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Friday, January 11th, 2013

'Girls' Season Two: Older and Not All That Much Wiser

This Sunday, the show the internet loves to argue about returns to HBO for its second season. That's Lena Dunham's Girls, of course, a half hour comedy that's been called everything from zeitgeisty to depraved to… god, I am not going to repeat that voice-of-a-generation quote that's always misinterpreted.

Many critical pixels have been posted about Girls, the recipient of extreme praise (to which I've certainly contributed) and much criticism, some totally fair, much some variety of pearl-clutching or
doesn't even address
the show's content.

Since the conversation about Girls often eclipsed the actual show, the new season offers a chance to dig beneath the polarization and look at what the show offers when it's not being held up to (ugh, screw it) “voice-of-a-generation” scrutiny.

Whether or not you like this show often comes down to whether you enjoy watching characters behave badly, daring to be unlikeable. If the characters’ self-centeredness turned you off in the first season, this new one will seem even more unbearable. If, however, you enjoy a nuanced character that’s equal parts awful and endearing, season two is absolute gold. Far from a sophomore slump, Girls’ second season pushes its unique voice forward with characters far more entertaining than bland likeable sitcom goofs.

To recap, Girls' first season ended with Marnie moving out of the Greenpoint apartment she shared with Hannah, Jessa's surprise marriage to a cheesy finance guy, Shosh losing her V card, and Adam getting hit by a truck after Hannah admits she doesn't want to live with him.

From the start of season two, Dunham and her writing staff weren't afraid to make huge jumps in their characters' relationships, beginning it with Hannah having already broken up with Adam. (Why she ended it is never explained, save for some general relationship anxiety she reveals.) Starting barely a month after Jessa's wedding, season two picks up with Hannah now living with her gay ex-boyfriend, Elijah (Andrew Rannells), while dating new beau, Sandy (Donald Glover, as the year's most unfortunately-named Republican), though she's still taking care of a post-accident Adam. Marnie gets “downsized” from her gallery job, taking on a hostess gig at a fancy Manhattan club, and in another reversal, is suddenly the needy one to the newly aloof Hannah. Jessa is largely absent from the first few episodes, and when she isn't, she's smug about her newfound happiness, though (shocking spoiler!) her marriage to Thomas John (Chris O'Dowd) isn’t so stable. Shosh has a rocky start with Ray, but they date anyway and seem to be the only ongoing couple in Girls' world that isn't horribly unhealthy.

Season two still offers plenty of awkward sex while financial concerns are pushed to the background, though they bubble just beneath the surface. The overarching theme, though, is Playing Grownup. And as the characters pursue the chimera of adulthood, they reveal how adolescent they still are. From Hannah's attempt at a dinner party to Jessa's overconfidence as she insists, “this is what it's like when the hunt is over,” the characters play house in that way people only do when they're 24 and trying oh-so-hard to seem adult. Hannah and Marnie even have (another) fight over who's a better friend, in a conversation that made me flash back to the eighth grade lunch table. Surely before the season ends someone will make a supercut of the characters telling each other to grow up.

What's fun to watch in the characters' striving for maturity is that they're so horribly bad at it. At the start, it seems Hannah's turned over a new leaf, explaining to Sandy her new approach to dating. “Please don't say 'love' to me. I'm going to make logical, responsible decisions when it comes to you.” It's a promising start, but is hardly lasting. Glover's Sandy is clearly the better choice of boyfriend over Adam, but that won't stop Hannah from imploding their relationship. And in true Girls fashion, her terrible decision-making goes gloriously wrong. There's one complicating detail to Sandy that Hannah just can't see beyond: he's a Republican. In what will surely be the most scrutinized conversation of the season, Hannah attacks Sandy's political leanings when he admits to not liking one of her essays. Then, she introduces the topic of race, mentioning the majority of death row inmates are black men. After he calls Hannah a common script — the white hipster girl who'll date a black guy but “can't deal with who I am” — Hannah has the gall to accuse him of fetishizing her as a white woman. She's ludicrous and brilliantly awful, and the effect is as uncomfortable as it is funny.

Overall, the entire cast put in strong performances, but the continued stand out is Zosia Mamet, who absolutely slays as the recently “deflowered, but not de-valued” Shoshannah. Shosh was criticized in season one as the least-developed character, but is more nuanced with each episode in season two. When she runs into Ray at Hannah's house warming party, Mamet's delivery of the simplest line — “Oh, hello. Goodbye.” — is both hysterical and revealing. Shosh's inexperience lends her toward cliché love advice of the Cosmo variety, yet the same naiveté gives her a surprising duality when held up against Hannah, Marnie, and even Jessa: as the only character with the guts to insist someone treat her well and a willingness to send him on his way if he won't.

Dunham has a remarkable ability to skewer her own generation, though at times it's hard to tell whether it’s a lampooning or a loving homage — perhaps it's both. There's an appearance from iPad DJs AndrewAndrew, who seem a hilarious send up of the New York club scene, but are, in fact, real dudes. Then there's the perfect commentary on confessional online writing in Jazzhate, a Vice-like publication that Hannah gets an opportunity to write for, complete with an editor that pushes her to get out of her comfort zone in dangerous ways. “You could have a threesome with strangers you meet on Craigslist. Or do a lot of cocaine and write about it.” I won't spoil Hannah's response to this advice, except to say it results in the funniest episode of the excellent four I watched.

Girls occasionally misses some opportunities in not showing us the potentially truly funny consequences of characters’ actions, but on the whole, it’s shaping up to have an even stronger season than its first, and hopefully also a less polemic one. Though, somehow, I doubt that last part.

Erica Lies wishes her middle name was "never." She lives in Austin, TX and has a web series that ten whole people have watched.

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