The most polarizing show of 2012 was HBO’s Girls, which revolves around the lives of four 20-something women orbiting each other in Brooklyn. The Lena Dunham–created comedy elicited a love-hate relationship with premium cable audiences. You either loved the bravery of the show, its incredible sense of voice and time, and its unrepentant navel-gazing attitude ... or you loathed it.
In its first season, the show received various criticisms of racism, elitism, and, er, hipsterism. The amount of ink devoted to tearing down both Dunham and Girls was shocking to me, particularly as much of it emerged from those who hadn’t actually watched the show or from those who failed to see that Dunham’s Hannah Horvath wasn’t meant to be held up as a paragon of virtue, but rather a flawed, sheltered narcissist whose greatest enemy was herself. The girls of Girls aren’t meant to represent all women, or even all 20-something women in Brooklyn. The show represents a very specific snapshot of a very specific cultural subset existing at this very second in time. As such, it is part anthropological record, part comedy, and part tragedy.
The hotly anticipated second season of Girls, which returns to HBO on Sunday, builds on the strengths of its stellar first season and captures the quicksilver magic of Dunham at her best, with the first four episodes supplying a mighty kick to the heart.
[Warning: Minor spoilers ahead!] Yes, the girls and guys of Girls are back, though their relationships, tested by events at the tail end of Season 1, remain tantalizingly fractured: Hannah is no longer with Adam (Adam Driver), her quirky, conflicted, body-conscious boyfriend, though she is caring for him while he recuperates from his car accident. Immobilized and dependent upon Hannah for everything except sex, their dynamic is a pale reflection of the sparks they kicked off last year. Hannah, meanwhile, is involved with a black Republican played by Community’s Donald Glover, and their sexual chemistry manifests itself in a playful, easy way. His inclusion here seems calculated to dispel the charges of racism leveled against the show, depicting a Brooklyn that is less lily white than the canvas shown in Season 1. But I’m glad to see that Dunham doesn’t make Glover’s Sandy a stereotype: he’s sweet but conservative, easygoing but also as rigid in his political thinking as Hannah is.
Elsewhere, Jessa (Jemima Kirke) plays at being a wife, her marriage to the stuffy Thomas-John (Chris O’Dowd) yet another impulsive move from a woman who thrives on being unpredictable. But puppies and wild sex can’t stop reality from slipping into the crevices of their unrealistic relationship. Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) adapts to life post-virginity, as her relationship with Ray (Alex Karpovsky) is tenderly painted as a series of tentative first experiences. Hannah’s prim best friend struggles with a loss of both her identity and her job, the first of many unpleasant wake-up calls for the seemingly perfect Marnie (Allison Williams), whose ex-boyfriend Charlie (Christopher Abbott) is now dating a tiny hipster with a penchant for headbands.
An early scene between Marnie and her mother—played by the perfectly cast Rita Wilson—recalls the pilot-episode confrontation between Hannah and her parents over her employment situation, but is in fact the first of many depressing conversations about how super-smart Marnie should find a “pretty person” job to tide her over. That she does—as a short-shorts-clad club hostess, no less—is a gloomy reminder of just how much this group is failing to live up to its potential, while a later art-world encounter—trapped within a cacophonic video installation—and a brutal betrayal reveal just how out of touch Marnie is with herself and the world around her, not to mention with Hannah as well.
It’s the unexpectedly rich dynamic between Hannah and her gay ex-boyfriend Elijah (Andrew Rannells, now on NBC’s The New Normal) that make these early episodes crackle with electricity. Their seemingly easy rapport, designed by necessity to fill the void left by Hannah and Marnie’s falling-out, results in some of the show’s very best sequences, such as when Hannah decides to try cocaine for the first time—as part of an assignment for a vapid website editor whose idea of daring is telling people to be outside the box—and Elijah joins her on a coke-fueled cruise through the demimonde of Brooklyn nightlife, only to confront painful truths along the way. One of many highlights this season, Hannah and Elijah’s scenes are both playful and tinged with venom.
Those contradictions fuel the second season of Girls, which manages to be both salty and sweet, a perfect blend of disparate flavors. There’s a sense of aching hurt beneath the surface of the characters, as each grapples with emotional wounds, some imagined and some real. The petty squabbles, minor betrayals, and cutting comments reveal an immaturity to the characters that is realistically ugly yet compelling.
However, there is also a lyrical tenderness to some of the scenes within Girls that is beautiful to behold. An understated but resonant sequence between Jessa and Hannah in the season’s fourth episode, set in the bathtub of Hannah’s apartment, is as much a testament to the healing power of friendship as it is one of the best uses of Oasis’s 1995 hit song “Wonderwall.” And although Noel Gallagher’s song is purportedly about an imaginary friend who comes along to save you from yourself, in Girls, these friends feel, deeply and comfortingly, very real.