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Review: Lena Dunham's 'Girls' courageous and contradictory

The Sunday season premiere finds 'Girls' confronting big changes and still nailing certain parts of modern culture with a smart, provocative frankness.

January 12, 2013|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Lena Dunham, Zosia Mamet and Allison Williams.
Lena Dunham, Zosia Mamet and Allison Williams. (Jessica Miglio / HBO )

The second season of "Girls" premieres Sunday on HBO and one can only hope that it will be allowed to do so without too much obsessive talk about creator-star Lena Dunham's penchant for nudity.

Which is almost immediately on display, to be sure — but with any luck, her naked form will now be treated as just another character tic, or comedic trope, like Kramer's abrupt exits and entrances or Liz Lemon's weird eating habits.

When the show debuted last year, critics responded to Dunham's willingness to display her perfectly normal young woman's body with such fervor that it bordered on fetishism. Many saw it as the ultimate act of bravery, symbolic of a new level of emotional frankness that made "Girls" something of a cause célèbre in critical circles.

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Dunham's insistence, in interviews, that she simply doesn't have an issue with her naked body, only intensified the belief that she was a brand new sort of creative force, a pop cultural Joan of Arc come to save her people from the bondage of stereotypes, antiquated expectations and the perceived general mediocrity of network television. Among those, that is, who didn't consider her as a pampered, white East Coast elitist living in an all-white enclave of narcissistic privilege disguised as urban-intellectualism, propped up by Judd Apatow and the good folks at HBO.

Seriously, the whole "Girls" thing got very weird there for a while.

So it's important to remember, as we head into the second season, that "Girls" is a half-hour comedy. Different, perhaps, in tone from other half-hour comedies of our acquaintance, but not so different in form and theme.

It is about a quartet of young women who have formed an alternative family to see them through the transition from college to adulthood. Lovers, bosses, parents, even spouses may come and go, the women may wound each other in battles of competing self-interest, but the bonds of adult friendship remain sturdy, the primal definition of love.

Which makes "Girls," at its core, just as sentimental and idealized a story as "Friends" or "Seinfeld," two shows to which it actually owes a great deal — an episode in which Hannah (Dunham) and her friends see who can go the longest without masturbating would not be outside the realm of thematic possibility.

Especially in the second season, which is more driven by calculated narrative conceit than the first. In this season, Hannah becomes roommates with her now-gay ex (Andrew Rannells) and tries cocaine, Marnie (Allison Williams) loses her job and hooks up with a crazy artist, Jessa (Jemima Kirke) copes with married life and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) gets a boyfriend.

This is not a criticism, this is just the nature of the beast. As is often the case with character-driven comedy, the first season relied on revelation rather than situation — the personalities and habits of each woman provided both the humor and the point of the story.

Hannah, the self-obsessed writer, who is aware of her self-fascination and fascinated by it as well; Marnie, lovely, responsible, controlling and conformist; Jessa, the now-wise, now-absurd free spirit; and Shoshanna, the sweet-hearted naif. Each, in turn, articulated her worldview, creating a kaleidoscope of a young womanhood that, though certainly limited by race and socioeconomics, was still a vivid and entrancing combination of colors and shapes.

Now that we know them, or think we do, we can watch them change. Or not, which means the writers must put them in more varied situations. It's no longer enough for them to be, now they must do.

One of the first things Hannah does is officially ditch Adam (Adam Driver), who ended last season being hit by a truck, for a new man who is black. This eventually allows her to give a speech about race, thereby answering the brief firestorm that occurred during the first season over the general pallor of the cast.

It's an absurd story line, culminating in an absurd moment, but that appears to be the point. A flippant response, perhaps, but certainly in keeping with the show's mission and merit.

Dunham, her writers and her cast continue to nail certain aspects of modern culture with tweet-ready but still insightful observations — a scene between Marnie and her mother, played by Rita Wilson, is particularly delicious, as is the general sendup of the "Will and Grace" sanctimony regarding the relationship between straight women and gay men. If Dunham often appears content to pierce and move on, well, so did Oscar Wilde.

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