Maclean’s arts writers Adrian Lee, Julia De Laurentiis Johnson and Emma Teitel discussed Girls and buzzy shows with Colin Horgan on our weekly podcast, The Thrill. Subscribe for free now on iTunes or on Stitcher:
In an interview published last week in Rolling Stone magazine, M.I.A. weighed in on New York City’s coolness. “When I actually think about what New York looked like 10 years ago,” she said, remembering 2005, when her groundbreaking album Arular was released to much fanfare, “it was just so cool.” Three years, she said—between 2005 and 2008—were “the best years of the recent New York history of that sort of period, when it actually got really, really fun. And then it just died.”
As it happens, 2005 was the year New York re-zoned a 175-block area of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. The Brooklyn neighbourhoods had already become, as the New York Times reported, “the most emblematic” of the borough’s “resurgence over the last few decades, as young people seeking an alternative to Manhattan have flocked to its once desolate streets, remaking Williamsburg into a hub of nightlife, art galleries and restaurants.”
By 2008, north Brooklyn and Williamsburg, in particular, had moved beyond geographic designation. The words had morphed into shorthand, metonyms used to define an appropriated, endlessly derivative lifestyle espoused by more and more members of the Millennial generation: hipster.
That same year in Adbusters, on his way to damning the hipster as the “dead end of Western civilization,” Doug Haddow described the youngsters in Brooklyn, the ones to whom M.I.A. owed much of her early success.
“Lovers of apathy . . . connected through a global network of blogs and shops that push forth a global vision of fashion-informed aesthetics. Loosely associated with some form of creative output, they attend art parties, take lo-fi pictures with analogue cameras, ride their bikes to nightclubs and sweat it up at nouveau disco-coke parties,” Haddow wrote.
It would take four more years for these hipsters to make it to television, by way of HBO’s Girls in 2012. Its creator, Lena Dunham, a Brooklyn native who graduated college in 2008, matched the description.
“Together we were finding our own New York,” Dunham reminisced in her 2014 memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, of her post-college years in the city. “We went to art openings for the free wine and Christmas parties for the free food, then peeled off to smoke pot on Isabel’s couch and watch reruns of Seinfeld. We stopped by parties where we didn’t know the host, wore skirts as tube tops and tights as pants.”
This was the world of Girls.
By the time her creation was on television screens across the world, the New York in it still seemed of-the-moment; critics of the show agreed that, whether the characters were enjoyable or not, they at least seemed authentic. The latter still holds true, four years later, but there is now the distinct feeling the moment they occupied has passed.
Season 4 of Girls went like this:
Hannah leaves a creative-writing program in Iowa. Once back in Brooklyn, she discovers she wants to be a teacher. She starts to fill in at a local middle school and, disastrously, makes a 14-year-old student her confidant and gossip buddy. The school principal becomes the latest in a long line of people to remind Hannah about boundaries.
Marnie is technically engaged to her bandmate, Desi, but his failure to appear at their latest gig leaves us wondering about the status of both the marriage and the band. Shoshanna had chosen a new guy over a career until being offered a dream job (something with social media?) in Tokyo. She decides to lean in and take it. Jessa becomes a therapist, though remains adrift emotionally, still measuring her self-worth by how much control she has over men.
Speaking of which: As Season 4 ends, Adam listlessly departs a bizarre relationship with Mimi-Rose, the woman he welcomed to live with him in Hannah’s apartment when she left for Iowa, and who aborted their unborn child without telling him. Adam tries to win back Hannah. But in the season’s final scene, set six months later, she’s seen in a relationship with Fran, a fellow teacher at the school.
Notable through it all is how little New York matters. Save one, these people could be anywhere.
Only Ray remains tied to the city. Fed up with the noise created by a new traffic light outside his building, he runs for—and wins—a spot on the borough’s community board. The rest of this crowd may have goals, but only Ray has one he achieves. Not only that, it tethers him to the world from which Girls derived its initial energy and buzz and shows us how it’s changed. It’s probably why he was the most interesting character to watch this season.
Eventually, one assumes all these characters will get to where Ray is, if not literally. That is, they will have to transition from merely existing somewhere, basking in surrounding du jour hipness, to actually coming to terms with their place in the world, and allowing themselves to finally commit to having a stake in something. Some people, I guess, call that adulthood.
For most of these characters (and perhaps their real-life equivalents), that transition will likely be rocky. It may not be in New York. It may take years. It may be interesting. However, although Girls will see another season in 2016, it may not actually be worth years more of television.
There is something to be said for experiencing great cities during a peak. In 1971, Hunter S. Thompson looked back at his time in San Francisco. It was, he said, “a very special time and place to be a part of.”
“We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave,” Thompson wrote of the late 1960s. “So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West and, with the right kind of eyes, you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.”
In much the same way, with the hindsight of a few years, now we can see that Girls was never really a show about the peak in Brooklyn, but rather one about the time following the crest of the wave. The post-moment, if you will, when the energy dissipates, as it did more fully in Season 4; when the disco-coke parties shut down, the blogs go mainstream, the condos are already previous-decade vintage, the cool kids start caring about noise pollution, and the energy shifts to Detroit or Buffalo. Or Newark.
Girls captured—or demanded—attention because what made these particular apathetic twentysomethings more interesting, more worth investing our time in, than others, was the credibility that a post-Millennial Brooklyn lent them. We were invited to watch the scene. For better or worse, that particular scene has moved on. It’s time we did, too.