HBO’s ‘Girls’ starting to get their act together

01/12/2013 6:34 PM

05/16/2014 8:46 PM

Earlier this week, my sister asked me to give her the gist of “Girls.” I dashed off a quick email, copied and pasted below:

“Girls is like a more crunchy version of ‘Sex and the City’ where the girls are younger and poorer. The first time I heard them talk I totally flashed back to being 24.”

Totally.

That’s an unfair comparison to both shows, of course. “Sex and the City” was designed as escapism, and “Girls” wouldn’t exist if the economy hadn’t tanked. HBO’s Emmy-winning wry comedy does have four female friends living in New York City with wildly disparate views on sex and love, but the similarities don’t exactly pile up after that.

If anything, series creator Lena Dunham brings to life an anti-Carrie Bradshaw, though Hannah Horvath is also a writer with an oddball wardrobe.

You simply would not catch Sarah Jessica Parker sitting in bed and cutting her hair with blunt kitchen shears in front of a YouTube video. Even when Hannah puts on the most flattering of her ill-fitting print dresses, her forehead is still shiny.

“Girls” had a 10-episode opening season that redefined what could be accomplished in a half-hour show. Its four shockingly relatable friends are trapped in a slow-motion, post-college reality check: Unpaid internships to nowhere, friends with benefits minus the friendship, petty roommate annoyances that mushroom.

At the end of last season, best friends Marnie (Allison Williams) and Hannah decided not to live together anymore. Hannah’s raw-edged, unhinged boyfriend Adam (“Lincoln’s” Adam Driver, equal parts magnetic and disgusting here) was hit by a truck after an epic sidewalk fight in which Driver forever endeared himself to me by shrieking, “You chase me like I’m the Beatles for six months, then I get comfortable and you shrug?”

Adam resurfaces in a thigh-high cast, just what he needs to justify more over-the-top petulance. Taking his frightening emotionality to a new level, he can always be counted on to do or say something awful very soon. When Hannah points out his jackass tendencies, he explains, “When you love someone, you don’t have to be nice all the time.” Dear God, woman, run.

To her credit, Hannah has stiffened her spine a bit, partly because she wants more time to spend with her new boyfriend Sandy (Donald Glover of “Community”).

Take a tip from Hannah: A good way to seduce a Republican is to knock on his door late at night and ask to borrow his copy of “The Fountainhead.”

Of course there’s a disastrous end coming for this pairing, but it’s not the worst decision Hannah makes in this season’s opening episodes. She’s still sleeping with men for “the experience,” and the show might take some heat for all the coke that gets consumed with no after-school-special lesson attached.

Dunham, who also writes and directs episodes, took a lot of cheap shots for showing her average body in the first season, most from male critics who seemed to feel that they should be able to control which actresses get naked. Dunham obviously couldn’t care less. If anything, she’s taunting her detractors, stripping down more often, devoid of self-consciousness.

The nudity, drug use and frank bedroom scenes are just one reason “Girls” doesn’t feel like any other show on TV right now, even those sharing demographic territory. Fellow deadpan Brooklynites the “2 Broke Girls” are making fancy cupcakes and sleeping with their lipstick on over at CBS.

Cece and Jess are funny and edgy at a manic pace on “New Girl,” but their conflicts exist to titillate dudes on couches, like the breast-slapping scene last October. Elsewhere on Fox, snappy dialogue brings “The Mindy Project” closer, but it steers clear of true drama, something “Girls” relishes.

But if “Girls” is stripped of most pretense, not all of its heroines are. Aggressively free-spirited Jessa (Jemima Kirke), the crunchiest girl by far, married an entitled financier on a whim the last time we saw her. She returns from the honeymoon in a cloud of patchouli, and gets right back to dispensing her patented blend of self-congratulation, cynical politics and actual advice.

“Just read the newspaper,” she instructs Hannah as the two play with a pile of soon-to-be-returned puppies. “Just read one newspaper.”

But despite her self-assured gliding about in loosely knitted tops, Jessa doesn’t settle easily into life as Mrs. Thomas-John. Her behavior at a family dinner provokes a lot more response than that time she spilled wine on his carpet. “Girls” never convinced me that Jessa cared a whit for this uptight twit, which means she has gold-digger tendencies or borderline personality disorder.

At the other end of the risk-taking spectrum, newly unemployed Marnie is turning her anxieties inward, increasingly fretful and not eating enough. Her issues with food come out at a that-explains-a-lot lunch with her mom (Rita Wilson being deliciously awful).

Marnie is so lost without Hannah, her job and longtime boyfriend Charlie that she manages to sleep with the last person on Earth she should. She’s also miserably discovering that when you break up with someone after your social lives have entwined, that person doesn’t just go away. Charlie insists on bringing around his rebound fling Audrey, who oozes nastiness. The only thing Audrey likes better than gaudy hair accessories is storming out of parties in a snit.

“So,” Marnie asks her in a friend’s living room, swilling booze with a straight face, “where do you get your headbands?”

That’s just the precursor to a dinner party so cringe-worthy, it rivals last summer’s painful mealtime on “Breaking Bad.”

“Girls” can be hilarious, but the funny jabs come as part of its characters’ painful struggle to redefine their friendships after college.

Hannah’s circle, despite everyone’s social media and texting addictions, are rarely truly honest with one another unless they’re angry. With so many ways to communicate, no one has the courage to speak up.

Except, of course, Shoshanna.

Zosia Mamet continues to be a revelation as the painfully earnest, stunningly blunt and totally lovable anti-hipster of the group. This season, she retains her little-girl dresses, fascinators and facepalm-inducing slang (“Totes!”) but her confidence continues to build, even though she can’t quite find her footing with the first man she’s ever slept with.

“Girls” peels away the layers of its leading men, but with one exception, they reveal themselves as the same flawed specimens you thought they were in the first place. Ray (Alex Karpovsky), who recently deflowered Shoshanna, is the exception. Karpovsky was a scene-stealer in Season 1, and he gets more play now as Shoshanna’s conflicted love interest and as the group’s elder statesman of cynicism at 33.

The other guys on “Girls,” all totally unacceptable in different ways, are part of the women’s self-perpetuating cycles of denial. Charlie, Adam, Sandy and Thomas-John aren’t causing the girls’ upheaval and uncertainty. They’re just another symptom.

Hannah is gradually growing up, but she still has her insecurities, an inability to take real risks in her writing and a fear of success. Dunham, it would appear, does not.

Where to watch

Season 2 of “Girls” premieres at 8 Sunday night on HBO. Season 1 is available on DVD, OnDemand and through digital download on iTunes and gaming networks.

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