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Here’s how HBO’s Girls could be even better in season 5

Girls has always known how to tell stories about Hannah (Lena Dunham). It should aim to do the same for its increasingly sprawling ensemble in season five.
Girls has always known how to tell stories about Hannah (Lena Dunham). It should aim to do the same for its increasingly sprawling ensemble in season five.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In many ways, the fourth season of Girls was its best since the first. The show sidelined many of the characters it wasn't sure what to do with, instead focusing more intently on the journey of protagonist Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) than ever before. It was also the season that most skillfully united the show's two halves — the half that wants to tell a slowly evolving story of a young woman's artistic growth and maturation, and the half that works better as a series of short stories or essays about experiences in that young woman's life.

And even on a show where the season finales feel like series finales most years, the fourth season's final episode, "Home Birth," felt even more like an ending to the whole story than ever before. All of the show's characters reached new levels of maturity. All of them moved on to new stages of their lives. One of them even moved to Tokyo. It was a great capper to what Girls has been. And it could also be a great prelude to something new.

The fourth season, good as it was, sometimes left me with the feeling that the show might actually be better if it stopped trying to tell longer stories over several episodes. This is particularly true with the supporting characters. Ray (Alex Karpovsky) ran for office, but in the extreme background. Marnie (Allison Williams) got engaged and started a music career in earnest, in the most irritating way possible, but the dark satire of her storyline kept getting shifted to the back burner.

In general, Girls is at its best in the A-stories and at its worst in the B- and C-stories, the bits and pieces of episodes that are lavished with less time and attention. There have been effective B- and C-stories this season, particularly in the skillful exploration of Hannah's dad (Peter Scolari) coming out as gay. But these are also the places where the show most visibly strains to be a comedy, with over-obvious gags and goofy half-characters that feel more like jokes than anything else. (See also: toothbrush-chomping Ace.)

This is why I'd love if season five of Girls had no B- or C-stories whatsoever. In fact, I'd love if it were just like the British show Skins.

What Girls could learn from the UK soap

For those who haven't seen it — which is probably most Americans — Skins was a groundbreaking teen soap that aired in the UK from 2007 to 2013. An MTV remake quickly flamed out in 2011.

The series aimed to be more honest about the sex lives and drug use of teenagers, which prompted a fair amount of hand-wringing about the problems of kids today. But though it won attention for its hot-button content, its true innovations were structural.

Skins was almost a pure short-story show. Every episode focused on a different character in that season's central set of teenagers (which changed every other season as characters graduated and moved on). Those stories could be wild comedies or sad tales of heartbreak, but they shifted and changed with the character at the center each week. It was, in a way, like the flashbacks on Lost had shifted into the present tense and taken over a whole show, and at its best, it meant you never quite knew what you were in for when you turned on Skins that week.

As you're probably already guessing, Girls could do something killer with this.

How Girls could become Skins

One of the biggest overarching stories and themes on Girls has been how its central foursome — Hannah, Marnie, Jessa (Jemima Kirke), and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) — seems unlikely to remain as close of friends as they were early in the show's run. Time changes, people grow apart, and the friends we had in our early twenties are very often not as close to us as we move closer to our thirties.


Jessa (Jemima Kirke) sometimes seems like the only character who can move comfortably among all of Girls' different worlds. (HBO)

But this has also meant that the characters often find themselves isolated from one another entirely, in their own storylines. Only Jessa seems able to move comfortably among the various storylines on the show, perhaps because she's always been a free spirit. Marnie and Shoshanna, especially, seemed as if they were spinning toward irrelevance at times this season.

But imagine if a 10-episode fifth season leaned into this, turning every episode into a story centered on just one of the characters? Hannah, of course, would probably have multiple episodes as the main character (and also appear in other characters' episodes more often), and there would have to be some sort of episode with everybody in it — possibly the premiere or finale. But watching an episode just about Jessa or just about Ray would be preferable to using them as occasional spices the show obviously can't figure out what to do with.

The obvious concern here is that an episode all about, say, Marnie would be unbearable. But the real problem here isn't that Marnie's a terrible person — it's that she's shunted off into the part of the show where Girls has always felt most comfortable engaging in stories about how poisonous and toxic these people are, saving their more empathetic moments for the A-story. If the episode is all A-story, then Marnie might get her chance to shine.

Girls is already sort of doing this


Hannah's parents (Peter Scolari and Becky Ann Baker) took up much of the season's eighth episode. (HBO)

What's notable is that the fourth season worked so well because it was already doing some incipient versions of this. The season's best episodes — "Sit-In," in which Hannah deals with a break-up poorly; "Ask Me My Name," in which Hannah is forced to spend lots of time with her ex's new girlfriend; and "Tad & Loreen & Avi & Shanaz," which spends more time with Hannah's parents than ever before — succeed precisely because of this sort of character-centric focus.

And that's been true of the show throughout. It's just usually been applied to Hannah, rather than to most of the other characters. Each season features an episode or two where Hannah is out of her usual environment, and we get a fuller picture of who she is. Girls struggles with its supporting characters precisely because it's never had to develop them in precisely this manner. This would be a chance to do just that.

Girls has already suggested that its supporting characters have lives beyond their occasional intersections with Hannah. And the show is getting old enough that going for outright experimentation might end up being one of the best things it could possibly do. Girls is always at its best when it's trying something new — why not turn season five into something new with every week?

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