It hasn’t been easy the past five years, being a fan of “Girls.”
And that’s not because of the many, many vocal critics of the show, some of whom are my best friends, most of whom will say they dislike the HBO comedy because of 1) the narcissism of the millennial characters; 2) the lack of people of color in the cast; 3) star Lena Dunham’s excessive nudity; 4) the sometimes degrading sexual activity; or 5) the idea of the show, which they’ve never watched, simply because people they respect don’t approve of it.
Those critics have a right to take on the series, currently in its sixth and final season, and they’ve certainly taken advantage of that right. Even before “Girls” premiered in April 2012, writers were pitching hardball accusations and complaints with the kind of fury we generally save for politicians. Weeks before the HBO premiere, Frank Bruni of the New York Times said the show made him think “Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this?” and Kate Roiphe on Slate asked, “Is sex always as unfun or awkward as it is on the show?” A “Girls”-hating interviewer once cut off my defense of the show before I could even begin to lay it out.
I understand most of the criticisms, and I enjoy hearing them and thinking about their validity, of which there is some. I’ve gone after shows for less.
No, the hard part of being a “Girls” fan — a fan who has appreciated the series more with each season, as the writing has grown subtler — is the press around the show, in particular Dunham’s dafter comments. Sometimes, all the chatter that goes into promoting a show can overshadow the show itself, and “Girls” is a good example. Every time Dunham says something like, “I still haven’t had an abortion, but I wish I had,” which she said in a December podcast, I know that she is only fueling those who dislike her series.
These controversies distract from the quality of her work, serving as chum for the media hum.
Personally, I like the public Dunham, flaws and all. She is a lot more focused on the outside world and politically active than her character on “Girls,” Hannah Horvath, whose clueless, self-centered youth is a major theme of the comedy. She risks talking about gender and sexuality issues, even though she misspeaks and gets taken out of context. And she is willing to apologize for some of her sloppier comments, a quality I generally admire. When did apologizing become a sign of weakness?
But I cringe each time a Dunham gaffe makes the rounds, knowing that people will confuse it with “Girls.” If you’re not going to like “Girls,” dislike it for its intrinsic qualities, not for the tabloid buzz around it. I remember feeling the same way during the run of “Roseanne,” a 1988-97 series that ushered the network sitcom out of yuppie frivolity and into working class life. I loved the show, but I quickly tired of Roseanne Barr’s tabloid pranks and attention-grabbing. Some of her extracurricular stunts were playful and irreverent if not particularly clever — I’m thinking of the time she mooned a World Series crowd. But many were warped, including the time she faxed profane, homophobic notes to critics who didn’t like her then-husband Tom Arnold’s “The Jackie Thomas Show.”
It takes an effort to keep the creator and her creation separate, and it’s especially hard when that creator is a repeat offender. Many people, including myself, have not stopped enjoying Alec Baldwin’s work as Donald Trump on “Saturday Night Live,” or his previous greatness as Jack Donaghy on “30 Rock.” But for me, it has taken some work to let go of his string of outbursts — the time he was removed from a plane on the runway for refusing to turn off his phone, his scuffles with the paparazzi, and how he called his daughter a “rude, thoughtless little pig” in a leaked phone message. I’ve gotten there, and relish his performances, but it was a struggle.
Of course I’m not talking about the occasions when the creator is so offensive, his or her affronts so unforgivable, that you decide to boycott those creations no matter what. It’s always a personal decision, whether you stop watching “The Cosby Show” or Woody Allen or Mel Gibson movies. For me, Gibson’s rabid anti-Semitism was a deal-breaker. But Jon Voight’s political stances are not. I don’t like his public repudiation of his anti-war efforts in the 1960s or his support of Trump. However I can still marvel at his turn in “Ray Donovan,” just as I can savor this last string of episodes of “Girls.” It has taken patience to love the show, but the rewards have made it quite worthwhile.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.