The internet was already a receptacle for television contention when “Girls” premiered five years ago. “Lost” had revolutionized recap culture, analyzing “Mad Men” was an art form unto itself, and obsessing over reality programming ranged from “Bachelor” vlogs to “Real Housewives” snark. But “Girls” was a fresh beast, something that couldn’t be confined to Monday-morning quarterbacking or YouTube satire. It was a rare entity that seemed to fire across every online cylinder, no matter the show’s modest ratings, which rarely surpassed 1 million overnight viewers.
Across six seasons, dropped in a new media culture thriving on reactionary and socially conscious headlines, “Girls” remained one of the most hotly debated series in television history. On Sunday night, it ensured an appropriately messy finale would join those ranks.
Out of the gate, “Girls” was beloved by critics and their readers. Upon its April 2012 debut, The Daily Beast called it the best new show of the year. In a cover story, New York magazine said it was “like nothing else on TV.” The Hollywood Reporter christened it a “brilliant gem.” And yet, as with anything that garners nearly universal praise, the backlash mounted quickly. Faultfinders argued the characters were too privileged, too white and too unsympathetic ― never mind that was the entire point ― while the show’s creative forces were accused of coasting on their parents’ fame.
That backlash persisted throughout the show’s run; it seemed like “Girls” was continually past its prime. The show certainly stumbled through some weak moments, but its ebb and flow in the blogosphere was partly a byproduct of Lena Dunham’s willingness to address criticism head-on, sometimes eloquently and sometimes in ways that redoubled her detractors’ claims. As the lines between Dunham and her character ― Brooklyn writer and ambler Hannah Horvath ― unfairly bled into each other, anti-”Girls” factions and anti-Dunham factions became indistinguishable. And along the way, many who found fault in either did so in the most internet-y way possible: They grew agitated because Dunham and “Girls” didn’t represent the worlds they inhabited, or the worlds they wanted to visit every Sunday night on HBO.
Of course, Hannah and her friends often were the worst ― the “worst best,” as Hannah told Jessa in the penultimate episode. Hannah may have been her “worst worst” on Sunday’s finale, her narcissism and stalled maturation as fierce as ever in the face of Marnie’s help raising little Grover. We’re still working through what it means to hate a character on television, a phenomenon the 20th century’s small-screen relative niceties didn’t necessitate with the same fervor. It felt, at times, like “Girls” had changed. It hadn’t, but the girls of “Girls” did, in at least one important way: They weren’t glued to one another as characters in most friendship sitcoms were. Even “Seinfeld” felt harmonious by comparison.
“Girls” became a series about individuals, not a collective unit. Certain episodes took such a nuanced, slice-of-life approach to these bickerers that we didn’t know what to do with a series that actively rejected its premise, becoming almost the anti-”Sex and the City.”
And then, somewhere in the fifth season, it clicked. Maybe it was Shoshanna traipsing through Japan, or Marnie and Charlie reuniting for a dreamy jaunt, or Hannah realizing her frenemy Tally (Jenny Slate) didn’t have it all. Plots that once seemed ambulatory came full circle, and the characters’ friendships were no longer placed on a pedestal. Suddenly it seemed like many grievances about the show were contradicted by the Brooklynites’ ability to both move on and remain the same.
So, in the wake of the final season’s surprising pregnancy plotline, the finale did what “Girls” has consistently done best: It pissed us off, or it least it refracted our expectations. Twitter lit up with criticisms, though it seemed everyone could at least unite in their love for Becky Ann Baker, who portrayed Hannah’s mom. Vox and Slate called the finale episode unsatisfying, while one commenter on Jezebel’s open thread said it was “mostly blah” and others reiterated “Hannah is the worst” sentiments.
The reactions to Sunday’s swan song prove just how much of a force “Girls” has been within a certain cultural zeitgeist over the past several years. This show was personal in a way that other products of the so-called Golden Age of TV weren’t. (If you didn’t like the “Breaking Bad” finale, it wasn’t because Walter White wasn’t the right kind of meth kingpin.) “Girls” showed what we bring to our television screens in this still nascent millennium: We bring ourselves, and we want something in return for that sacrifice. The finale didn’t give it to us in the customary ways, but we’ll still reckon with this show’s values for years to come. It spawned an entire thinkpiece cottage industry that can’t be diminished.
It brought out our best, our worst, and our worst best.