My wife doesn’t really like Breaking Bad. She watched with indifference as I sped through the first three seasons on iTunes, mainlining the show and turning into a huge fan. When I was able to watch new episodes as they aired weekly on AMC, she’d usually open up her laptop and watch something else on Netflix. She’d occasionally glance up and see part of the action — she was there for the grisly end of the fourth season — but she didn’t really have any interest in watching the show. It’s not because she’s averse to onscreen violence or grim stories; this is a woman who can watch Casino or the BBC’s Luther as comfort food. And it’s not because she thinks it’s a bad show. She just didn’t feel like it was for her, and she didn’t want to watch any more than she had.
That’s pretty much all there was to it. I really liked Breaking Bad, my wife didn’t, and it couldn’t have mattered less. I liked it so much I wrote about it weekly for a couple years, and I’m at the point where I think weekly TV write-ups are doomed to be flawed and grasping and incomplete attempts at criticism. That’s how much I liked the show. But I never took her lack of interest in the show as a personal affront, nor did I view it as an assault on my character when she opted not to join me on the journey to Walter White’s bitter end. I didn’t define myself through liking Breaking Bad, and I didn’t think it said anything about my wife that she didn’t like the show. We just accepted our differing opinions and moved on.
It’s almost impossible to find discussions like that about HBO’s Girls: talks defined by calm but firm disagreement, where two parties come to understand they feel differently about the show and simply accept it. People don’t just praise Girls, they defend it. Google “in defense of Girls” or something similar and you’ll see what I mean. We’ve even run pieces like that here on this site. More than the opinions in those pieces, I’m fascinated by their existence in the first place. Why does this show inspire such fervor? What is it about the series that inspires such animosity from detractors and defensiveness from fans? Why would “defense” pieces even be necessary?
Take a look at the first big scene of the first episode of the season: Hannah (Lena Dunham) is with her boyfriend, Adam (Adam Driver), when he’s confronted by a woman he used to date. The scene is awkward, darkly funny, fast-paced, and bitingly written:
The show itself is totally normal. It’s a dramedy about screwed-up people who make big mistakes, who confuse selfishness with basic self-interest, and who delude themselves in a variety of ways re: their careers and relationships. In other words, it follows what’s been one of the most popular fiction templates for eons, no matter what age group you’re talking about. The show has its ups and downs, good moments and bad, weak characters and strong, great moments and off-kilter ones. It’s a TV show. It’s a lot like most shows. Yet for most of its brief run — it premiered in April 2012 and has aired just under two dozen episodes since then — it’s been plagued by allegations of racism, nepotism, and egotism. Why? What’s happening here? What am I missing?
I’ve been thinking about this for weeks — months — and I don’t know if I’m any closer to figuring it out. I think a big part of it is that some people bought into the show’s marketing, which posits the series as a kind of bittersweet seize-the-day story and not a black comedy about confused misanthropes. Hannah’s line in the pilot in which she wonders if she might be “the voice of (her) generation, or at least a voice, of a generation” is pretty clearly a character defining moment that’s equal parts hubris and insanity, one of those things young people say when they’re trying to figure out how hard they can push against the world. It’s a textbook example of post-grad blind aspiration, but most importantly — and this is the part that seems to slip through cracks — it’s a statement being made by a character. Not the person writing or playing the character, but a fictional construct. It’s a good line because it’s the kind of thing people always say at that age. Author Thomas Wolfe, born in 1900, said when he was 23: “I don’t know yet what I am capable of doing, but, by God, I have genius — I know it too well to blush behind it.”
Yet things like that line become talking points because we buy into the illusion that’s being sold by HBO’s marketing department. That bit of dialogue becomes a mission statement, an m.o. for the show’s very being, which means if you buy into this line of reasoning, then liking the show stops being an expression of taste or interest or recognition and starts being a statement about who you are deep down. It becomes a way to define yourself. Marketing is always about triumph and resilience, and every story has to be about winning in some way. (There’s a reason every movie trailer looks the same.) Accordingly, it’s possible to wind up responding to — sometimes actually critiquing or making the focus of our conversation — the marketing and other things that are peripheral to the show, and not the show itself.
What’s more, marketing can be tricky because most people don’t like being told what they like before they like it. When ads say “This is a great thing,” you want to join in; when the tone shifts to “This is a life-changing thing that defines you, and you will feel dumb for not watching,” then the pitch runs the risk of alienating more people than it wins over. Viewers become willing to project bigger problems onto the show based on those campaigns, so instead of saying “This show isn’t really for me,” people indignantly declare “This show doesn’t speak for me!” As if any one piece of art could capture the voices of a generation, or even a fragment of it. As if a pitchman would ever tell us the truth.
But that’s only part of it. That’s why people misread the show; it’s not why people get so defensive about liking it. And the truth is that some things are just more personal. When you make a series that a percentage of your audience can strongly relate to — about young people going through trials and spirals more real than anything they ever saw on Friends — then you have the potential to engage people on a deep level in such a way that they come to identify with the story. They don’t just relate to it; they project onto it. This isn’t inherently good or bad, either. It’s just the way it goes with some stories. It has a lot to do with where someone’s from and what’s happening in their lives right this moment. Catch them a year one way or the other, and you wouldn’t mean anything out of the ordinary to them, but hit them on the right day and you’ll be with them forever. Something like Girls, which is very much about those moments of vulnerability, is more primed than another show might be to forge such a connection.
And — maybe the toughest of all — we’re primed to fight. Over everything. Not a day goes by that some branch of the Gawker empire doesn’t pass out the pitchforks and call readers to arms. Not a day goes by we don’t see people pilloried on Twitter for crimes no one remembers. Not a day goes by we don’t look for something to get upset about just so we can get upset. It’s an age of irony and second guesses, of doubt and fear, of curiosity coming out as anger. An athlete said a thing. A celebrity said a thing. A TV show talked about a thing. In the middle of all this, you’ve got a show that resonates powerfully with some of its audience, that’s also widely misread by a number of its opponents, and its being produced and distributed in a climate that prizes hostility. It’s the perfect setup for a seemingly endless cycle of antagonism and recrimination. It lets naysayers feel superior for bucking a trend they felt was forced on them, and it lets supporters play the role of valiant underdog. It becomes about the viewers, not the thing they’re viewing.