If there’s anything that last night’s episode of Girls proved, it’s that Judd Apatow‘s true home is television. The writer/producer/director is famous for The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, but his roots are in programs like The Ben Stiller Show, The Larry Sanders Show and Freaks and Geeks. Now, I love what Apatow has been exploring with film. He’s made some great movies himself, and though they’re flawed, films like Funny People are remarkably honest comedies. Girls, the show created by Lena Dunham, is Apatow’s first foray into TV since Undeclared in 2001. While Lena Dunham is clearly the creative mastermind behind the show, one look back at Tiny Furniture reveals a slightly different sensibility at work in her newest venture.
The most recent episode, ‘The Return’, makes it obvious that the Apatow style has bled into Dunham’s work. First of all, the episode lists Apatow as a co-writer, which is signal enough, but that also shines a light on Apatow’s influence as a producer on the rest of the series. While I did enjoy Tiny Furniture a good deal, it suffered from an overriding air of melancholy. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it made the film feel like it was taking itself ever so slightly too seriously. Judd Apatow’s work has always had hints of melancholy, yet he always balanced that out with goofiness to bring out honesty in his characters instead of depressing self-indulgence. This is what he brings to Girls and it’s reminded me how much I’d love to see him make TV his focus again.
I suspect that Apatow’s co-writing credit on ‘The Return’ has a lot to do with the parents on the show. In the first episode, Lena Dunham’s character, Hannah, is financially cut off by her parents. If there was anything wrong with the pilot it’s that the parents felt like caricatures more than characters; they were there for no other reason that to set off the plot of the series. ‘The Return’ completely flips that initial impression on its head. We gain a new level of insight into the motivations of Hannah’s parents in cutting her off. We also get to see how the parents function as a couple, which offers a great counterpoint to the journey of self-discovery Hannah is going through.
Apatow’s hand in this makes sense considering he’s older than Lena Dunham, and he’s married with kids and thus more equipped to bring a parental perspective. The influence extends beyond the superficial, though. There’s every reason to believe Lena Dunham capable of writing interesting adult characters. Where Apatow really shows his muscle is in the heartfelt interactions between the parents, and between the parents and Hannah. Hannah is quite uncertain of who she wants to be, but for the first time we see how genuinely concerned her parents are about the very same thing. Their conversation over dinner shows us just how much they care about and worry for their daughter, and where Hannah’s mom had previously come off as shrill, here we see it was all a rouse and that she wants to encourage her daughter’s meandering journey.
The scene that really spells out Apatow’s influence is the one between Hannah and her mom in the hallway. This scene comes right after Hannah has had to deal with her father suffering an injury from attempting sex in the shower. That’s the goofy setup, which then leads into an amazingly down-to-earth conversation between Hannah and her mother. Watching the mother-daughter dynamic I was instantly reminded of Lindsay Weir and her mother on Freaks and Geeks. Though the subject matter in Girls is more adult, the emotional basis is exactly the same. A mother and daughter who love her other and want the best for each other, but cannot quite communicate with each other directly. Hannah’s mom tries to offer a helping hand, but Hannah’s pride and self-motivation makes her incapable of accepting. She doesn’t even admit to being out of work and completely broke. Her mom doesn’t press her on the matter and they go their separate ways. Oh, and I welled up a little. A perfectly poignant moment between a parent and a child. The Freaks and Geeks connection is only made stronger by the fact that Becky Ann Baker plays the mother on both show.
The other element of Judd Apatow’s sensibility that I think has crept into Girls is the optimism. Freaks and Geeks was never afraid to go dark, or to be realistically sad, but it also carried a persistent feeling of hope for the future. The characters might never “win the day” like in most TV series, but they learn and grow and change and almost always for the better. Girls takes the same approach. There are no big victories in Girls. We don’t see Hannah and her friends triumphing over adversity. Instead we get a set of character trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be, and every misadventure in that process is ultimately a step in the right direction.
At the end of the third episode, ‘All Adventurous Women Do’, Hannah stares blankly at her computer screen, trying to process her most recent experiences into a single tweet. She ends up typing “all adventurous women do” and then dances with her roommate to the Robyn song, ‘Dancing On My Own’. It’s a beautiful scene because it presents the characters approaching their troubles with a special kind of reluctant confidence. They simply let go and accept their position in life with open arms. It’s the show responding to difficulty with character growth and optimism. A hallmark of Judd Apatow’s style, and I’m so glad to see that style back on TV.
Oh, and if you want to see another wonderful dancing scene from an Apatow show, check out the similarly simple and touching Homecoming sequence from the end of the Freaks and Geeks pilot: