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'Girls' Season 4: New Location, Same Stunted Characters

Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

Creative writers do not make for good TV characters. It’s a profession that’s not very sexy, and then there’s the problem of depicting what a writer does all day: a few frustrating hours putting words together on a page, many more hours cobbling together a living. Most shows with writers as main characters create other, more exciting aspects of the character’s life to keep viewers interested. We see writers skipping across cobblestones in very tall heels, like Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and The City,” or devoting much more time to sleuthing than actual writing like Angela Lansbury’s character in “Murder She Wrote” or Jason Schwartzman’s character in “Bored to Death.” Too few characters posses the right mixture of anxiety, insecurity, and moments of confident determination that most real-life writers experience. A few noteworthy exceptions exist: Nick Miller from Fox’s “New Girl”—too afraid of criticism to move forward with his writing life, but with too much self-regard to make the most of other career opportunities; or Khadijah James, in ’90s sitcom “Living Single,” who has not one but two roommates in her pre-gentrification Brooklyn apartment, and hustles day and night to make her independent magazine, Flavor, successful. She often falls short.

Thus far, “Girls”’ depiction of a young writer’s life has struck me as the most realistic element of a show determined to convince the world that there are no brown people in Brooklyn. Hannah Horvath procrastinates to the point of nervous breakdown, writing an entire e-book in the last moments before deadline. Her publisher up and dies, leaving her without a deal. Sure, the death is not so realistic, but the tenuousness of a book deal is. Instead of writing editorial content for GQ, she writes glorified ads, a job that pays well (and is increasingly common), but goes against her artistic self-image. With the end of Season 3, we see Hannah finally achieve what many aspiring writers might consider a form of success: admission into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the oldest MFA program in the country.

I arrived at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2009, at 24 years old. My confidence then was like a pendulum, swinging between “I don’t belong here,” and “I am on my way to literary greatness.” I workshopped the story that got me admitted—the one that plucked me out of the sea of 800 applicants—to see what sort of fairy dust it still might hold. It was picked apart within an inch of its life, throwing my understanding of my purpose in the program into further crisis. There is a lot of unstructured time in Iowa. I learned how to cook there. I also gained 20 pounds and a fondness for dark liquor. I eventually realized that the free time was the biggest gift of the program, and started writing a novel.  

If my experience is some echo of the typical one, there’s a lot right about this new season of “Girls.” Hannah’s first workshop submission is criticized (for reasons she finds unfair.) Hannah hides from bats in her spacious apartment (an Iowa reality), Skypes with her friends, and worries whether she belongs there at all. There is a funny, familiar moment during her first workshop where she keeps interjecting to defend her story, despite the instructor’s attempts to silence her. In another scene workshoppers express disdain for popular books-turned-movies like The Fault in Our Stars, which reminded me of the bias many MFA students have against genre fiction.

But Hannah engages so little with her peers or the program that by the fourth episode, it’s unclear why she moves there at all. Based on seasons prior, I would have never pegged Hannah as an introvert, but at Iowa she shows no interest in other human beings, even people in town who aren’t a part of her workshop. Those in the workshop are presented as a bunch of irritating, self-important caricatures, and Hannah unfairly categorizes them: the girl with the “exotic” last name who can only write about the Third World, the widely admired black male writer who is an inauthentic “patron saint of the streets.” A surprise visit by her friend and ex-boyfriend Elijah ensures that she won’t have to meet new people. Through Elijah, we get a glimpse of what Iowa might be like for people who actually leave their apartments; something closer to season three’s “Beach House” episode, with creative types collaborating in addition to backbiting, drinking, and being a bit melodramatic. Elijah even unearths a valuable workshop lesson: a fiction writer can never out-quirk a poet.

Joan Didion once described writing as a hostile act because, “you're trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture.” After three seasons, Hannah has been constructed as a person who looks for validation in the world, and if she doesn’t find it quickly enough, she turns away. That her perspective is not challenged in Iowa is a wasted opportunity.

There are a lot of Hannahs in Iowa, or any MFA program, I’d wager — talented writers who up to that point have felt like the smartest person in whatever room they enter. Being at Iowa surrounds them with people as smart as them, with similar neuroses. It may be why therapy is so cheap in Iowa City. The goal is to push through the feelings of self-doubt and keep writing, to be receptive to workshop criticism, but not to live and die by it. Hannah gives up too easily.

At the Foxhead, the traditional bar for post-workshop socialization, a classmate says she found the language Hannah uses in her story insensitive to victims of abuse. It’s hard to tell from the snippet of the story read on camera whether the critique is valid or not, but Hannah deflects, insisting that the classmate herself must have been a survivor of abuse, or else she wouldn’t have been offended. One could argue that this sort of defensive, head-in-the-sand reaction is the point of Hannah’s character, that her refusal to consider other points of view is a reality of the way some people live their lives. After three seasons, this point feels belabored.

The dynamics of Hannah’s life are upended in the first five episodes of this season in many ways. She takes some hard hits, the sort that teach you in your late twenties that getting what you want out of life is more complicated than you expected, and that some of the friends you made at 20 should not be in your life by 30. These challenges give me hope Hannah might be ready to turn a corner. I return to the show each season because, for all her talk of being the voice of a generation, she suffers from that same pendulum effect I do from time to time; she doesn’t know if she’s any good, but she suspects that if she works very hard, she might one day be great. The space between Hannah’s overblown confidence and inner doubt is where her character’s most interesting traits are found. It’s unfortunate that the show spends so little time there.