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Celebrating the imperfect, compelling boys of Girls

Lena Dunham’s seminal show is coming to an end, so we’re giving some well-deserved credit to its often unsung heroes

After six seasons and five years, Girls is finally drawing to a close. The show, which was the catalyst for a then 25-year-old Dunham’s remarkable career, was as influential as it was controversial. Girls centred on a then-neglected demographic of struggling 20-somethings, but they were more often than not infuriatingly cruel to one another and resisted any kind of character development. At the show’s worst it was dull, casually racist and extremely short-sighted; at its very best, though, it was funny, enlightening, and true to the mid-20s flailing women that it attempted to represent. Of course, with a landscape of diverse and exciting emerging comedy we don’t necessarily need a show about four privileged white women anymore, but let us eulogise it anyway.

For a show all about women, I am almost reticent to celebrate the men, but some exceptional actors passed through Girls’ doors. The boys were as flawed and often as terrible as the girls, but most of them were consistently at the very least funny in a show that often so desperately needed comic relief. They were also a voice of reason in response to the girls’ privileged complaints and constant bickering. Some of the actors, like Adam Driver and Alex Karpovsky, even now have promising and well-deserved Hollywood careers.

All of this is not to say that any one of them is perfect; they are all as shitty as any one of the girls can be, because that’s life. While Adam is funny, kind of sweet, and incredibly funny, I am reticent to praise him completely. I cannot really mentally move past the scene in season 2 in which Adam proceeds to have sex with his new girlfriend Natalia after she repeatedly says no and is clearly uncomfortable. Showrunner Jenni Konner addressed these controversies again earlier this year, saying: “when people watched that scene and said, ‘is that rape?’ I was surprised. To me, that was a fully consensual bummer of a sex scene”. Regardless of how the scene was intentioned, it still doesn’t sit quite right.

The men of Girls work so well because they are mirrors to the women. Ray is the polar opposite of Shoshanna, and while they fight, they bring out things in one another that the other does not have. The men in Hannah’s life act as voices of reason every time she is being selfish, petty, or excruciatingly short-sighted. She never acts on their advice, of course, but the well-meaning and sometimes barbed interjections of Adam, Ray, or Elijah are refreshing. Elijah, portrayed by Andrew Rannells, is not only a voice of reason but an absolute bright spot in some otherwise pretty grim episodes. He’s cutting, cruel, and viciously bitchy; but he loves Hannah wholly. He is always funny, too, which in a show occasionally devoid of any laughs is welcome. When Hannah’s father, who I also love dearly, comes out, it’s Elijah who helps him find himself as a “daddy”. Elijah doesn’t only function as camp comic relief, but his selfishness somehow makes him a great balance for Hannah’s own; they are best together, be it fully kissing one another, sharing a bed, or guzzling massive amounts of cocaine and getting sweaty.

There is only one episode of Girls, the aptly named Boys, that really puts the men in their own woman-less situations; but it eventually just proves that they still need them. In it Ray and Adam go on an adventure to return a dog that Adam has stolen, and the time that the boys spend alone together is full of the quickest, sharpest dialogue of the series. Ray realises that, “you know, you and I, we're actually not so different. I may intellectualise everything and you nothing, but at the end of the day, we both get to the same meaty ideas”. To which Adam responds, “maybe it's 'cause we're both kinda weird-looking”.

The main characters were good enough, but some of Girls’ best boys were one-offs. Donald Glover as Sandy deserves a couple of lines, if at least to say that Girls did not do him justice. His character was written in as a direct response to accusations that Girls lacked racial diversity; the fact that Sandy was black but also a Republican seemed to be a cruel joke, and a writing off of any criticisms. In his brief time, though, Glover was as brilliant and as funny as he ever is, and called out Hannah for her accidental racism.

In relation to Marnie, who is ostensibly the most boring character, men often only exacerbate her stagnation. But sometimes, just sometimes, they don’t. In season one, comedian Jorma Taccone has a cameo as narcissistic, drily funny “smeedge of an artist” Booth Jonathan. Marnie, whose life has been very dull to this point, is obsessed with Booth; after speaking to him just once, she is immediately both aroused and inspired to change her life. When they reunite briefly in season two, Booth has a similarly revitalising effect not only on Marnie but on the show, even if he ultimately breaks her heart. There are other one-offs we don’t have space for; Chris O'Dowd, Danny Strong, Riz Ahmed, director Spike Jonze. Girls has been home, if only briefly, to some very funny men.

A lot of other shows starring women – Broad City, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – could probably stand up without the men. Girls could not. The men are the opposite of the women, and essential in their own ways, but the men provide impetus to move and to grow where the women sometimes had none, and the women often offer the same in return. They were often also immature and cruel; Booth, Ray, Elijah, Adam, Charlie, and many others could be twice as unreasonable as the women. But they were consistently funny, and I can forgive anyone for annoying me as long as they make me laugh. The fact that all of the men worked so well is testament to the writing but also to the actors. Many, especially in the case of Adam Driver, will grow to be stratospheric stars far larger than the limits of what Girls could ever allow, but they all leave a space in TV that’ll be tough to fill.