What's with the vomit on “Girls”?
Also read: ‘Girls': About That Semen Scene
In January, I asked Lena Dunham during a Q&A why her character, Hannah, is naked so much. She didn't like the question and accused me of not being into her. Which wasn't what I said, but she has a right to not be into my asking.
Because, to be honest, there was a tacit criticism in my question — though it had nothing to do with Dunham's appearance. It was this: I don't know if “Girls” always knows what it's doing.
I like the show. I was delighted that its ratings improved after our fake controversy. But lately “Girls” is all over the place. Some elements — like the vomit — feel pointless.
It's not just me. The New York Times’ Neil Genzlinger wrote Friday: “Expanding boundaries needs to have a purpose. Graphic vomit rarely passes that test.” He conceded that his viewpoint might make him seem like a fuddy-duddy.
There's a writing rule I love: Chekhov's gun. If you introduce a gun early in the play, it has to go off. If you take up the viewer's time with something in one episode, it should pay off in another. (A lot of “True Detective” fans think the show broke its Chekhov's gun contract by not explaining the Yellow King. I disagree.)
“Breaking Bad” is the gold standard of Chekhov's gun writing. Everything serves a purpose. As creator Vince Gilligan has said, the show uses every part of the buffalo.
“Girls” does not. One episode last season, Adam borderline assaulted his girlfriend, Natalia. In the next episode, the heart-on-its-sleeve Season 2 finale, he broke down a door, Tarzan style, to lift her up and carry her away. When the new season began, there was no retribution for Adam's very iffy behavior with Natalia. (Some fans call it a rape, but I don't think the show intended it that way, since Adam was Hannah's hero one episode later.)
Seth Greenland, a writer I love, said once that a novelist's job with a first draft is to vomit up 300 pages, and edit it into something coherent later. I think Lena Dunham is vomiting up lots of breathtakingly good ideas for “Girls.” But she's not killing her darlings. Instead of an editor, she has Judd Apatow, whose movies, while great, tend to run too long.
“Girls,” too, can feel overloaded.
There's self-indulgence for the sake of taking risks and pushing limits. “True Detective” is that kind of self-indulgent. But then there's lazy self-indulgence — doing the shocking thing that gets people talking instead of the thing that makes sense. Or just not knowing what to cut.
I want “Girls” to be the first kind of self-indulgent. I hope it's not the second kind. But either way: artists should make big, bold choices, right or wrong.
And they should also expect viewers to wonder why they made them. And be annoyed when they don't serve a purpose.
Is the nudity supposed to be funny? To project vulnerability? Is it a middle-finger to the male gaze? All of those purposes would be great, though none happens to be the one reason Dunham gave me. She said it's a “realistic expression of what it's like to be alive.”
One could make the case that a show devoted to realistically presenting life in Brooklyn might feature more African-Americans, but let's set that aside for now.
Showing Adam's semen during that extremely iffy scene was a realistic expression of life: We felt violated, just like his girlfriend did. It felt horribly real. It muddied the water when we were supposed to root for Adam later, but maybe that was the point. Or maybe the show lost its thread. We don't know yet how Adam's story resolves.
Showing Hannah throwing up also served an important purpose, story-wise: It was a quick, efficient way to show us that Hannah acted out against Adam by drinking too much. It was especially interesting given that Adam is a recovering alcoholic. This is a cry for attention that went too far. Okay.
But showing us the actual vomit, like showing us a lot of the nudity, doesn't really add anything. It just gets people talking. It feels like… dare I say it? Another cry for attention gone too far.
Maybe it's even an attempt to bait squares like Neil Genzlinger, with their painfully uncool aversion to spew. It worked.
But do it too often, and it can start to feel like the emperor has no… nevermind.