“It wasn’t for me, exactly.”
There is a point early in the second season of the HBO series “Girls” at which a new character says that sentence. It sums up precisely the way some viewers felt about the first season of the simultaneously critically acclaimed and derided — and heavily blogged — comedy from creator-star Lena Dunham and producers Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner.
In a moment of exceedingly self-reflexive commentary, the new love interest of Dunham’s aspiring writer character Hannah tells her that an essay she wrote was “really well-written” but he felt “nothing was happening.”
While I agree that much of the first season was well-written and would argue that things did happen, it wasn’t for me exactly. In a sea of polarized opinions, I didn’t hate it but I didn’t love it either. It got DVR-ed, but it languished.
Much of what Dunham was doing was admirable. In particular, I was taken with her ability in the first season to write distinctive characters. So often with “auteurs,” all the cadences sound like one voice. But flighty, girly Shoshanna (the fizzy Zosia Mamet) is worlds apart from the tightly wound Marnie (the flinty but soft Allison Williams) and the self-consciously bohemian Jessa (Jemima Kirke). And it was interesting to watch the evolution of Adam (Adam Driver) from callow and cruel to quirky and manic, just as confused as the girls of the title in trying to figure things out.
Then there was the authenticity of the situations: the cringingly awkward sex, the cringingly awkward relationship conversations and accompanying self-delusions, and the cringingly awkward young adult grand pronouncements. It all felt real and relatable.
But it was all just a little too cringingly awkward for me, the Hannah character too wildly self-involved, toggling between self-loathing and self-aggrandizement. And the discomfort level of watching Hannah accept Adam’s horrible treatment was tough. Which isn’t to say TV should always go down easy. Striking a nerve can be a wonderful thing. But all those cringes were not offset by enough emotional payoffs. That approach may be more lifelike, but it can be less enjoyable when your shoulders are always hunched up watching characters flounder and point fingers. The journey to self-awareness can be a drag, and it can be funny; and in its first season “Girls” was often both, I just didn’t find myself clamoring to watch.
The first few episodes of the second season, which begins Sunday on HBO, feel more engrossing. All four women, through their own choice or outside circumstance, are thrown into transitions and conflicts that feel deeper and funnier than in the first season. Perhaps, it’s just because we know them better now.
Also helping to up the laugh quotient is Andrew Rannells as Elijah, who first season viewers will recall came out of the closet after dating Hannah, “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Rannells (who also appears on “The New Normal”) may be a quippier, sitcom-esque presence but it’s an upbeat energy the sometimes drab-feeling show could use.
Donald Glover of “Community” also brings his unique vibrations as law student Sandy, the aforementioned love interest. It’s refreshing to have a somewhat self-assured character in the midst of this angstapalooza.
Both men bring much-needed laughs to the proceedings, and the choice of Glover is also purposeful and deepens the meta commentary of the show.
Last season, Dunham took a lot of flak because, although her series about four young women finding their way into adulthood was set in Brooklyn, there were hardly any minorities featured.
Glover is not only black, but his character is introduced in the very first frame of the second season in a very intimate situation. On one level it is funny. Dunham seems to have wryly placed her tongue in cheek to say, “See! I’m including a minority!” (It’s like the most strenuously comic version of the “I have black friends!” protest ever.)
But even as that draws a kind of knowing laugh, on another level it is an interesting choice that this black man isn’t introduced as just a friend or colleague but someone who lusts after and is intrigued by Hannah. “I love how weird you are,” he says. Of course he does, and we are meant to as well, but so far Hannah just living her life isn’t as weird and interesting as she seems to think it is. Or at least, it isn’t for everyone. But perhaps this season it might be.