficult questions.

Libya’s Migrant Hell sees him follow the migrant trail from the desert where countless people die, through war-torn Libya where many are trafficked into slavery and prostitution and others are caught by the authorities and interned in appalling conditions, to the Mediterranean where many drown.

Kemp talks to people who have just been picked from sinking boats and have lost loved ones, young women who have probably been forced into prostitution but, because unseen minders watch them, cannot tell him so, and a woman who has recently had a stillbirth, can barely walk, and believes she is dying.

Kemp frames everything apolitically, but ultimately compassion has a left-wing bias

Then in one nine-hour shift with the under-resourced Libyan coastguard (in balaclavas to stop reprisals from traffickers), he finds five dinghies with hundreds of sick, traumatised people clinging to them. Kemp points out a mother breastfeeding her child.

It’s all deeply raw and upsetting. Kemp frames everything apolitically, but ultimately compassion has a left-wing bias. “There is so much suffering in this room you can virtually touch it,” he says, in a warehouse filled with captive, starving women and children. “[Whatever your political views are] I don’t think that matters. I think we have a duty to look after them and stop suffering.”

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