The gloom that settled over the second season of “Girls” started as a slight shadow. It crept across the weeks until it enveloped every aspect of Lena Dunham’s exceedingly well-written, thrift shop-decorated New York universe. While we were distracted by the sex, cocaine experimentation, and Patrick Wilson, the lives of the messy and affluent protagonists started chipping and snapping. And that’s even before the Q-tip incident.
The love lives of the quartet were crumbling. That’s to be expected. When you care more about what goes into your smoothie than maintaining a relationship, people tend to up and leave. What was not expected, and perhaps most disturbing, was the unraveling of the friendships that had provided a slight anchor to the mercurial story lines.
Dunham’s Hannah, Allison Williams’s Marnie, and Jemima Kirke’s Jessa all found themselves out-of-breath with desperation, and their friendships evaporated into ghosts.
Fast forward to Sunday’s season three opener: It’s a sunny morning that feels like a clean-up session from an out-of-control party the night before. Adam (Adam Driver) is taking care of Hannah, and there is equilibrium in their relationship as he gives her pills for her obsessive-compulsive disorder. A defeated Marnie refuses to stop talking about her breakup with Charlie (Christopher Abbott, who left the show after a creative dustup with Dunham), and Jessa is spitting aspersions in rehab. It’s not Rainbow Brite and ponies, but it’s as if Dunham hit her creative reset button, fixed her hair, and started looking at how these characters would begin to mature — with the exception of Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), who remains a chatty accessory to it all.
A now-medicated Hannah celebrates her 25th birthday and begins to find stability with her book project. It’s a welcome reprieve from sour notes and catastrophes of season two. This is still not conventional TV, but season three gets closer, and that’s not an entirely bad thing. The cringe ratio is down — slightly — and characters begin to emerge in unexpected ways. Even Adam’s Keanu Reeves-esque man-child becomes an almost (please note I said almost) sympathetic character when his off-the-rails sister shows up. Angry Ray (Alex Karpovsky) mellows just a bit after his breakup with Shoshanna.
The self-absorption has not abated, but I still refuse to buy into the assumption that these characters can be unlikable because they are spoiled millennials flitting about the outer boroughs. Dunham constructs them as people with flaws. So, they’re simply people. Our disillusionment and insecurities shove us down dark hallways we’d prefer not to visit, but we go there, just like these girls. And like these characters, we wait for tidy endings, but the closest we may get is an Aimee Mann song at the end of the day.
During a “Saturday Night Live” spoof of “Girls” earlier this season, Tina Fey showed up as Blerta, an impoverished woman of indeterminable foreign descent who joins the “Girls” as the fifth friend. Her presence was intended to demonstrate the frivolity of the characters’ problems. She explains that, like Hannah, she also has OCD. But hers is old cow disease, which means an old cow bites your hand, it gets infected, and you wind up with a rubber hand.
I’m not saying that the problems on “Girls” compare to those of a dirt-poor sustenance farmer named Blerta, but I am saying that Dunham’s characters are more than millennial stereotypes, and it’s time that they be respected as such.Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.