“What’s wrong?” asks Ray (Alex Karpovsky) of a sullen Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) during the season one finale of Girls. “Everyone’s a dumb whore,” she responds, still reeling from the thought that she has accidentally worn white to her cousin Jessa’s (Jemima Kirke) surprise wedding.
Her assessment of the situation rings somewhat true, then and now. Season one left Hannah chasing an ambulance, Marnie making out with a wedding officiant, Shoshanna losing her virginity and Jessa marrying a never-worse Chris O’Dowd after a week-long courtship. Girls has been praised for its honesty, its unabashed stance on 21st century feminism, its punch line-less but comedy-rich dialogue and the stripped-down (often literally) performance of its lead actress, director and writer, Lena Dunham. But as much as the girls of Girls are only “almost getting it kind of together,” so was this premiere . Not all plot threads continue realistically from last season, attempts to diversify the cast are fairly transparent and Dunham’s dedication to her characters from the first season now takes a backseat to a desperate stringing-along of the plot.
MARNIE — Marnie (Allison Williams) is fresh off the two cruelest break-ups in the history of ever: her mid-sex dumping of her college boyfriend, Charlie, and her brutal parting of ways with best friend, Hannah are devastating. Marnie is much more interesting as a newly-unemployed single woman; her almost-sex scene with Hannah’s gay ex-boyfriend (and current roommate), Elijah (Andrew Rannells), represents Williams’ biggest challenge yet. “How am I supposed to get a hard-on when you’re rolling your eyes?” asks Elijah, and the scene is shut down with characteristic Girls discomfort. While Elijah is still a caricature of the stereotypical gay BFF who really adds nothing, Williams kills the scene designed to reveal Marnie as a girl whose self-esteem is a little too reliant on the trappings of “grown-up” success and the security of a long-term relationship.
JESSA — Jessa gets a full 30 seconds of screen time. She has dreads. She is married to a yucky yuppie named Thomas John and doesn’t even know his address. That’s the joke. Her all-star moment of season one was proudly declaring, in a post-sex state of dishevelment to her virgin cousin “That was me proving that I cannot be smoted. I am unsmotable.” I will personally feel cheated if they don’t let us see who this girl really is, aside from a British accent and a bunch of uber-cool maxi dresses.
SHOSHANNA — The “least virginy-virgin,” Sex in the City-worshipping Shoshanna, who once accidentally smoked crack, may just be the sanest character this time around. She rocks a fascinator to Hannah’s housewarming party. Of her virginity, she doesn’t miss it; it just feels like something’s “miss-ing.” While her self-help book and reality TV opinions on love have been naïve contrasts to the post-sexual revolution platitudes of the other girls, her assertions are the only ones in this episode that seem genuine, and she alone diagnoses herself and others with honesty.
To her virginity-taker, Ray, she snaps and shouts, “You don’t wanna date me? That’s fine because I don’t wanna date you either. Because I only want to date people who want to date me because that is called self-respect.” But then he kisses her and spills his beer all over the pile of coats. Shosh would call that “adorbs,” and so would I. I want a lot of help coming up with a good celebrity-couple name for them, though. And if they have to break up, I want a conciliatory Inglourious Basterds reference.
HANNAH — In an MVP break-up scene in season one, Hannah (Dunham) shouts at Adam (Driver) before he is hit by a truck, “I’m more scared than most people are when they say that they’re scared. I’m like the most scarred person who’s alive.” But when we return to Hannah, she’s calling all the shots in a new relationship-sans-label with Community’s Donald Glover, a black Republican named Sandy with whom she forbids usage of the word “love” in any context. Their political opposition is set up to be a sitcom-ish clash, with Ayn Rand jokes and verbal sparring between Sandy and Hannah’s motley assortment of liberal friends. (They all went to Oberlin, guys.)
Hannah’s new emotional responsibility and disdain for Adam is a little confusing. Wasn’t it just two episodes ago that she swooned at his backhanded confessions of affection, and even declared, “No one could ever hate me as much as I hate myself, okay? So any mean thing someone’s gonna think of to say about me, I’ve already said to me, about me, probably in the last half hour”? It’s not that I don’t want to see her happy eventually, but I’d prefer to understand the process. Dunham has said, “My experience of when friends are called together over a traumatic issue is that they’re there for each other, but also completely obsessed with what it means to them.” As a viewer, I want to be there for Hannah, but I’m also completely obsessed with what her experiences mean for me.
“I always thought the saddest feeling in life is when you’re dancing in a really joyful way and you hit your head on something. It’s sad and embarrassing and I feel like Hannah’s entire life is like dancing and then hitting her head on something,” Dunham summarized in a Hit Fix interview. That feeling is where Hannah’s, and the collective girls’, best moments come from. In season one, Hannah’s “joyful” dancing to Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” with Marnie after finding out she has an STD? Perfect. Season two hasn’t had a stellar moment like this yet, messily filling diversity quotas with one-dimensional characters and making us play catch-up with the plot, but thankfully there’s the hope that this is just Dunham’s inexperience with the series format, as this is her first project away from film. (Tiny Furniture. Watch it. Watch it now.)
If it can maintain itself in season two, what Girls has over every other comedy is the way that it lets its characters succeed and fail in the subtle arcs of gritty realism. The dialogue can be shockingly witty and entertaining, but the characters can also fall completely inarticulate when they become vulnerable. There are not a lot of big and triumphant, nor melodramatic or devastating, moments — just a lot of simple ups and downs, a lot of stress and embarrassment, a lot of tenderness and joy, a lot of “I love you’s” and a lot of “dumb whores.”