Wednesday, March 20, 2013

GIRLS: Season 2 Review

HBO’s Girls is a unique entry into the canon of modern television.  Partly ushered in by HBO itself with shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, quality TV is closer than ever before to resembling movies both through the style of production and through their narrative structures.  AMC shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead follow this model to great success (both critically and commercially).  

 Perhaps one of the best characteristics of these types of shows is that they all, at least in some measure, subscribe to the auteur theory: the showrunners for all these programs are given more latitude for creative control than most shows have been given in the past.  When you consider the shows that I’ve just mentioned, they are all 1-hour dramas with a fairly specific angle, whether it’s the time period (the 60’s with Mad Men), the setting (post-apocalypse with The Walking Dead), or the plot (crime with The Wire, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos).  Each of these uses the stated device as a method of either character study or social commentary, or in some cases both.  

Lena Dunham as Hannah in Girls (eating, as usual).
Which is why Girls is such a fascinating entry onto this list: it is arguably the first in this modern era of television to apply the auteur approach to a half-hour “comedy.” When HBO and producer Judd Apatow handed Lena Dunham the reins to the show, I’m not sure they totally knew exactly what roads she would take them down, but they also knew that sometimes it’s better to trust the unique voice of one person rather than the stunted ideas of many.

Season one of the show was very good in its own right.  We spent a good deal of time getting to know the major characters, learning of their various plights in trying to survive the scene in Brooklyn New York as intermittently employed 20-somethings.  A lot of criticism of the show stems from this very specific setting and type of character.  “Why should we care about a bunch of whiny, hipster, liberal-arts college grads?” is the common refrain.  

But the reason I believe this works such wonders for the show is because of this old writing adage: “The best way to be universal is to be specific.” No, I’m not a hipster from Brooklyn who regularly attends warehouse parties or conceptual art shows.  I don’t have an online startup, and I’ve never been in an indie rock band.  But the show is a lot less about the specific setting of the show than it is about how the characters react to their situations and surroundings.  

Season two of the show, which just had its finale on Sunday, vastly improved upon a successful first season.  In a lot of ways, the script is flipped for many of the characters.  Hannah in S1 was dealing with being in a (bad) relationship and being unsuccessful in a myriad of jobs, while S2 found her (mostly) single and struggling with a little bit of success she found as a writer.  Similarly, Marnie had a steady job and a steady boyfriend in S1, and had neither in S2.  Adam’s character went from borderline psychotic behavior to having to act like a relatively normal human being, and then back around again.  

Adam Driver and Alex Karpovsky in Girls.
Inside the gaps of this rough outline of the character arcs this season were some of the most compelling single episodes of television I've seen in the last couple of years. One Man’s Trash had Hannah ending up spending a romantic(ish) weekend with a good looking upper-class doctor (Patrick Wilson), all taking place inside his Brooklyn Brownstone, and somehow bringing together many of the shows themes about love, happiness and contentment without even featuring any of the supporting cast members.  The episode Boys gave a chance for the male perspective in the series, having the characters Adam and Ray spending an afternoon tracking down the owner of a dog on Staten Island, and considering Adam Driver and Alex Karpovsky are arguably two of the best actors on the show, it was a hilarious and even emotional half hour of television.

The end of the season circles the characters back around to places they’ve already largely been, and stands (presumably purposefully) in stark contrast to the way the first season ended.  The first season ended with a shot of Hannah eating a piece of wedding cake on a beach she had accidentally ended up at after falling asleep on the train, alone and having broken up with Adam.  The end of season two has Adam running shirtless through the streets of Brooklyn to win her back.  Similarly, Marnie swallows her pride and, with some lines that sound like they are out of You’ve Got Mail, basically begs Charlie to take her back, after dumping him near the end of S1.

We expect characters on television to grow, to change, to shift. The character arcs on display here, however, thwart that troupe. We know that Adam and Hannah, and Charlie and Marnie, are not good together because we’ve seen them together and it was borderline toxic on both counts.  But young people make mistakes, and we do what is comfortable to us even when we know it’s the wrong thing for us.  

And that is what makes this show different from most others.  There’s a realness to it simply not found anywhere else on television right now.  At least four or five times an episode, I find myself nodding my head and smiling at the way Dunham’s writing captures a moment that I feel like I’ve been a part of before in my own life; whether it’s a situation, a thought, a line of dialogue, or even the inflection used in the way a character says something.

It can feel a tad like scientifically observing gorillas in the wild rather than actually empathizing with the characters, and in this way I understand why some people would not be inclined to watch the show.  But as long as Girls keeps being interested in the awkwardness, the strangeness, the hilariousness, and the pain of real situations and real people, I will be a fan.

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