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‘Girls’ Gotta Have Friends

Over five seasons, Lena Dunham’s HBO show amassed an expansive and impressive list of guest stars, but not everyone was used well. We present the definitive ranking of the top 42.

(HBO/Ringer illustration)
(HBO/Ringer illustration)

By Eric Ducker

When Girls premiered on HBO in April 2012, its four stars garnered some recognition due to their parents, but none were famous in their own right. The show was built around the basically unknown quantities of Lena Dunham (Hannah), Allison Williams (Marnie), Jemima Kirke (Jessa), and Zosia Mamet (Shoshanna). To help, Girls brought in plenty of guest stars over the years, keeping the generational mishaps going. Some were similarly unknown talents, some were actors already riding high with cultural capital, and some were pulled from the deep recesses of the entertainment industry. In the show’s sixth and final season, which premieres this Sunday, Girls stick to this tactic, with Riz Ahmed, Matthew Rhys, Tracey Ullman, Joy Bryant, and Chelsea Peretti all making appearances.

But not every, uh, appropriation was as successful as others. I catalogued over 40 different notable guest stars who appeared in three or fewer Girls episodes during the first five seasons. Then I evaluated how the show used them, employing a proprietary algorithm called the Laird Scale — a tribute to Jon Glaser’s ex-junkie/current single dad recurring character, who could have easily been a one-episode joke but became someone whose future I’ve actually come to care about. That’s what the best bit characters do: make viewers care far beyond the limited time they’re around.

The rankings are based on a formula that considers how well the show: (a) took advantage of each actor’s strengths, (b) showcased the actor’s previously unknown capabilities, (c) created a memorable character for the actor, (d) exploited the timeliness or unlikeliness of the actor’s appearance, (e) made you want to see the actor again in a role outside of the Girls multiverse, and (f) maximized the amount of screen time/material the actor was given. Now, the rankings.

42. Natasha Lyonne

“Iowa” (Season 4)

While it’s good to see Lyonne in anything these days (including Orange Is the New Black), Girls put her in a ridiculous lawn-jockey outfit, pretended like someone with her wild energy could function in Connecticut, and gave her the defining characteristic of not being able to pronounce “unconscionable.” Who is this person?

41. Michael Imperioli

“Leave Me Alone” (Season 1)

So you snagged the great Imperioli, cast him against type as a supportive writing professor, set him up as a potential mentor and/or inappropriate love interest for your show’s central character, and then let him disappear after less than five minutes of screen time? Fuck outta here.

40. Anthony Edwards and Ana Gasteyer

“Iowa” (Season 4)

In maybe the most squandered use of talent in Girls history, the show pulled Edwards off the far end of the bench and brought in the perennially undervalued Gasteyer to play Shoshanna’s parents and then ditched both of them after a single scene. The big reveal was that they’re both named Mel, a fact that wasn’t good for much besides a laugh later on in the episode when Shoshanna deadpans, “It’s the worst thing that ever happened to me, and it’s the first thing that ever happened to me.”

(HBO)
(HBO)

39. Melonie Diaz

“Dead Inside” (Season 3)

In 2013, Diaz played Oscar Grant’s girlfriend, Sophina Mesa, in Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station. The next year Girls cast her in a throwaway role as a woman who faked her own death in order to get Jessa out of her life.

38. Horatio Sanz

“Hannah’s Diary” (Season 1)

When Sanz turned up for a single scene, it had been five years since Jimmy Fallon’s sketch-breaking companion was a cast member on Saturday Night Live. Playing an over-accessorized goofball just out of rehab (a grown-up Gobi?), his character was tossed in for just two purposes: to make the unemployed dad of the kids that Jessa nannies for (played by James LeGros) look comparatively less pathetic, and to deliver the line, “Present? Who cares if she’s present, she’s got the face of Brigitte Bardot and an ass like Rihanna.”

37. Julia Garner

“The Panic in Central Park” (Season 5)

Hung out in a flophouse bathroom in her underwear.

36. Carol Kane

“It’s Back” (Season 2)

Two years before Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt cast comedy vet Kane as the ultimate aging Brooklyn kook, Girls gave her a short appearance as a woman who somehow decided that, following an outburst from Adam at an AA meeting, he would be a great match for her daughter Natalia, played by Shiri Appleby. It was a terrible idea.

35. Skylar Astin

“Hannah’s Diary” (Season 1)

Astin showed up on Girls shortly before he discovered love and a cappella with Anna Kendrick in Pitch Perfect. He played Matt Kornstein, an overeager former Camp Ramah counselor who decides against de-virginizing Shoshanna because he thinks it’ll make her clingy. He sold his lines about Jewish sleepover camp much better than his ones about sex.

