Why Are So Many People Rewatching ‘Girls’?

Viewership of Lena Dunham’s HBO dramedy is surging as many millennials reassess their 20s and a show that defined them.

From left, Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham and Zosia Mamet sit on a city bench.
With more distance, some viewers revisiting “Girls” feel more empathy for the show’s main characters, from left: Marnie, Jessa, Hannah and Shoshanna.Credit...HBO

Jill Badlotto was in her 20s when she developed a “love-hate” relationship with the HBO dramedy “Girls.” While the show aired, Ms. Badlotto watched the main characters — Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna — hop from unpaid gigs to Brooklyn raves, all the while criticizing one another for the narcissism they failed to recognize in themselves.

When Ms. Badlotto, now 35 and a wedding coordinator in South Florida, rewatched the show this year, the characters still grated on her. But this time she didn’t recoil so strongly.

“I see so much more of myself in them,” she said, then paused. “Maybe that’s why I hated them so much.”

A little over a decade after the show's debut, people are rewatching — and sometimes reconsidering — “Girls,” Lena Dunham’s series about four white women lurching through their 20s in New York City. The series’ viewership doubled between November and January compared with the previous three months, according to a spokesperson for HBO.

Returning and first-time viewers are dissecting the show in bars and group chats, uploading supercuts to TikTok and using “Girls” to reflect on the very recent past. (In Season 1, Marnie uses a Blackberry and Jessa has a flip phone.)

“I like to call it a period piece,” said Julia Gray, 27, a journalist in Brooklyn and the host of “Girls Room,” a “Girls” rewatch podcast she created last year.

“Girls” was released in 2012 amid a flurry of hot takes that argued millennials were the whiniest, laziest generation yet. The show knowingly played into and poked fun at those clichés beginning with its first episode, in which Ms. Dunham’s character, Hannah, is cut off by her parents and then declares that she may be the voice — “or at least a voice” — of her generation.

It also, perhaps unwittingly, was a time capsule of what life was like for a privileged slice of New York City in the mid-2010s. The show’s protagonists had just graduated into a recession and were grappling with the rise of apps like Instagram and Tinder, all while going through the typical turmoil of one’s 20s.

That was too much verisimilitude for some viewers. But now well into their 30s, some of the millennials rewatching “Girls” are seeing their early adulthood with greater clarity.

“It just resonates so much more now,” said Alix Seracki, 30, a photographer in Manhattan who is rewatching the show with four friends. They are revisiting plot lines like Hannah’s on-again, off-again relationship with Adam (Adam Driver) and her revolving cast of roommates. The phrase “so real” peppers their text messages.

“This notion of ‘rewatching’ is a misnomer, because you’re re-introspecting,” said Cristel Antonia Russell, a professor of marketing at the Graziadio Business School at Pepperdine University, who does research on television consumption habits.

Professor Russell said a primary reason we rewatch television — a practice she believes has gotten more popular in the last decade because of streaming and its endless options — is to appreciate how we have changed between viewings of a show that has remained the same. A series like “Girls,” which is about lost 20-somethings, could be comforting to 30-somethings who have weathered the chaos of those years, she said.

When Ms. Badlotto watched the show for the first time, she said, she was frustrated when Hannah enrolled in and promptly abandoned an M.F.A. program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

This year, Ms. Badlotto rewatched the show and saw the exact same story line as a realistic demonstration of trial and error — an essential part of growing up. “That’s kind of the beautiful thing about being in your 20s: It’s really the only time in your life when you’re able to do that,” she said.

When the show was originally broadcast, it seemed to stir up much stronger feelings. It cycled between phases of backlash and backlash-to-the-backlash over its nudity and sex scenes, its whiteness (and its creative team’s defenses of it), its characters’ narcissism and the statements, and often the body, of its creator, Ms. Dunham. In 2017, Vulture published a 1,500-word list of all of the show’s controversies.

That “Girls” was such a lightning rod for criticism in its day makes it especially rich to discuss a decade later, Ms. Gray said, especially now that more shows, like “Insecure” and “Fleabag,” have gone on to feature women who do not have it all figured out.

On her podcast, she revisited a Season 2 scene in which Hannah plays table tennis, naked, with a fling played by Patrick Wilson. Ms. Dunham’s nudity was often received with outrage or praise, but a decade later Ms. Gray said she saw it as radically neutral. Ms. Dunham was “not even doing it as a body-positive statement, just kind of, ‘this is my body, this is a normal person’s body,’” she said. “She was really ahead of her time there.”

But there are other aspects of the show that Ms. Gray thinks are still worthy of scrutiny. “Like, the token Black character is a Republican,” she said, referring to a love interest of Hannah’s in the second season played by Donald Glover. “What are you trying to say? It’s not working.”

Tameka Amado, 30, a consultant in Boston, had been wary of the show when it first aired because of some of these criticisms. She said she had skipped the show because she did not think it would speak to her, a college-age Black woman. “I always heard, like, Lena Dunham being this problematic fave,” she said.

But when she saw a clip of the show on TikTok in which Shoshanna, played by Zosia Mamet, tears down the other women’s egos in a beach house, she decided to watch for the first time. She was frustrated by the show’s dearth of Black characters, but she thought it captured privileged white women pretty well. “Although in the end I hated everyone, I hated everyone because the writing was so good,” she said.

Ms. Dunham is aware of the “Girls” renaissance. On a phone call from Berlin, she said she was honored and a bit baffled by viewers’ renewed interest, which she found out about through texts from friends. She said she hoped viewers would appreciate the show despite the fact that some jokes may not land in 2023.

“My wish is that they’ll be able to maybe watch it away from some of the baggage it came with of the moment,” she said.

Even Ms. Dunham senses newfound distance between herself and the material. She recently watched a TikTok montage a friend sent her of Marnie (Allison Williams) and her love interest Charlie (Christopher Abbott) set to a Phoebe Bridgers song.

“I was actually quite moved,” Ms. Dunham said. “I almost forgot I had anything to do with it.”