Let’s say you have a friend who is trapped in an extremely passionate but ultimately toxic relationship.
This relationship is so tumultuous that you know whenever you see this friend, all she will be able to talk about is how insane her partner is. Over time, it gets to the point where you sort of dread seeing this friend, because she simply won’t shut up about her love interest’s “race problem.” The weirdest part is that you’ve never even met this person. You’ve only experienced him through their eyes of your friend. Not like you want to see this lunatic — apparently he’s maddeningly inconsistent, intermittenly self-aware, and he’s prone to get naked all of the time.
You wish you could talk sense to your friend. “He’s clearly driving you crazy! Stop putting yourself through this! Also, nobody cares! Stop talking about it!” But for five long years, she hasn’t been able to quit him.
(Okay, this thinly disguised metaphor is clearly referring to the media’s relationship with Girls, which commences its sixth and final season on Sunday. Like Girls, perhaps, I let it go on for too long. Let’s get to the point already.)
A lot has already been written about how Girls was the show that launched a thousand thinkpieces. (Actually, it’s way more than a thousand. It’s closer to two gajillion, give or take a gajillion.) The HBO sitcom initiated conversations about representation in the media, millennial feminism, nepotism, body shaming, and the rise of frank sexuality on television, among other topics. These are all worthy topics. Girls also inspired a lot of thinkpieces about thinkpieces written about Girls — it has been argued that Girls is overrated, underrated, overhyped, and (this one seems dubious) somehow under-discussed.
Whether you love Girls or hate it — I kinda loved it at first, and then I hated it, and now I’m just exhausted by the whole enterprise — to me isn’t all that pertinent at this point. If we are now assessing What It Is That Made Girls So Important, I think the show’s legacy is pretty clear: Girls changed the way people talk about TV on the internet. (Is this a big deal? Well, since you’re on the internet reading about a TV show right now, I’m gonna say: Sort of.)
I suspect the long-term impact of Girls on TV as an art form will be negligible. It already feels like a footnote: Louie pioneered Girls’s cinematic tragicomic style, and shows like Atlanta and Master of None have since taken that formula much farther than Girls ever did. Lena Dunham didn’t invent anything, nor did she perfect anything. She created a decent show that acted as a transition point between much greater shows. But the influence Girls had on TV journalism was substantial. What Girls proved is that a TV show doesn’t need a big (or medium or even a non-extremely small audience) to justify outsized coverage. That’s because nobody really knows what’s culturally impactful anymore. In the 21st century, true popularity has become increasingly difficult to measure — Nielsen ratings can’t account for the true size of an audience that’s watching more and more television online, and streaming services like Netflix don’t even believe in releasing their viewer statistics. Instead, perception matters more and more. Media-constructed prestige (which has zero intrinsic worth) has become the most valuable currency, even more than viewers.
Girls is arguably the defining example of this phenomenon. Without “the conversation,” it’s doubtful Girls would’ve lasted this long. But Girls endured because it provided so much grist to keep the multitude of professional culture talkers talking. The quintessential “top-down” success with minimal populist appeal, Girls was important because the media kept telling us it was important.
In terms of internet time, 2012 might as well be 1812. It’s hard to remember exactly what the Internet was like before Girls premiered in the spring of that year. But as someone who was working in culture journalism at the time, here’s what I remember about TV writing: It was mostly recaps. Every major culture site was doing per-episode reviews of major shows (and not-so-major shows), delving deep into the minutia of everything from Community to Chuck to Go On. (That was the one where Matthew Perry plays the host of a sports talk radio show — unless the first sentence of the show’s Wikipedia entry is lying, otherwise I have no idea.)
The readership for TV recaps was deep but narrow — the people who cared really cared, but unless it was Breaking Bad or Mad Men, only a small number of people were interested. TV writing in the early ’10s tended to go inward — it was about positing theories, analyzing character motivations, pointing out narrative inconsistencies, and thoroughly examining the show’s text. This kind of TV writing is still popular with fans of fantasy programs such as Game of Thrones and Westworld, but its appeal remains relatively narrow — you have to be an extremely attentive viewer to want that kind of criticism.
With Girls, the writing went outward — it was about asking What does this say about us? The criticism of Girls was concerned primarily with subtext, which meant you didn’t actually have to know the characters or follow the plotlines in order to understand whatever the thinkpiece writer was going on about. All you had to know was that Lena Dunham was a privileged white feminist, or that the latest Girls episode seemed to eroticize rape, or that Girls appeared to use Donald Glover as a prop to deflect criticism about the show’s lack of diversity (or, counterpoint: maybe it’s a comment on that criticism!). As a TV show, Girls might be the most insular program to ever air on a major network — whether Girls speaks to you depends largely on your proximity to Brooklyn, the media, and/or white people. But as a topic for TV critics, Girls was in some ways broader than shows that are infinitely more popular, because it was excuse to write about pretty much anything.
That the rise of the thinkpiece as a dominant form of internet content coincided with Girls can be plainly seen by the digital paper trail. The show’s first season generated so much think-puffery that it merited additional content to catalogue all of it. But by the third season, the support for Girls cratered, and “thinkpiece” was now widely used as a pejorative term for articles “made of millennials who majored in English.” That’s not entirely (or even mainly) the fault of Girls. People were writing lots of thinkpieces about lots of silly (even stupid) things back then. But Girls got swept up in the trend and benefitted, and then suffered, from it.
The difference between Girls and hot-button shows of the past such as All In The Family, Saturday Night Live, In Living Color or South Park is that the conversation about Girls often seemed to take place only in the media. Girls was never a ratings juggernaut, and viewer apathy (in spite of constant reminders of the show’s existence) only got worse as Girls continued. But ratings were never all that important to Girls, at least not compared to “the conversation.” Girls was a thoroughly 21st century show in that many people experienced it solely through thinkpieces.
There are those who insist that Girls was a great show in spite of the coverage. I think it’s true that the conversation around Girls might have hurt the show as much as helped it — my own interest in Girls waned as it became unclear whether Lena Dunham was truly self-aware enough for Girls to register as the satire that so many partisans insist that it was. But in the end, Girls became the proverbial felled tree in the forest. If a million culture writers hadn’t made sound, I doubt Girls would’ve truly existed.