How can we go on without Girls?
The HBO dramedy did more than chronicle the lives of four twenty-something women living in Brooklyn. It spoke to us. The travails of these remarkable Millennials showcased the fears and joys we all face today, no matter our demographic. Their pain was our pain.
Or so breathless media reports had us believe ever since Lena Dunham’s show debuted on HBO back in April 2012.
HBO remains a key player in our pop culture landscape. Just witness the phenomena that is Game of Thrones. But it’s misguided to place Dunham’s show in the same league. Girls didn’t just lack that show’s occasional dragon sighting. The series never got off the ground in terms of ratings either.
Isn’t that what game-changing TV shows are supposed to do … draw a crowd?
Season after season the show’s ratings, never strong to start with, sank. The recent series finale drew a measly 741,000 viewers, only a modest bump from earlier episodes in the season.
Of course it’s not entirely fair to compare that figure to other classic show finales. The finale of Seinfeld drew 76.3 million viewers in 1998, for example, but the media landscape was far different then, with no Internet streaming services and far fewer cable channel offerings. And HBO remains a pay service with fewer viewers than broadcast networks.
But the 700+ figure is still pathetic for a show the media constantly insisted was altering the pop culture landscape. It’s also a poor showing considering how much free publicity Girls enjoyed during its six-season run, particularly for its desperate attempts to shock viewers by highlighting the outrageous sexual escapades of its characters.
It all begs the question: why are so many writers so eager to inflate the importance of what was, essentially, a vehicle for Lena Dunham’s entitlement and vanity?
For starters, the series was set in New York City, a major media hub. Would a Cleveland-based story draw as much fawning from reporters? How about Boise, Idaho? Boulder, Colo.? Doubtful.
Dunham’s sizable stamp on the finished product mattered, too. This was her baby. She was the star and head writer, shaping key storylines from her personal experiences. And the Dunham we see off camera is one of Hollywood’s most outspoken liberals. Remember her “First Time” advertisement comparing losing one’s virginity to voting for Barack Obama? Or her more recent appearance at the Democratic National Convention, slamming GOP candidate Donald Trump? She’s also eager to claim the label of feminist, even if her actions don’t always mesh with her rhetoric.
For all those reasons reporters tend to protect Dunham and burnish her credentials rather than subject her to the same scrutiny they might give a less liberal celebrity. Consider how the media initially avoided a well-documented report at Breitbart News questioning a sexual assault accusation she made in her memoir Not That Kind of Girl: The student who matched the book’s description of the perpetrator took legal action, and the book’s publisher was forced to alter the text in future editions. Random House also paid his legal fees. Dunham never paid a price for that incident, not from her Hollywood peers or media reporters.
The show also benefited from producer Judd Apatow’s name on the finished product. He’s the comic maestro behind The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. Any project to which he attaches his name gets the press’ attention.
Naturally, the final Girls episode inspired the expected crush of big-think pieces. Some found the final episode disappointing. Others bemoaned its exit from the TV landscape. Only a few critics acknowledged the show’s longtime puny ratings; one defensive headline in Forbes read, “Why Ratings Didn’t Matter For HBO’s ‘Girls’.” The writer went on note:
For HBO and the creators of Girls, the show wasn’t about how many people watched, it was about who watched, what conversations were prompted and the legacy of a unique series.
The article cites the show’s social media footprint and “buzz,” as evidence of its importance. But The Walking Dead brought plenty of “buzz” to the cultural conversation, all while earning excellent ratings too.
It’s not uncommon for a Dunham vehicle to perform poorly. While sales of her memoir proved robust, her film resumé is filled with low-performing titles (both Happy Christmas and Tiny Furniture failed to generate $500K in theaters). Her 2014 Saturday Night Live hosting gig dragged the venerable sketch show down.
And ratings aside, even Girls staunchest defenders acknowledged the series showcased some rather ugly characters. Selfish, vain and back-stabbing, these Girls weren’t the kind you’d like in your friend circle. Is it any wonder so many people chose to watch other shows on Sunday nights?
Girls does leave us with one useful legacy, however: It’s a blueprint for millennials on how not to behave.