34. Felicity Jones

“Role-Play” (Season 3)

Jones was on her way to starring in both Oscar bait (The Theory of Everything) and blockbusters (Rogue One) when she made a quick stop on the set of Girls. She played the daughter of the man Jessa meets in rehab, and she broke out into hives when it was time to confront him. I’d be lying if I told you that, based off of this role, I could totally see where her career was going.

(HBO)
(HBO)

33. Danielle Brooks

“Females Only” (Season 3)

Brooks was already beloved for her role in Orange Is the New Black when she showed up on HBO. But her Girls character — a gas huffer in rehab and in denial about being a lesbian — has only a muted version of the vulnerable charisma that shines through on OITNB in her portrayal of Taystee.

32. Natalie Morales

“I Saw You” and “Two Plane Rides” (Season 3)

“Iowa” (Season 4)

Morales’s first stint on Parks and Recreation was far too short, and the same should be said for her work on Girls. Playing Clementine, the justifiably wary girlfriend of Marnie’s insufferable music and sexual partner Desi, she didn’t get to do much more than deliver one “don’t test me” speech. Clementine and Desi’s climatic breakup even happened offscreen.

31. Desiree Akhavan

“Triggering,” “Female Author,” and “Cubbies” (Season 4)

Coming off the film festival success of Appropriate Behavior — the movie she wrote, directed, and starred in — Akhavan was selected to play Chandra, one of Hannah’s openly hostile classmates at the University of Iowa’s MFA program. Chandra can barely indulge Hannah’s bullshit with even an eyeroll, and her dislike is basically the only thing you come to know about her.

30. Kim Gordon

“Females Only” (Season 3)

Gordon has altered the trajectory of rock music as a member of Sonic Youth, created the influential clothing brand X-Girl, and written the praised memoir Girl in a Band. She’s also now been called “meth face” by Jemima Kirke.

(HBO)
(HBO)

29. Donald Glover

“It’s About Time” and “I Get Ideas” (Season 2)

One of the earliest, most persistent critiques of Girls was its lack of substantial parts for people of color. When it was announced that Community’s Glover would be playing Hannah’s black Republican boyfriend at the start of the second season, it seemed like damage control, despite Dunham and co-showrunner Jenni Konner stating they had always planned to bring him in. Donald Glover in 2013 wasn’t the Golden Globe winner for Atlanta or the future Young Lando Calrissian that he is today, and Girls couldn’t figure out what to do with him besides have him wear his hat weird.

28. Lou Taylor Pucci

“The Return” (Season 1)

Pucci’s career has never quite clicked. If he’s known for anything, it’s probably for his roles in troubled ensemble films like Southland Tales and The Informers. On Girls he played Eric, the young pharmacist from Michigan that Hannah has a fling with when she visits home. Parochial nice guy that he is, he’s not so into her big-city habit of trying to put her finger in his butthole.

27. Griffin Dunne and Deborah Rush

“It’s a Shame About Ray” (Season 2)

Playing the parents of Chris O’Dowd’s Thomas-John, Dunne and Rush didn’t even get names for their characters beyond “Thomas-John’s Father” and “Thomas-John’s Mother.” Which wasn’t that big of a deal, since they were basically just there to break up the hastily conjoined couple. Just months later viewers could see Rush basically reprise this uptight WASP role as Piper’s mother on Orange Is the New Black.

26. ‘Enter the Void’ Intro

“Welcome to Bushwick, a.k.a. the Crackcident” (Season 1)

This episode’s title sequence was an homage to the jarring, frenetic, font-spewing intro to Gaspar Noé’s Netflix favorite, Enter the Void. Kanye did it better.

25. Marc Maron

“Close Up” and “Daddy Issues” (Season 4)

Finally, we get to see Maron play an aging curmudgeon! The show could have benefited from a more pronounced rivalry between his character and Ray as they battled for a spot on Community Board 8, especially considering how great Maron was with Alex Karpovsky on his episode of the WTF podcast.

24. Louise Lasser

“I Saw You” and “Two Plane Rides” (Season 3)

“Iowa” (Season 4)

The comedy legend (famous for her work in Woody Allen’s earliest films and the soap opera satire Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman) materialized as an cranky, aging New York City photographer who inexplicably jumps from a Marnie story line into a Jessa one. It turns out it’s because she wants Jessa to assist her suicide, but the plan is abandoned just as quickly as her closeness with Jessa.

23. Selenis Leyva

“Hannah’s Diary” (Season 1)

Marsha Stephanie Blake

“Only Child” (Season 3)

Since Girls and Orange Is the New Black both film mainly in New York, the two shows feature plenty of actor overlap. Before taking on prominent parts in OITNB, Leyva and Blake got quick looks outside of prison — Leyva as Hannah’s law office coworker who digs the occasional dick pic and Blake as the blunt AF publisher who wants to put out Hannah’s book in actual book stores. Each felt like she was auditioning for something bigger.

22. Fred Melamed and Jackie Hoffman

“Tad & Loreen & Avi & Shanaz” (Season 4)

Playing professor colleagues of Hannah’s parents Tad and Loreen, Melamed and Hoffman are two character actors in search of a bougie sex comedy that never materializes.

21. Lisa Bonet

“Homeward Bound” and “Love Stories” (Season 5)

Shout out to Girls for bringing back Bonet, who once upon a time played the coolest Brooklyn hipster TV’s ever seen.

(HBO)
(HBO)

20. Danny Strong

“Beach House” (Season 3)

“Iowa” (Season 4)

Strong is more of a show creator and director now, but prior to playing Pal, Elijah’s condescending, jerk of a boyfriend, he was most recognized for his roles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gilmore Girls, and Mad Men (he punched Roger Sterling in the dick). Strong was so good at being an irredeemable bastard that I even considered giving Empire another chance.

19. Bridget Everett

“Wedding Day” (Season 5)

Comedian Bridget Everett played the hair and makeup artist fresh off the Warped tour whose unbelievably heavy hand threatens Marnie’s specific vision of a wedding inspired by an Edward Sharpe video (per Marnie). Known for her uninhibited stage shows, Everett kept it chill before unleashing a cascade of “twats” when her expertise was questioned.

18. Aidy Bryant

“Homebirth” (Season 4)

“Japan” and “Queen for Two Days” (Season 5)

When playing Shoshanna’s boss, Abigail, the Saturday Night Live cast member spent much of her time being terrified — of Japan, of getting a pedicure from live fish, of firing Shoshanna. She broke through with moments of hilarity, even when it came by way of culturally questionable jokes, like when she compares being in Japan to “being inside of Katy Perry’s vagina.”

17. Amy Schumer

“On All Fours” (Season 2)

“Females Only” (Season 3)

Schumer’s own show, Inside Amy Schumer, debuted between her two episodes on Girls. No other young guest actor ascended to stardom after a Girls appearance as quickly as Schumer, though she was already on the rise. Her first appearance was most memorable for her quip that Adam “looks like an old-timey criminal,” and in her follow-up she unleashed a verbal beatdown that served as a proxy rant for those who couldn’t believe the show brought Hannah and Adam back together again.

16. Rosanna Arquette

“Video Games” (Season 2)

Following Griffin Dunne’s appearance earlier in the second season, his After Hours costar Arquette shows up as the girlfriend of Jessa’s dad. Living in upstate New York, far from SoHo in the 1980s, there’s not much for her to do except attend lectures on nuclear toxicity, develop far-out theories about reality (apparently shared by Elon Musk) and eat freshly slaughtered rabbits at every meal.

15. Richard Masur

“Hannah’s Diary” and “Hard Being Easy” (Season 1)

Masur’s four decades of guest TV appearances stretch from All in the Family to Cagney & Lacey to L.A. Law to Felicity, with far too many other shows and TV movies to mention along the way. It’s very impressive for a guy who looks he should be running a company in Vermont that makes handcrafted stuffed animals. He was on Girls as Rich Glatter, Hannah’s lawyer boss who somehow doesn’t realize that being handsy is blatant sexual harassment.

14. Spike Jonze

“Home Birth” (Season 4)

Throughout Season 4, there are mentions of Marcos, the head of the surely garbage record label that’s putting out the Desi and Marnie album. He finally appears during the season finale, in the form of the director, who’s actually a pretty amazing, low-key comedic actor, as also seen in The Wolf of Wall Street and Moneyball.

13. Jorma Taccone

“All Adventurous Women Do” (Season 1)

“Bad Friend” and “Boys” (Season 2)

Jorma Taccone was the second-most famous member of Lonely Island when he was cast as Booth Jonathan, a snide installation artist who dresses like Paddington Bear and has some of the quirkiest sexual quirks to have ever appeared on Girls. Known more as a director and writer, Booth is probably Taccone’s best acting performance, but it wasn’t enough to improve his Lonely Island fame ranking.

12. Maude Apatow

“Ask Me My Name,” “Tad & Loreen & Avi & Shanaz,” and “Daddy Issues” (Season 4)

Considering what crappy friends Hannah has, it makes sense that she would finally start looking for some new ones. Unfortunately, she chooses a student from the high school English class she teaches. During Apatow’s first appearance in something not directed by her father, her Cleo does seem like a more fun hang than the spiteful crew that Hannah’s been kicking it with all this time.

