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Television Review

‘Girls’ the drama versus ‘Girls’ the comedy

Lena Dunham, the creator and star of the HBO series “Girls,” as Hannah

JESSICA MIGLIO/HBO

Lena Dunham, the creator and star of the HBO series “Girls,” as Hannah.

The second-season finale of “Girls” is upon us, on Sunday at 9 p.m. In a way, that’s lightning fast, especially for cable TV, which tends to be Scroogey when doling out episodes. Lena Dunham’s HBO series was launched less than a year ago, on April 15, 2012, and we’re already about to see No. 20. That’s like a cable episode avalanche.

At the same time, “Girls” feels like a veteran TV series. Since its premiere, the New York-set comedy has won five Emmy nominations and inspired what seems like a decade’s worth of close analysis, hot debate, spiky parodies, and passionate love and hate and loving-to-hate. It has struck a cultural nerve, intentionally or not, raising issues and hackles and serving as a springboard for Big Statements by older writers hungry to define people in their mid-20s. “Girls” has been accused of characterizing a lost generation, of celebrating a shallow generation, and of not accurately representing a generation at all.

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Next to all the ink and pixels spilled over “Girls,” though, there sits a small-sized, uneven, raw series that refuses to be what viewers want it to be. Some wish it would be a lighter sitcom; others expect the characters to be more likable and redemptive. But as the sophomore season unfolded, it was clear that Dunham would steadfastly continue to pursue her own tough vision of a young woman and her friends mired in narcissism, identity confusion, and awkwardness. She did take in one criticism of the show — that, for New York, “Girls” was too white — but then dispensed with her new black character, played by Donald Glover, in episode 2, as the sheltered Hannah stumbled over her own nascent political correctness and tokenism. It was a typically abrasive and cringey “Girls” plot turn.

As with her movie “Tiny Furniture,” Dunham is still making “Girls” into a drama with downbeat humor more than a straight-up comedy. The season had many ups and downs in quality, but consistently the best material was the more serious stuff. The half-hour that focused entirely on Hannah’s one-night-stand with an older man was loaded with well-earned pathos, and the two uncomfortable dinners in episode 4 — at Hannah’s and at a steakhouse with Thomas-John’s parents — were riveting examples of complex group dynamics and incivility. The nasty breakup between Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and the absurd Thomas-John and, later, the friction between Jessa and her father, effectively brought us inside Jessa’s lost, fight-and-flight soul.

Some of the most interesting and painful scenes this season involved the reemergence of Hannah’s OCD, as her book anxiety grew. Watching her pull her underwear from her butt eight times was classic uncomfortable “Girls” humor, but the gist of the OCD story line has been sad. Last Sunday’s episode, in which Hannah essentially tried to prod or punish her brain with a Q-tip, was excruciating, as her loneliness hit an all-time low, and her self-esteem, too. In that half-hour, Dunham delivered some of her most impressive acting work so far in the series, both dramatically intense and yet — “Can I keep the Q-tip?” — morosely funny.

Christopher Abbott and Allison Williams as Charlie and Marnie.

JESSICA MIGLIO/HBO

Christopher Abbott and Allison Williams as Charlie and Marnie.

Also of interest this season: We got to see both Marnie (Allison Williams) and Adam (Adam Driver) hit lows, too. Marnie has been thrown for a loop by her ex’s success and her own failures, culminating in her angry song to him at his party. Finally she has overcome her impulse to be a perfect, good girl. And Adam had an alcoholic slip after running into Hannah on the street last week, which led up to his humiliation of Natalia, the woman he was dating. It was a bleak, take-no-prisoners scene, as Adam’s abusive role play rose in a flash and quickly crossed the line. It was the kind of material that guarantees that “Girls” will never be “Sex and the City.”

Often, when Dunham edged the show into happier comedy, she came up short. Shoshanna is so overly stylized, and given such parodic delivery by Zosia Mamet, that she seems to be in a separate series from the rest of the cast. And that disconnect extends most clumsily to Shoshanna’s boyfriend, Ray (Alex Karpovsky). I assume Shoshanna is supposed to be funny, as she ends every sentence with a question mark, but this season she became irritating and repetitive. Some of the story lines with Elijah (Andrew Rannells) also missed the comedy mark, such as the night he and Hannah snorted a bunch of cocaine. It was precious and cartoonish.

“Girls” isn’t “Louie,” Louis C.K.’s more mature FX series. But the shows have a similar short-story style, with episodes that can feel somewhat like New York non sequiturs. And both are unswerving in their willingness to be dark and to extend that darkness to sexual encounters. “Girls” is an inconsistent ride, but when it hits its mark, which it did many times this season, you know you’re watching something honest and unique.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Matthew
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