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When a series as fresh, raw and original as Girls comes along, there’s something that kicks in after the original blast has faded: worry.
So many series that aspire to greatness are like all of those bands in the history of music who have exactly one great album in them, and it’s a slow slide to mediocrity after that. Happily, there are no such worries for Girls, which kicks off its second season even more assured of itself, able to deftly work strands of hard-earned drama into the free-flowing comedic moments of four postcollege girls trying to find their way in life.
The first four episodes of season two are so ambitious and self-aware — charting important new swaths of dramatic territory in the lives of the principals — that it seems like Lena Dunham had written them while riding the same creative wave that spawned the awe-inspiring first season.
Dunham is, as people are now aware, the creator, writer, star, oftentimes director and executive producer of Girls. The series has a very specific domain that it taps into — postcollege, overeducated twentysomethings in New York who are desperately trying to find some roadmap to their lives. In the immediate sense, that means a career, or at least a job that will pay the rent in pricey New York. They are also well into their dating lives, yet without the wisdom of someone in their 30s, who will cut short a blind date when it’s clearly a bad fit. In your 20s, the milieu is more of going with the flow, learning a tad bit slower if someone is poison or a loser or just a complete ass.
In season one, Girls — the most original series on the air since FX’s Louie — focused its 10 episodes primarily on Hannah (Dunham) trying to be a writer while working unpaid jobs and dating a clearly disturbed but magnetic boyfriend named Adam (the wonderful Adam Driver, whose absence in Emmy discussions is criminal). Hannah was living with her best friend, the much more uptight and straitlaced Marnie (Allison Williams), and whiffing the fumes of fearless self-indulgence from her world-traveling British friend Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Jessa’s cousin, the virginal and compulsively fast-talking and wide-eyed Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet).
It was a Polaroid of their attempts at careers, independence, relationships, their own troubled friendships and the wonderment of that age — an age that almost demands that you make the next move, that you do something, when it’s clear that leaving your mark is phenomenally harder than you were led to believe.
When season one ended, Shoshanna had lost her virginity to Ray (Alex Karposvsky), who pretty much hated everything Shoshanna was about, except that he glimpsed her sweetness, naivety and quirkiness, and it spun his cynicism into recession. Hannah’s self-centeredness — which reaches epic proportions without her realizing it — had driven off Marnie, who essentially was floating Hannah financially in the wake of Hannah’s parents cutting her off. In the biggest shocker of season one, the bored free spirit Jessa had married the rich, odd, but not entirely repulsive Thomas-John (Chris O’Dowd, who somehow manages to make this freakishly unlikable character actually likable).
But it was Hannah’s cringe-worthy, self-loathing, unconfident relationship with Adam that marked the biggest change of season one. The spectacularly demented and original Adam learned to love Hannah, pledged it out loud and was ready to move in with her. But she had her defenses up and thought he was doing it just to be nice, and she chose her now-gay ex-boyfriend Elijah (the superb Andrew Rannells) to take Marnie’s spot in the apartment. Adam’s reaction — feeling rejected for admitting his love of Hannah and how her lack of self-respect couldn’t lead her to accept that he truly loved her, faults and all — culminated in a scene in which he disavowed her for not realizing that he wanted to move in and he ended up hit by a truck, his leg in a cast that made him immobile.
Season two starts with a pretty big — and unexplained — jump. Hannah is now dating a handsome black Republican named Sandy (Donald Glover), Marnie’s life is turned upside down, Jessa’s blind love for Thomas-John seems more like a long con than real love, and Shoshanna is in tumult with the cynical and crusty Ray.
Now, some people surely will think that Dunham has listened to the legions of disgruntled viewers who thought the show was a) too white, b) too entitled and c) too niche and has thus addressed the issues at hand. I’m not sure she has (though I’m quite sure she needn’t bother). The move away from Adam makes sense because Hannah just doesn’t have the confidence that someone could really commit to her. And making the characters struggle more openly isn’t pandering so much as it is a natural progression in their lives. Yes, Shoshanna would be in a relationship that seemingly made no sense and certainly wasn’t Disney princess-inspired. Marnie’s superiority would be tested, and Jessa’s motivations for her odd decision would come under scrutiny. It certainly makes sense that the characters would suffer more than they did in season one because even aging just a little bit opens the door to all kinds of bad decisions you weren’t prepared for. It’s how we learn. It’s the life lessons that we need when we’re not emotionally prepared to believe growth through life experience is important.
The real growth for Girls in season two isn’t taking the four young women we met and introducing them to a more integrated and less spoiled New York, it’s the natural progression of acknowledging that your tribe — the people you associate with most closely — has its faults. Season two does a fantastic job of skewering hipsters and frauds, many of the things that detractors hated about the show. I don’t think Dunham is listening to feedback and responding as much as she is realizing that her rarefied niche of characters is ripe for targeting. In one scene, Elijah’s older gay lover mocks the hipsters for being too cool to sing karaoke at a party. In a long, drunken rant, he has this beautiful aside: “What are you looking at, fake lumberjack guy?”
When Sandy calls out Hannah’s knowledge of race and its ramifications, she goes on a self-righteous, defensive rant, and Sandy says, “You just said a Missy Elliott lyric.” There are attacks on fixie bikes, rich white girls dating black men, iPad-using gay DJs, what constitutes a “pretty person’s job,” and the smug cynicism of youthful people who haven’t earned the right to it. For example, Jessa is painting Thomas-John and says the work is awful because she’s “so used to painting things I hate, like my mom and scenery.”
Dunham has a fine-tuned knack for skewering herself and her peers, and season two of Girls advances brilliantly the life journey, questioning and doubts of young people trying to figure out what they will become. This is a series that always will have detractors (sadly, a number of them don’t like the fact that Dunham so fearlessly shows her non-Hollywood body in a shocking, intimate and vulnerable fashion). But it doesn’t matter. Those are close-minded people who are missing the essential, specific nature of an artist — Dunham — mining her generation for both painful truisms and laughs.
Girls remains one of television’s greatest shows, one that seeks to document a specific time and place with specific types, done with unflinching honesty and humor earned from pathos and self-awareness. Here’s to one of television’s bravest, most entertaining lenses on a subculture.
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