11. Mike Birbiglia

“Vagina Panic” (Season 1)

Before his appearance on Girls, Mike Birbiglia had built a following through his heartfelt stand-up comedy, a one-man show, a book, and appearances on This American Life. On Girls, he made the most of his sole scene: a job interview with Hannah that careens from charming banter into a forceful reprimand about workplace inappropriateness. Gen X vs. millennials tension!

(HBO)
(HBO)

10. Deirdre Lovejoy

“Flo” (Season 3)

With former Assistant State’s Attorney Rhonda Pearlman from The Wire uncorking some familial bitterness as Hannah’s tightly wound Aunt Margot, it’s clear that Girls should have done like The Walking Dead and imported more talent from David Simon’s masterpiece.

9. Bobby Moynihan

“She Did” (Season 1)

Smart move having the celebrated UCB play the type of guy who can never make it onto a Harold team. Four years into his stint on Saturday Night Live at the time, Moynihan brought a sensitivity to the desperate humor of Thadd, the internet-ordained minister for Jessa and Thomas-John’s Hail Mary of a wedding.

8. Jenny Slate

“Leave Me Alone” (Season 1)

“Love Stories” (Season 5)

When Slate’s Tally Schifrin appeared in the first season of Girls, she embodied the life that Hannah desired. Four years passed, and then Tally cruised back into Hannah’s world right when Hannah was in the pits post-breakup with her boyfriend and her best friend over another ex-boyfriend, done with her teaching job, and no longer writing at all. Hannah and Tally came together for a day of bike theft and joint smoking, leading them to realize the universal truth of Girls: Everyone in the world feels like shit about themselves.

7. Patti Lupone

“I Saw You” and “Incidentals” (Season 3)

I don’t think anyone who has appeared on this show has had more fun than Patti Lupone hamming it up as … Patti Lupone. Or as Elijah calls her, “Corky’s mom.”

6. Jennifer Westfeldt

“Only Child” (Season 3)

Westfeldt was party to Lena Dunham’s most Larry David–esque moment. At the funeral for her editor, Hannah tried to get his grieving wife (Westfeldt) to recommend another publisher for her e-book during his memorial service. She easily switched from distractedly distraught to exasperated rage.

5. Patrick Wilson

“One Man’s Trash” (Season 2)

Wilson played the male lead in the first Girls episode that felt like a stand-alone short film. Wilson’s restrained Joshua was a fantastic foil to Lena Dunham’s impulsive Hannah. We watched him work through his feelings toward this unknown woman that arrived in his brownstone, gradually shifting from confused fascination to romantic lust to impenetrable emotional distance.

4. Bob Balaban

“It’s Back” (Season 2)

“Females Only” (Season 3)

“Close Up” (Season 4)

In an uncredited role, the unassailable Balaban appeared in three consecutive seasons as Hannah’s therapist, Dr. Rice. In his first appearance, he’s inscrutable, casually revealing to Hannah that the children’s books he wrote about a boy and his bionic dog are best sellers. (Bob Balaban really did write a kids series about a boy and his bionic dog.) By the Season 4 session, he’s clearly smitten with Hannah’s new nemesis, Mimi-Rose Howard, of course only as a result of Hannah’s stories. We can only hope that Hannah will have another kind of mental breakdown this season so we can see Dr. Rice again.

3. Zachary Quinto

“Ask Me My Name” and “Daddy Issues” (Season 4)

Beneath the affectations (chewing a toothbrush at an art opening, the backward baseball cap, the “It’s not my jam, it’s not who I am” line), Quinto turns what could have been a caricature into a fascinating depiction of a master manipulator. He’s also a reminder that Girls could easily have been a show about people even more fucked up than the ones we got.

2. Christopher Abbott

“The Panic in Central Park” (Season 5)

Abbott was a key part of the show’s first two seasons, playing Marnie’s sickeningly sweet boyfriend Charlie, but when he unexpectedly quit, he reportedly knocked the show’s third-season plans into disarray. Abbott then rebooted his career with the critically adored James White in 2015 and soon made a surprise return to Girls in “The Panic in Central Park,” bringing with him a mesmerizing new look, new disposition, and entirely new physicality that turned this episode into an instant favorite.

(HBO)
(HBO)

1. Ben Mendelsohn

“Video Games” (Season 2)

Catch Mendelsohn at his shaggiest, back when he was still becoming known in America for his talent at portraying creeps. As Jessa’s dad, Salvatore, he was much more of a screw-up than a threat as he hoarded obsolete computers in his station wagon, chronically showed up late, and held vendettas against all Camry drivers. I could watch him angrily water his lawn and spit all day.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.