C’mon, Get Happy

Girls, the HBO series loved and loathed in equal parts, just came to the end of its six-season life span. Here’s what surprised me:

1) that I liked Girls at all; and

2) that a last-minute plot line could have anything worth saying about my profession.

For those of you who didn’t watch (or hate-watch) this series, I’ll just say that it portrayed a group of millennials learning how to be adults. The critical consensus was that all the characters were annoying narcissists, which was true.

Even fans regularly used the word “cringe” in their reviews. Cringe-worthy aspects of Girls included everything from mindblowingly awful wardrobe choices to sex that was regularly portrayed as ill-advised, embarrassing, and frankly unattractive.

It was all hilarious, touching, and a little too real. I loved it.

In the middle of the last season, Ray, a directionless minor character, reaches a crossroads. His boss, Hermie, dies unexpectedly and leaves him everything, including piles of cassette tapes containing oral histories from their Brooklyn neighborhood.

Despite the fact that the cassettes are housed in an Edward R. Murrow-themed tote bag, Hermie turns out to be a condescending interviewer, guffawing unconvincingly and getting nothing but platitudes from his subjects.

Still, Ray is captivated. He wants to digitize the tapes, he earnestly explains, so that others can “experience the horror of gentrification in a visceral way.” (The joke here is that Ray and his ilk are themselves the gentrifiers.)

A cheerful acquaintance named Abigail suggests he instead continue the interviews on his own. Ray rejects that. “I don’t have Hermie’s natural knack for making conversation. I don’t know. It’s not in me. I’m not as sociable as I thought I’d be.”

In the HBO series Girls, Ray and Abigail become personal historians on the streets of Brooklyn

But can-do, outgoing Abigail decides he just needs practice. She approaches people sitting out on their stoops. “Hello, ladies, we’re trying to make, like, an audio history of Brooklyn. Can we ask you a couple questions?”

And pretty soon, we’re in the middle of a “Personal History 101” montage, with Ray looking on admiringly while Abigail records her (mostly elderly) subjects on an iPhone.

It turns out Abigail is an interviewing rock star. She asks an old man in a rickety chair: “How long have you lived in Brooklyn?”

To another: “What was a typical Friday night in Brooklyn?”

To a trio of ladies: “Was there ever a boy who managed to come between your beautiful friendship?” (This starts a bantering fight among the ladies: “I got him. You don’t know that. But I got him.” “You didn’t. You did not get him.”)

To a couple on a park bench: “What would you wear on, like, a night out?”

Back to the competitive trio: “If you could choose one thing, what is it that’s changed the neighborhood?” (The unexpected response: “Nowadays, you go down the street, all you see is these SUVs. They even have SUV strollers!”)

Finally, in a classic bodega, Ray works up the courage to ask the woman behind the counter: “Um, yeah, so, um, what do you miss most about the neighborhood?”

Then, he’s on a roll, fluently asking others questions like: “What was it about you that he fell in love with?” “Why did your family choose to settle in Brooklyn?” While he waits for their responses, Ray looks—for the first time ever—happy.

This is unusual in the universe of Girls. Characters have moments of pleasure and joy, but they rarely seem happy.

Usually morose, sarcastic, and despairing, Ray turns a corner when he gets out of his own head and shows a genuine interest in and curiosity about other people. He has accidentally become a personal historian, and he’s much the better for it. (And meeting Abigail doesn’t hurt.)

Ray and Abigail share a kiss in the HBO series Girls

People in the personal history profession have a well-deserved reputation for friendliness and generosity. Do we just attract friendly, generous people? Or is it more likely that asking questions, listening actively, empathizing with others, respecting wisdom—in other words, what we do for a living—can increase anyone’s capacity for happiness?