‘Girls’ producer Judd Apatow looks back on season 3

HBO’s “Girls” concluded its third season last night. I reviewed the finale here, and I was able to get on the phone with executive producer Judd Apatow for a few minutes to talk about the finale and season 3 as a whole. Apatow’s thoughts coming up just as soon as I have a credenza and a cactus plant…

Going into season 3, what were you trying to accomplish thematically in terms of Hannah’s story?

Judd Apatow: We wanted to explore what happens when your life crashes while your boyfriend’s life gets better and better. So we were interested in how the relationship would get more complicated as Adam begins to mature. Life always throws you big curveballs, and sometimes the person who believes in you as a writer dies, and you lose the right to the book you’ve been writing. We wanted to show what happens when she’s given very real obstacles. The obstacle isn’t just not being able to get a job, it’s losing your mentor and having your path crumble before you. And sometimes that does happen when the person that you’re in love with is having the best moment of their life.

Hannah has problems early and she has them again late, but there’s a stretch in the middle of the season where things are going very well between her and Adam, and where she has this comfortable job at GQ, and compared to where her friends are at the moment, she’s doing really well.

Judd Apatow: We wanted to have her be tempted by corporate America. She spends years trying to live a creative life, and often you get opportunities which take you off of your path. It’s very easy in life to take the job with the great snack room and the good salary and not pursue your ambitious creative dreams. So we wanted to see what would happen when Hannah is offered money to not do what she wants to do.

Early in the season, you introduced Gaby Hoffmann as Adam’s sister Caroline. She caused a lot of problems and exposed an ugly side in Hannah before she left. What was the purpose in that story arc?

Judd Apatow: As soon as you start a relationship, you are also starting a relationship with your boyfriend or girlfriend’s family. We thought it would be fun to see where Adam comes from. A lot of times, the person you care about has an insane relative that is not only hard to deal with but also makes you nervous, because you wonder what the significance of that is for your relationship. If that’s how the sister acts, is that in him. Also, Hannah is an only child, and she has to deal with a sibling relationship, which she doesn’t really understand, because she doesn’t have that relationship. Also, it shows both positive and negative sides to Adam’s character. Life is complicated. There are moral choices to be made. Adam has to decide how supportive to be to his sister when she’s really erratic.

Near the end of Caroline’s stay in the apartment, there’s that scene where Hannah repeats her fake dead cousin story almost verbatim to Adam to get him to lay off her about not grieving enough. And the response to that from some viewers was that we were maybe seeing Hannah turning into a sociopath before our eyes. Was that the intention there?

Judd Apatow: I think that moment was about Hannah thinking, “I’m not gonna be what he wants me to be. The more he gets to know me, the less he’s going to like me.” It’s really more about a self-esteem issue. She’s very concerned about her future and her work, and for some reason, that is taking precedent over mourning the death of her publisher. She can sense that Adam does not think it’s okay that she’s not devastated by his death. She’s self-involved, so she’s really worried about losing Adam, and feels that she has to show this sensitive side of herself to him, or he’s going to think there’s something wrong with her. She’s so in her head that she can’t seem to feel anything at that moment. So it’s not about being a sociopath than about having low self-esteem and feeling like your boyfriend is trying to get to know you and decide you’re not good enough.

Season 1 ends with Hannah chasing Adam away and him asking her, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” Season 2 ends with him running to her rescue after she has a bad OCD relapse. Season 3 leaves them in a more ambiguous place, where he’s obviously not happy that she told him this news on opening night, and that she might be moving away, but where we close the season on the image of Hannah smiling and looking very pleased with the possibility of going to Iowa for this MFA program. What were you trying to accomplish with that closing sequence?

Judd Apatow: I don’t know if we have all of the answers to that. She’s trying to figure out what’s right for her. And in this moment, or on that specific day, making the decision to go to graduate school feels right. But I feel like at that age, one’s opinion about things can change every half an hour. So it remains to be seen, the significance of all of those moments. But she’s definitely out of sync with Adam. I think that happens to a lot of couples. People’s ups and downs aren’t always perfectly in sync, and they’re having a big problem with that.

How different was it this year doing 12 episodes instead of 10? You had more story to work with. Was that ultimately more satisfying, or more difficult?

Judd Apatow: I am a big fan of doing more episodes. Unfortunately, most of the shows on HBO are 10 episodes, so I think we will be doing 10 next year. We don’t line up with anybody when we do 12. That’s why we double-pumped episodes at the beginning of the season and it’s why there’s no one around us (at the end). I am a fan of shows being on the air for a long time so we can talk about them every week and are part of our lives. The idea that they pop up and disappear very quickly, I find disturbing. I think we’ll go back to 10 episodes next season, but I think this season benefited from having more. You can go deeper into the ideas you’re expressing.

The show is called “Girls,” but Hannah is very much the main character and her story takes precedence over the others. This year, you had Jessa have a problem with substance abuse, and you had Shoshana fall off a different sort of wagon with how she blew things at college, but those stories didn’t get as much play as what was happening with Hannah. Do you feel satisfied with how you told some of those supporting character arcs?

Judd Apatow: Every season is different. I haven’t looked at the season to think about math. I’m very happy with what we’ve done with all of the characters, but I don’t really have an opinion about it, because I haven’t watched probably it in the way you watched it. I watched it separately and over long periods of time, so I don’t have a sense of how it all added up.

Finally, you know as well as I do that this is a show that gets an insanely strong reaction. It’s just about the only show I write about where it’s not enough that the people who don’t like it don’t like it, but that they get angry that it even exists. They get angry at Hannah and everything she does, and compared to so many of the other leading characters on cable of this period, Hannah is held up as the worst of the worst. What do you think it is about this show you’re making that inspires that kind of reaction?

Judd Apatow: I think that’s good, because it shows that it’s hitting people’s buttons in a very personal place. Look, you don’t get mad about somebody being naked unless you have some issues with your own nakedness or your own sexuality. You don’t get mad if you think people are spoiled or self-entitled unless something has happened to you in your life that makes that an issue. I think people sometimes forget that we know what happens in this show, and we’re very aware of the reactions it elicits, and most of the time, it’s on purpose. It’s supposed to be about people making mistakes and learning how to navigate their lives, and a lot of it is cringe-y, but if you followed me around all day long, it would be a cringe festival that you would not believe. I think it affects people both positively and negatively because it feels very familiar. These aren’t people living in a fantasy world. They’re having similar lives to an enormous amount of people. People think, “That could never happen, ’cause it didn’t happen to me!” But that just means people care. Even if they’re attacking it, they’re paying attention to it. It reminds me when people thought Seth Rogen could never get a woman like Katherine Heigl. You walk down the street, and almost every beautiful woman you see is with guys who look like me and Seth. At the time, that really bothered some people. So it usually is more of a litmus test for the viewer than it is about the show.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com