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.