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MAR
17
2 YEARS

'Girls': Another Triumph in Season 2 (Analysis)

Lena Dunham and her series overcome outside influences to complete a great season, writes THR's Tim Goodman.

Girls Season 2 Episode 1 Girls in Kitchen - H 2013
Jessica Miglio/HBO
"Girls" managed to shake things up and stay excellent in its second season on HBO.

Note: This column contains spoilers about the season finale and previous nine episodes of Girls.

With two of its four main female characters finding connections that Girls often keeps at arm's length -- a kind of emotionally available and heartwarming take on love and happiness -- season two of Girls closed out with a tightly written, insightful and even kind-hearted season finale that stood in stark contrast to the darkness of last week's penultimate episode.

What Girls has excelled at in two seasons is showing how people -- especially post-college types in their 20s still trying to figure out what the world has in store for them -- often implode emotionally and revert to ironic detachment or the comfort of screwing up and suffering through hard failures. Failing is so much more noble than success, to some. Series creator Lena Dunham knows this territory well and seems to mine it effortlessly, but even she must understand that hilarity via cynicism and crushed souls is a whole lot easier to sell to the target audience than something that even hints at a strain of romantic comedy or optimism.

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And so it's refreshing to see that the season-two finale dared to allow in some light, in what has been a particularly downbeat 10 episodes, by letting not only Marnie (Allison Williams) and Charlie (Christopher Abbott) get back together, but Adam (Adam Driver) and Hannah (Dunham) as well -- the latter in a climactic scene as romantic and heroic as is possible for a guy who dumped a "money shot" all over his alleged "girlfriend" in last week's episode, which people are still talking about.

Then again, people always talk about Girls -- at least in the social-media arena. Hell, if HBO had as many viewers for the show as those leaving comments or having an opinion, it would be a runaway hit rather than a critical darling that has barely begun to get the credit it deserves, much less the ratings numbers.

Part of that problem stems from the fact that Girls might be the most over-analyzed show on television, to the point that this season I've refrained from talking about it much because the din of voices is too annoying to join in with. Since the very first episode, people talked about things that didn't truly matter in terms of what was on the screen, putting an overemphasis on Dunham's private life, the family connections of its stars, why the show couldn't be something other than what it was and the constant backlash -- what the show was doing wrong based on the perceptions of people who thought it should be doing something entirely different, even though it wasn't their show.

At some point, Girls became a show talked about not in the context of what it presented in each episode but of how that presentation was sexist, racist, pointless or otherwise too-entitled-to-be-real because of various elements completely outside the frame of the camera. The only mildly interesting element of all of this yammering -- much of it in the form of an angry backlash -- was that, from a sociological standpoint, it said so much about the people making the complaints and less about what the show was trying to do.

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For example, there's a major and disappointing undercurrent of misogyny in comments that surround the series. Angry comments from viewers (if they actually watched, which is certainly debatable) and even a string of writers and critics -- many, but not all of them male -- make it sound as if Dunham committed a crime against television for daring not to be thinner and more beautiful. Normally, you'd expect a young woman who not only created a series, but also starred in it, wrote it and often directed it, to reap the rewards of praise for such an accomplishment, but Dunham has been continually cut down for what amounts to a body-positive approach to her character. Hannah is naked more times than not in Girls, and this apparently annoys a certain segment of the audience who seem to wish it was one of the other three female characters instead.

It's almost as if Dunham's reaction to that has been to be naked even more often, just to spite that group. In one recent episode, Hannah connects with an extremely good-looking man in the midst of a divorce (Patrick Wilson), and that led to people reacting incredulously because it was inconceivable to them that he would find anything to appreciate in Dunham/Hannah. That's the kind of misogyny that passes as acceptable criticism precisely because most television panders to the notion that everyone appearing on it must be eye-candy unless they play murderers, deadbeats or freaks.

Beyond the unkind, unfair and uncalled-for attacks on Dunham, there are any number of other complaints about the series that seem to be so angry as to forget a basic principle: The show is the show, whether you agree with it or not. It's a work of fiction with a specific, many times unlikable, set of conceits, but, in the end, it was created exactly for that purpose -- and if that pushes your buttons, maybe some self-evaluation is in order. Or you should vote with your remote. But it's absolutely essential to approach Girls from what's on the screen only, not what happens with Dunham in her personal life or any other outside influence.

What season two managed to achieve so wonderfully was to continue, often in a difficult way, the story of spoiled, self-involved Hannah and her collection of friends. In many ways, viewers are supposed to be angry with Hannah. She constantly makes mistakes, she forever thinks of herself first, she lacks discipline, she's weak, she's entitled and she's a dreamer at a frustratingly wide remove from accomplishing her dreams. Those traits push a major button in some people (both those in the same age-range as the characters and those who are older and can't relate to the entitled aspect). But if Dunham had wanted to, she could have created a series with these very same actors in which they were all hip and funny and totally grounded and they got it. That's a show that might have earned the easy love some viewers want to dispense, but it's not, thankfully, what Dunham wanted to document.

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From the get-go, Dunham hasn't been allowed to present a worldview she's interested in (note: that doesn't mean she's incapable of doing something 180-degrees different; it's that, as a writer, she chose this world, whether you like it or not). Charges of Girls being too white (Dunham's starting off the season with Donald Glover as her new boyfriend and then promptly splitting with him because he was Republican might have been an answer to that) didn't allow for Dunham to write a series about overeducated, underemployed, mostly WASP-y white girls who hang out entirely amongst themselves in New York, because others apparently wanted her to do their show. Hell, even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar decided to be a critic this year. And then there's the older demo, which couldn't get past how incredibly annoying it was for Hannah to be so spoiled and yet was appalled when her parents cut the money off. Perhaps the viewers in that demo forgot Dunham made her character like that on purpose. Again, it's a work of fiction. 

Anyway, the chatter has always been too much of a sideshow to fully engage with, but if you simply watched what was on the screen these past 10 episodes, there were plenty of character-advancing moments, like Jessa (Jemima Kirke) getting called out for what she truly is during her short-lived marriage. Even in this season finale, poor downbeat Laird (Jon Glaser), the ex-junkie who pines for Hannah, calls her out: "You're the most self-involved, presumptuous person I have ever met, ever," he says. Later, he comments on "how rotten your insides are" to Hannah and lays it out straight: "I think it's a pretty dark scene inside your head."

But there was redemption, too. Ray (Alex Karpovsky) developed feelings this season, even though in the finale he's dumped by Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), less because he isn't career-motivated, as she said, than because his dark cynicism and worldview were too much for a younger girl trying to jump into life. And Adam, one of the best characters on Girls, got to be all over the map (as people can sometimes be), challenging the audience's perception of him and his actions. And the show put all-too-perfect Marnie through the ringer this year, to the joy of those who (of course!) didn't like her prudishness/perfection/princess thing. But she, too, grew from "the worst year of my life" to finally appreciate Charlie and maybe learn a little something about herself along the way. 

Ultimately, for Hannah, the season ends with more failure in her writing career and questions about whether she has what it takes to make it as a writer. Her OCD onset caused by relentless stress (self-made, of course) went from quirky to painful. But on the other side, there was flawed Adam, coming to the kid's rescue.

No doubt, because it's Girls, this semi-upbeat element for two of the characters will be derided as a rom-com happy-ending sell-out, regardless of the previous nine episodes of bleakness. But that should serve as yet another reminder that Girls is best experienced by simply watching it, not reading all the gripes about it.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine