Has 'Girls' Become Too Dark and Depressing For Viewers?

ByHeather Price-Wright

While the second season of HBO’s Peabody-award-winning show Girls wrapped up with some fairly surprising rom-com moments, the show overall took a dark and stormy left turn after its fairly lighthearted, if uncomfortable, first go-around. It’s worth noting that much of the coverage of the show’s Peabody win referred to Girls as a drama rather than a comedy. Its inaugural season was styled as comedy, without a doubt. As a result, in part, of the tonal shift from the first season’s hilarity, some audiences grew more and more put off as the second season progressed, with reactions ranging from pity to confusion to disgust as the show’s main characters all shuffled right off the deep end.  

Girls is slated for a third season and beyond — shooting was set to start at the end of this month, according to creator and star Lena Dunham — so audiences, if they plan to continue to watch, should brace themselves for further icky developments as these confused kids proceed to mess up their lives even more. But the question remains: For audiences that tuned in for what was billed as the millennial Sex and the City, has Girls gotten too dark? 

If we’re comparing the show to Sex and the City, then yes, it’s probably too dark. Cellulite was too dark for Sex and the City. So were blisters from running through the streets of Manhattan in outrageous torture devices that are high heels. But to extend that comparison, most of Sex and the City took place in the late 90s and early 2000s, with women comfortably into their 30s who had much of their lives, including careers and fashion senses, figured out. The economy, for at least part of the series, was booming.

Carrie Bradshaw could afford said outrageous shoes on the salary of a once-a-week columnist, and not even one for the Times. Even though the 90s don’t seem that long ago, we’re a world away from that prosperous, glitzy time. For the over-educated, under-employed, ragtag millennials that populate Girls (who, it’s worth noting, are at least a decade younger than Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda), Sex and the City may as well have taken place on another planet. Uncertain futures, murky ambitions and unstable relationships are the name of the game for a great many members of this generation, especially those living on a barista or hostess or nanny salary in Brooklyn, meeting their potential romantic partners in coffee shops or at warehouse parties or through their mom’s AA meetings. One argument might go that Girls isn’t dark; it’s just real.

But answering the question like that ignores the larger question at stake here: Why isn’t a show like Girls allowed to be dark and real while still being considered funny, edgy, and worth watching? Why can’t Hannah Horvath, with her bum eardrum and her perpetual, alarming lack of pants, still make us laugh?

A more apt comparison than Sex and the City might be a show like Louis C.K.’s Louie. It is, after all, a sad, lonely, uncomfortable and dark — sometimes nightmarishly so — show, but it’s also pretty widely hailed as both hilarious and brilliant. Of course, that comparison has been made aplenty, but it’s rare that you see critics asking if Louie, a near-universal darling, is “too dark” for audiences. What gives?

For one thing, Girls is not, I don’t think, as deft or well done a show as Louie. Its tonal shifts can be jarring, as audiences experienced between the first two seasons, rather than pitch-perfect, as is almost always the case with Louie. Dunham has not found her voice in quite the way C.K. has, so her creative choices tend to be more uneven.

But I think other issues are at stake when we ask whether Girls is too dark. Because what a lot of people are asking isn’t, “Is this show too dark?” — after all, plenty of television, comedic and otherwise, goes to much more craven places even than Girls manages — but rather, “Do these young women have a right to be dark?”

Should young white women with good educational backgrounds, relatively stable home lives (with the possible exception of Jessa), plenty of opportunities and oodles of privilege still be “figuring it out”? Is the show dark in a thoughtful way, or just annoying? Are its characters complicated, or just irritating? And if it’s just an annoying show about annoying people with a lot of problems, should we still watch?

These are legitimate questions to ask about a show that has trouble juggling the privilege of both its characters and its creator. Certainly, lucky people still have as much of a right as any of us to be miserable, but is it interesting? More and more viewers seem to be saying no. For my money, Girls is still some of the freshest, most innovative and definitely best written stuff you can watch these days. When it went dark, I was right there with it, feeling like I was inside the characters’ heads as they grappled with the kinds of issues (albeit exacerbated for the sake of good television) that I deal with every day. But I can totally understand finding Hannah’s miraculously appearing OCD, Jessa’s random disappearance, and Marnie’s mooning over Charlie and general unraveling, stupid or uncomfortable rather than compelling (no criticism against Shoshanna is valid. She is a goddess).

Maybe Girls did veer a little more than viewers expected it to this season, and maybe it shook some people loose as it made its sharp turn. But I expect that, as we explore these characters and their particular darkness more and more thoroughly next season, we’ll also be watching an uneven but great show come into its own. I don’t know about you, but I’ll be tuning in.