Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Girls Season Two Review

Coming off a flurry of awards for its purportedly unvarnished look at the quarter life crises of upper class Brooklynites, the uneven second season of Girls largely trimmed its sails of the boundary pushing it was lauded for and fell back on a surprisingly conservative view of love and life. We pick up with Hannah and her friends just a few weeks after the end of Season 1, which, if you need a quick refresher, ended with Adam getting hit by a bus, Marnie wallowing in self-pity, Jessa heading off on a fancy honeymoon with a husband she hardly knew, and Shoshana taking up with Ray, the jaded thirty something manager of a local coffee shop. 

If the main characters are, as the advertising for season two claimed, "kinda, sorta getting it together," the road to that destination is awfully circuitous. Jessa's marriage predictably flames out, she exists stage left during a weekend visit she and Hannah take to see her absentee father and his latest wife and is never heard from again, her presence in the show something akin to a cameo plus. Meanwhile, Marnie's "worst year ever" that started with her ditching her eunuch of a boyfriend (Charile) spirals when she is fired from her job as an art gallery assistant, plummets further when Booth, the pretentious artist for whom she has carried a torch, treats her like the hired help instead of a serious girlfriend and she watches Charlie achieve professional success at an Internet-based start-up. Oh, she also has sex with Elijah, Hannah's gay roommate, so there's that.  

But these drama swirls pale to what Hannah goes through. First, Dunham slyly responds to her critics by having Hannah get involved with a black Republican law student. [1] When that ends, she has a weekend fling with a much older, soon-to-be divorced man that results in her having a meltdown over her own unhappiness and acknowledgment of her desire for love and intimacy. [2] Hovering in the background is Adam, who she cuts ties with when he shows up at her door, resulting in his being arrested and Elijah, who goes from gay husband to ex-roomie quicker than the two of them can have a cocaine-infused night of partying that results in the accidental reveal of his tryst with Marnie. 

Even as Hannah is navigating these wonky relationships, her career is finally looking up. She is contracted to write an e-book, giving her the opportunity to be a voice of her generation. [3] How you feel about Season 2 is probably animated in large part by how you reacted to Hannah's out-of-nowhere OCD affliction as the pressure from completing the book consumed her. I did not buy it, thought the acting was weak and was a convenient deus ex machina for how the season ended (about which more will be discussed below). To turn Hannah into an unstable obsessive who must do all things in eights, jams a Q-Tip into her ear canal until it bleeds and twitches involuntarily with little suggestion that she had this malady did not register with me. [4]  This is not to make light of people who suffer from severe OCD or are debilitated by its symptoms, but having aimlessly drifted for a season and a half because she was ready to be a writer of importance and not slum it in a law office or coffee shop (though she did retain her part-time job at Grumpy's), to have Hannah fail so miserably when an opportunity was afforded to her rang hollow.

Of the other Girls, only Marnie is given anything interesting to work with, but here, the toggling from upscale Hooters girl at a high end club to her ill-conceived dreams of being a singer felt like the writers were grasping for plot points instead of going for something organic. Ultimately, Marnie looks like nothing more than a young woman seeking to attach herself to a trophy male - first, Booth, the odious and self-centered artist who whines about how much he hates his friends because he has no way of knowing if they actually like him or his celebrity; and, when that fails, looping back to the now self-confident (and wealthy) Charlie. Shoshana, on the other hand, tires of Ray's constant negativity and, being a 21 (?) year old, realizes she has other options. You don't say. 

Indeed, the most salutary thing about the second season of Girls is the deepening of character development for Adam and Ray, who star in what was the strongest episode of the season, Boys, a sort of "cop-buddy" themed caper where they travel to the faraway and exotic Island of Staten to return a dog Adam stole. Along the way, they neatly capture issues of male insecurity, longing and romantic confusion. Adam may want to think of Hannah as a Tweety doll you win at a carnival and get stuck carrying around all night, but he is also honest enough to know that she and he are both difficult people and they worked, in part, because she accepted his brand of difficult. Ray, as the only character on the other side of 30, is given the weight of lost opportunities, roads not taken, and professional achievement denied. [5]

So it was surprising to say the least that the second season wrapped in such a conventional way. Girls made its name by taking chances, showing characters in messy (and often unflattering) ways and of course, all that raw sexuality, but the finale could have been cribbed from When Harry Met Sally with updated technology. First, Marnie storms out of a brunch with Charlie, only to have him come after her, resulting in a heartfelt conversation where she expresses her desire to do nothing more than wake up next to him every morning and make him a snack each night. [6] Hannah, threatened with a lawsuit if she doesn't complete her e-book, reaches out to Adam, who, being incapable of having a "normal" (i.e., without sexual degradation) relationship with Natalya, pulls a "Harry," sprinting through the streets of New York City (while FaceTiming), breaking in the door to Hannah's apartment, and scooping her in his arms. [7]

Huh? How is it that a show that started with STD scares, abortions, and bedroom fetishes came to embrace a conventional (read: Hollywood) worldview about love, complete with a cheesy montage and shameless rip offs of perhaps the most famous "rom com" in cinematic history? Perhaps we all missed the central conceit of the show - that below the surface of all those emotions being tossed around the room like a 4 year old having a temper tantrum, all these "girls" (and boys for that matter) want is the fairy tale ending. And that's fine so far as it goes, but makes all the sturm und drang that attends the show's publicity much ado about nothing. 


1.   One of the main critiques of Girls is its lack of diversity.
2.  Dunham cannot satisfy some of the "haters." The episode, One Man's Trash (S2E5), was criticized as unbelievable because of the disparity in appearance between the man cast as Dunham's love interest (Patrick Wilson) and her. See e.g.,
3.  Pilot, S1E1.
4.  Admittedly, my knowledge of Girls is not encyclopedic, there may have been reference to her OCD at some point, but it did not leave an imprint in my mind and was not a major plot point in Season 1. 
5.  Ray's arc is also wrapped neatly by the end of the season. While he loses Shoshana, the owner of Grumpy's offers him the opportunity to run a new branch of the coffee shop while taking doctoral classes on the weekend. Convenient. 
6.  This is a paraphrase of the famous line from When Harry Met Sally where Harry tells Sally that he loves the fact that she is the first person he wants to talk to in the morning and the last person he wants to talk to at night. Marnie also makes some odd comment about wanting to have Charlie's "brown" babies, but we won't go there. 
7.  In the movie, Harry's dash through New York City takes place on New Year's Eve. 

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