It's rare that a marketing campaign, complete with billboards splashed insufferably all freaking over New York City, or wherever you may live and be inundated with it, is actually perfect. That their totally apropos melding of tagline and message makes their papering everywhere you look not the visual equivalent of incessant and deafening construction noise. (Seriously, ads usually suck.)
But then there's this year's simple, smart Girls ad campaign: the silhouettes of Lena Dunham and her three co-stars with the phrase, “Nowhere to grow but up.” It’s just so good. So spot on.
Four seasons into its run, which began in 2011 ushering in Lena Dunham as a so-called voice of a generation and since has become a lightning rod for the arguable genius of one of Hollywood's youngest and most prolific and profound creators, you can't help but wonder whether "nowhere to grow but up" is a self-aware summary of the state of a now-veteran TV series, or a damning prediction of a show's own inevitable demise.
After all, when a show is called Girls, will its audience tolerate when its characters actually become, as their age has suggested they should have been all along, women?
Of course, the brilliance of this show has always been the controversial way it blurred lines between such labels of maturation, playing with the definitions of both—how much juvenile arrested development we'll tolerate in women and how much delusion of adulthood is acceptable in utterly infantile and dependent girls. It's a debate that makes Girls, depending on who you're talking to, an incorrigible and excusing depiction of an entitled and lazy generation or an anthropological masterclass, uncannily capturing the nuance of a subset of modern society that, despite their predilection for selfies and incessant logging of every moment on social media, has hereto been impossible to accurately capture.
Yet Sunday night's Season 4 premiere of Girls proves that as Lena Dunham, controversy and all, grows into her own womanhood and own potential as Hollywood wunderkind, her TV show is growing with her. It's richer than ever. It's more nuanced. Whereas it used to be buzzy and contentious, it's now simply good.
That may make Girls. for the very first time, kind of boring—at least in the eyes of a media that thrives on ingénues, creative darlings, and any headline that can be spun as a controversy (see: Dunham's entire career thus far, particularly her last year). But there's something to be admired in how Girls has matured, gotten its head about it, and become something more than a water cooler series about a bunch of brats. It's now about what happens when those brats face a real world that is no longer going to excuse them for not being ready to face it.
Forget the hapless millennials. Girls is now more concerned with what happens when that hapless bunch has nowhere to grow but up and the ambition to do so, but not the luck or acumen required to actually do it. To that regard, Girls has become more than the rumination on the meandering existence of twentysomethings. It's something more terrifying, now that those twentysomethings are unable to develop into the adults they should and want to be.
In Season 4, Girls is a horror show. Albeit, as is the Dunham way, a horror show with a sense of humor.
There's Hannah, who is prepping to leave New York for a writer's workshop in Iowa. She's departing with all the prestige, respect, and potential such an opportunity affords, but without the guarantees of a return on any of that potential in the long run. She's doing what so much of us have witnessed others do, or maybe have done ourselves: risk sabotaging personal relationships and happiness at the hopes of a future, a future that is far from certain.
It's something that Jessa (Jemima Kirke) viciously and cruelly calls her out on, but which is bitterly true: "You're pussying out on this whole thing, which is to make it work regardless of location right where we are."
In a bit of true-to-life dialogue that Dunham excels so well at penning, Hannah can't even keep from shining a spotlight on her own immaturity and buffoonish as she puts on the act of being an adult. "Slow to grow, but how beautiful is the blossom," her father (Peter Scolari) toasts her at dinner the night before she leaves for Iowa, a toast that she interrupts to remind her waiter to bring her French fries. "You don't need any fries," her mother (Becky Ann Baker) cuts in, exasperated.
It's today's version of adulthood to a T. Saying you’re an adult, but insisting on having French fries at the fancy restaurant. Going back to school because everything has failed, and passing it off as a bold step. Or, as Adam (Adam Driver) calls it, "Taking the next step in a series of random steps."
If Dunham is the voice of a generation, she's preaching that generation's unabashed embracing of random steps. Nowhere to grow but up, but getting there in non-linear ways.
To that regard, the series' three other leading females are all at their own various stages of unproductive, barely forward progress. Marnie (Allison Williams, Peter Pan herself) continues to be a walking cringe-inducer, the human manifestation of mortification. She's performing songs at something called "jazz brunch," having an affair with her music partner, and saying things like, "If you guys are lucky, maybe I'll scat for you. Do a little rap."
Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) is finally graduating from NYU, but she's not walking at the ceremony and she has no job lined up and no boyfriend. And Jessa is about to have her livelihood and most meaningful relationship, caring for an elderly woman, taken from her when the woman's daughter (Natasha Lyonne) returns and insists on removing her mother from Jessa's incapable hands.
For all of the talk of how Dunham manages to pen the thoughts and mood of a generation of twentysomething, she manages to pen the perfect screed echoing an older generation's feelings about everything that's wrong with hers for Lyonne to deliver—which she does brilliantly.
"Is it because you were called special too many times, and because you believed it?" she asked, trying to fathom how someone with Jessa's potential could be such a screw-up. "Cuz when my generation, and every generation before me, were called special we were smart enough to know it meant we were stupid. So it made us work that much harder to make sure we weren't stupid."
There's extra bite to that monologue when you see Hannah's parents foolishly toasting her trip to Iowa and helping move her there when they probably know full well that she'll find a way to bungle that opportunity, as she is wont to do.
Or when you see Marnie's mom (Rita Wilson) giddy with excitement over her daughter's pathetic jazz brunch gig, which is likely doing zilch for her career—whatever that career may be. Or when you see Shoshanna's parents (Anthony Edwards and Ana Gasteyer) snapping photos of their daughter as she merely fills out the address where her diploma should be sent, because that's all the pomp and circumstance they're going to get out of their $200,000 investment in their daughter's NYU education.
There's also extra heart to that monologue when you think of all those scenes. Or when you think that, yes, Hannah might be taking a series of random steps and that might be infuriating to a generation that's programmed into taking only logical and fruitful ones, but it's heartening and special that she—and Marnie and Shoshanna and even Jessa—are supported by their parents and allowed to be grow at their own rate, and in their own direction.
"What are you thinking about?" Hannah asks Adam at one point in the premiere. "I'm just listening," he says, but not before she can cut him off: "The maze of our future? That's what I'm thinking about."
There's nowhere to grow but up, and the girls of Girls are steadfastly lost in the maze that leads to that final destination: growth, womanhood, happiness. But it's a marvel that, four seasons in, Dunham and her co-creative masterminds Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner have managed to keep us engrossed as they try to find their way out of the labyrinth.
Girls may not be as cool or as fun as it used to be. But it's as good, if not better, than it's ever been. Who said growing had to be cool?