“Girls” was the subject of much praise, especially by critics, and just as much vitriol when it premiered on HBO last spring. About a foursome of mid-twenty-something girls making their way in Brooklyn, “Girls” drew adoration for being well-written, funny and strangely endearing. Those who disliked “Girls” attacked it for being vapid, unrealistic, lacking racial diversity and being born out of the titular girls’ “connections in the industry” — mainly creator/writer/ star Lena Dunham and Brian Williams’ daughter Allison.
While “Girls” was one of the best shows on television in 2012, I agreed with some — some — of these criticisms. The whole nepotism thing was ridiculous. Criticizing a lack of racial diversity on a series set in one the world’s greatest melting pots is valid. But how many non-white people do you remember from highly-recognizable series like “Friends,” “Seinfeld” or “Sex in the City”?
The criticisms I do agree with are also the main reasons I find “Girls” so fascinating. Yes, Hannah Horvath (Dunham) and most of the other characters on “Girls” can be pretty terrible. And yes, it’s probably not completely representative of youth (i.e. hipster) culture in Brooklyn. But by making the characters self-centered, impetuous and occasionally loathsome, “Girls” managed to be a scathing satire while expertly interpreting the psychological adolescence people go through in their twenties.
“Girls” doesn’t make any serious changes for Season 2 — unless you think casting Donald Glover (“Community”) in a guest role was to capture that much discussed racial diversity issue — in the face of its critics. And it shouldn’t. This is one of the funniest shows on television. What’s more impressive is the intricate way Hannah and other characters on “Girls” illicit such a dichotomous internal reaction within viewers. Dunham (and executive producers Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner) has shown the ability to make unlikable characters endlessly watchable, akin to the anti-heroes currently leading television’s best shows.
As our entry into this world, Hannah is both infuriatingly narcissistic, but tragically likable. Hannah may not make the right decisions — pretty much ever. But you laugh when she’s pithy and self-deprecating, and think “No! Why?!” as she commits a string of self-destructive behaviors. Did you realize you’re subconsciously rooting for Hannah while consciously hating her?
Hannah doesn’t make it any easier to like her in Season 2. Her actions are still self-serving and actually get worse. Hannah lacks the general obliviousness she’d shown before. Saying “I’m not going to make the same mistakes” signals a more mindful Hannah, but her actions aren’t living up to those words. Hannah’s more aware that her poor decisions have consequences before she makes them, she just doesn’t care how it negatively affects those around her.
While I chose Hannah as the most deliberate example of the complexity within the characters on “Girls,” all of them share these traits. Marnie (Williams) is often a superficial, caustic smarty-pants who thinks a boyfriend will solve her issues. Only she doesn’t want the guy who wants to be her boyfriend. She’s attracted to the d--kish — and even more d--k-ishly-named — Booth Johnson (Jorma Taccone, of “SNL” and The Lonely Island fame). Still, I feel bad for Marnie when things aren’t going her way in Season 2. I even understand the reason for her flawed ideals, especially after a brief introduction to her mother (Rita Wilson). Jessa (Jemima Kirke) got married to Thomas-John (Chris O’Dowd) on a whim at the end of last season. She seems blissful in this ill-conceived union and it’s only when the cracks start coming through that we sympathize with her. Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) is the one who’s becoming more self-aware, especially in her pseudo-relationship with Ray (Alex Karpovsky). She’d been so naïve it’s the only direction for her character.
On the male side of the cast, Hannah’s oddball boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver) had the biggest character development last season. Initially, he looked the creepiest, most shirt-hating a-hole Hannah could have found. By the end of the season we learned Adam actually had his guard up with Hannah because he didn’t think she was capable of being dedicated to a relationship. He had begun to fall for Hannah and all her peccadillos, but didn’t want to get hurt by her fickle, self-centered nature. Adam’s immense flaws became more acceptable as we understood their origins and connection to Hannah.
Adam became the best and funniest part of “Girls” last season, but he’s undergone a change. With a broken leg and Hannah ruefully taking care of him, Adam has lost a bit of spark. His usual manic energy is replaced by the somber weirdo we occasionally saw last season. The worst part is he’s occasionally absent in the first four episodes. It’s a good decision from a character and storytelling standpoint, but I miss the jolt “Girls” gets from a frenzied Adam.
The characters and the deft with which they’re written are what I find the most fascinating and provocative about “Girls,” but this is still a brilliant comedy. The early episodes of Season 2 are immensely hilarious, funnier than most of the episodes in Season 1. The third episode is the standout. Hannah and her new roommate Elijah (Andrew Rannells) decide to have a little fun with cocaine — for Hannah’s writing, of course — and the results are hysterically disastrous. [Spoiler alert] Hannah wears a mesh shirt, a la Right Said Fred. Dunham builds some great comedic scenes for Hannah and also gets a lot of mileage out of the ensembles’ comedic chops. Marnie and Shoshanna have some particularly hilarious (and heartfelt) moments. The addition of Glover is also very cleverly employed.
“Girls” shows no signs of taking a step back from its incredible debut season. If anything, it’s actually better and smarter. Now if only Hannah, and the rest of the characters, could do the same thing. Then again, if that happened “Girls” wouldn’t be as great of a show.
9 p.m. Sundays on HBO