Fresh off of her surprise Golden Globes wins, Lena Dunham's HBO comedy "Girls" opens its second season, attempting to address its "diversity issue" in a rather direct manner.
Lena Dunham is having a much better year than the title character in her show Girls, Hannah Horvath, is. Dunham recently sold the rights to a book of essays, advice, and memoir tidbits for more than U.S. $3 million. Last night, the newcomer unseated the likes of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler when she won the award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series - Musical or Comedy. And then her show, Girls which she created, writes, occasionally directs, and stars in, took home the award for "Best Television Series - Musical or Comedy".
The critically acclaimed first season of the insightful, well-rendered Girls drew complaints that it was about a handful of young white women from charmed backgrounds struggling to get by. Many pointed out the show's lack of diversity. Others simply found the characters' neurotic, hyper-reflective, surface-level insistence of wit and irony over sincerity to be shallow. Others were relieved to see a raw, self-effacing, charming, insightful new voice in television where, let's face it, the trials of the privileged has long since been a staple of sitcoms; only never quite like this.
People with these concerns will not find them allayed in the premier of Girls second season, titled "It's About Time". Yet, regardless, this is a sharply-crafted show. It's world is built, its dialogue satisfying and its dealings with sex, intimacy, and self-image fearless. The show still nails the look and tone of Young Brooklyn. Dunham possess the impressive combination of both a writer's ear and a director's eye. She lets the camera speak for itself, framing things in steady, confident shots, not ever relying on nontraditional angles or extra movement to sell her scenes. She knows that the script and cast are good enough.
And, for the most part, they are.
"It's About Time" picks up with Dunham's Hannah snuggling alongside her new gay roommate, Elijah. She clearly likes the affection. He apologizes for being aroused, mentioning "Don't worry, it's not for you." This is a good example of the tender balance that Dunham finds: this scene would be crass comedy if shot or acted in another manner. But it's all dull, quiet grays- the sense of that first-morning-in-a-new-apartment ennui. That vague anxiety that comes with waking up and not knowing where you are even though you're home. And of course, there are Dunham's subtle expressions as we see that Hannah sort of hopes for more; not necessarily that he were aroused by her, but moreso that she is always trapped between two sorts of guys: the ones that will cuddle, and the ones that will have sex.
But as viewers of season one will remember, there's Adam, who now potentially could be that one guy. Only Hannah is decidedly through with him. Or so she says. And in a hell of an end to the pre-credit opening sequence: we see Hannah having passionate sex with a new character played by Donald Glover. Quite the way to address complaints that this is a white-washed vision of Brooklyn.
And that's where Dunham's style seems so similar to Hannah's: vulnerable, aware of criticism, willing to go to lengths to be approved of, generally assuming that those lengths begin with sex.
We pick up with Marnie (Allison Williams), Hannah's best friend and former roommate. Marie, the statuesque, traditionally beautiful one of the four titular friends, finds herself paying for her looks once again, as she is fired and reassured by a flaky boss that she'll find more work because she's beautiful. To make matters worse, she finds herself beginning to re-appreciate her sweet-natured, it not over-doting ex-boyfriend Charlie; especially when she sees his new girlfriend mistreating him in a manner similar to her own former behavior.
Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), is the innocent of the group. A virgin up until last season's end, she speaks in uber-hip valley talk, constantly shortening words and combining to make up phrases like "crackcident". But for all of her potential daffiness, Mamet shines most among the cast as she brings the character up from her place as last season's Naive Little Thing to a character who builds a growing realization for viewers that she may be one of the only direct, truly sincere characters in town. She says what she feels and does so without artifice. And she doesn't go through the hyper-analytical self-torture of someone like Hannah who is constantly deceiving herself for the supposed sake of being open and empowered. Nor does Shoshanna fall into the trap of the would-be Bohemian Jessa (the show's least appealing lead role who luckily only shows up for the final few minutes of the episode) who masks her constant abandonment of everything by claiming to live by a code of wisp-of-the-will enlightenment.
And so we care for Shoshanna. As does, he is slowly realizing, Ray, best friend of Marnie's ex, Charlie. "It's About Time"'s most compelling subplot involves the growing tension between Shoshanna and Ray, even as other events, like a housewarming party, are given more attention.
Thus Dunham perhaps isn't quite sure yet of where the show's emotional strengths lie. Not that all of the relationships aren't fairly watchable. They are; thanks to Dunham's keen ear for certain relational dynamics; albeit upper-class, academic, post-everything, mostly Caucasian dynamics. It's just that a show like this makes real, vulnerable emotion a valuable commodity and one that the audience craves.
Dunham isn't wrong to want to avoid Grey's Anatomy-esque soppy sentimentality. It's just that it's one thing to subvert that sort of on-the-nose cheesiness and another to have a show whose world can be exhaustingly ironic.
The final scene of "It's About Time" illustrates this perfectly in a sweet scene involving Hannah as she tries to find rest and companionship. Without giving anything way, let it be noted that certain delicate wordless actions in the scene prove quite poignant, and yet the final bits of dialogue reference Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead.
It's not that Dunham is getting this world wrong. These kids exist. Plenty of them. And their world deserves a show as much as any other as long as its told with care and intelligence. And it is. But, as Dunham would be the first to point out (in her undeniably charming manner), the show is, to quote this season's slogan, "Almost kind of getting it together".
And I say that with affection. Mean it.
Girls second season premiered Sunday, January 13, 2013 on HBO in the United States.