Let's be glad that it's been nearly a year since Lena Dunham's lightning rod of a show Girls first premiered. Because now that most of the clamor surrounding the show's cultural identity has died down, we can focus on Girls as an actual, you know, television show. (Which returns to HBO this Sunday at 9 p.m.) And, based on the four episodes of the second season that I've seen, it's still a lively and smart one, and one that seems blessedly less concerned with defining an era or a generation and instead more relaxed in its own particular conventions, and those of the broader TV world. Yes, Dunham and crew dare to treat this like a mere television series, and that's what we should do as well.
Season two picks up a month or so after the first season finale's fuzzy fallout. Dunham's Hannah has technically split up with her oddball, aggro-emo boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver), though she's constantly tending to him while he recovers from the broken leg he suffered after getting hit by a truck in the finale (while arguing with Hannah, hence her guilt). Adam professes his enduring love, Hannah resists, things quickly escalate. Meanwhile Hannah has taken up with a new fella, played by Community's Donald Glover, a smart guy who unfortunately happens to be a Republican. And, y'know, is also black, perhaps a too-obvious two-birds-with-one-stone response to complaints about the show's diversity. Though I suppose that obviousness could be deliberate, a way of Dunham showing her critics that, hey, if you want easy, inorganic fixes to problems of diversity, here's what they're gonna look like. Whatever the case is, the issue is really only addressed in a single onscreen argument that's played for laughs, then the show moves somehow both glumly and breezily along to another set of problems.
Hannah no longer lives with Marnie, the somewhat uptight gallery girl played by Allison Williams, and instead is rooming with her now-gay former college boyfriend, Elijah. He's played by the downright wonderful Andrew Rannells, here able to employ far more smarts and subtlety than he's allowed on The New Normal. Elijah is selfish and vain, but he's also smart, and a good time. In an episode in which Hannah decides to do coke for the first time so she can write a blog post for some sort of Vice-like website (note-perfectly parodied in one scene), Rannells is her spirited companion. You genuinely believe they are friends, even if, more so than in season one, the comic stakes are higher; there's more absurdity, more humor for humor's sake. Dunham gets a chance to show us some true comedic flair, still as unabashed as ever while running around the city in a mesh tank top with nothing underneath. The cocaine episode is so far the season's strongest, largely because it throws itself gleefully into a traditionally sitcom-y situation without abandoning the knowingness and gentle, youthful wisdom that makes Girls such an appealing show.
Even Marnie gets in on the over-the-top antics, reconnecting with Jorma Taccone's pompous and sexually strange artist, who we met in a single episode last season. Interestingly, the girl who seemed to have things mostly together in the first season — nice boyfriend, career-track job — is now the listless one, unemployed and unsure of herself, taking strange risks and trying in vain to realign her expectations. Williams plays all these beats well, if a little flatly. She excels when she's with Dunham, the two crafting a credibly prickly friendship, an intense one that has soured and weakened because of one big fight and, crucially, because they are no longer roommates. There's a sweet and bitterly familiar scene in which Marnie complains that she never sees Hannah anymore; she says she feels like they aren't as close as they once were, to which Hannah responds, with insensitivity disguised as social honesty (a common theme on this show), that of course they're still close, maybe not as close because they don't live together anymore, but still close. It's that bitter "as" that stings and resonates, dredging up memories of a particular post-college anxiety; the realization that time and the bigger world will unavoidably erode some things you once thought absolute and forever.
The show's lesser two leads, Zosia Mamet's Shoshanna and Jemima Kirke's Jessa, are the inverse of one another. Shoshanna is tentatively and sweetly entering a serious relationship with Ray (Alex Karpovsky), the pessimistic older satellite friend of the crew, while Jessa is floundering in her brand-new quickie marriage to wealthy finance dweeb Thomas John (Chris O'Dowd). Jessa and Thomas are painfully uncomfortable around one another, clearly beginning to regret a wildly impulsive decision, though each is pretending things are hunky-dory. This tension erupts in one terrifically nasty scene, followed immediately by the season's most small and touching grace note. Girls is very good at the game of pushing and pulling back, balancing Dunham's perkily downbeat musings on the social pettiness and futilities of these Brooklyn kids' milieu with a more straightforwardly sentimental heart. Though these people, these girls, sometimes behave awfully and selfishly and rashly, Dunham wants us to like them — privileged peccadillos and all. And we do. Or at least I do. Girls isn't a new generation's Sex and the City in quite the way we once maybe thought it was. It's actually more akin to Louis C.K.'s Louie, another show that despairs about humanity's messy, everyday nonsense, but ultimately finds a glimmer of warmth or hope under the tarnish.
In the second season, Dunham has steered her show into slightly more familiar television waters, but she navigates them deftly. She's got the remarkably calm hand of a pro but the wide-eyed inventiveness of her age; confronted by a confusing and often obnoxious world, of which they are undoubtedly a part, Hannah and the rest of Dunham's characters suffer and complain like anyone else. But they still also endearingly cling to the conviction that somewhere not too far out there is a concrete, complete, and satisfying life awaiting them. They simply have to find it. We know they're mistaken, that most people never stop fumbling around as the goalpost moves and moves, but it's oddly heartening to watch anyway. Maybe most of us in the real world still haven't found our best selves quite yet, but these kids just might. It's TV, after all, where anything is possible.