“Girls” is back for a third season, and I have a review of the premiere coming up just as soon as I distribute a zine of provocative cartoons…
The “Girls” press tour session on Thursday provided yet another reminder of how easy it is for the discussion around this particular show to become toxic, to the point where it feels less less like the current state of TV commentary than the current state of political discourse: hostile and rigid, with each side talking past each other, incapable of seeing what the other sees. (Even though most of us can agree that Hannah is a self-destructive narcissist, there remains much disagreement over how much the show endorses her behavior, and of course over how much people want to watch a show about such a character.)
What a relief, then, to have season 3 kick off with a pair of strong, funny episodes like “Females Only” and “Truth Or Dare,” which not only felt like an interesting response to season 2, but like a potent reminder that “Girls” can function simply as a television show, and not a sociological Rorschach test.
I loved the second season, but it was a notable deviation from the first: darker and more formally experimental. As fascinating as I found episodes like “One Man’s Trash,” “Boys” and “Video Games,” doing three episodes in the middle of a 10-episode season that sidelined much of the ensemble meant that the character arcs had to start and stop abruptly. It felt like too many of the problems Ray and Shoshana’s relationship, for instance, developed off camera, and while I loved the OCD storyline at the end of the season, I think the show could have introduced it more smoothly. And because Hannah was off in her head so much of the time, and because her head was a particularly unhappy place for most of those 10 episodes, the show eased up on the comic throttle quite a bit. All told, it felt like the sum of the parts was greater than the whole.
These two episodes, and the other four I’ve seen from the new season, feel both lighter – Hannah and Adam as a genuine couple is a fantastic comic dynamic – and much more of a piece. “Truth or Dare,” for instance, is another road trip episode, but one that uses nearly all the cast (Ray is absent, and Marnie only appears in one scene) and that feels like an episode of “Girls” that just happens to be taking place outside of Brooklyn.
After all the damage everyone suffered in season 2, we open in a period of healing. Adam and Hannah are back together, and this is again the best side of Adam: he hates interacting with her friends(*), but he’s also good at it when he puts in the effort (note his awkward but sincere offer to take Jessa to a 12-step meeting), and he’s clearly been very good for Hannah. Though Marnie’s baffled by Charlie abruptly dumping her (more on that below), she’s getting her own place again (with help from her mom), and she and Hannah are getting along well enough that she can work at the coffee shop. And though Jessa, as usual, moves through life like she’s Godzilla strolling through a miniature Tokyo, she and Hannah at least have a good heart-to-heart, and you get a sense that Jessa learned more about herself during her rehab stint than she would admit to anyone else.
(*) Several scenes in “Truth or Dare” made me wish that the next time the show does an episode with only a couple of castmembers, it’s just Adam and Shoshana trying to make sense of one another.
As always, “Girls” remains extremely self-aware. It’s not meta to the degree that “Community” is every week, but a scene like Natalia and her friend tearing into Hannah and Adam for being awful, selfish people living a “urine-soaked life” was definitely written by someone who knows how angry her show makes some viewers. Similarly, Hannah’s whiny ramble in the car about their road trip – “It’s just so similar to other road trips I’ve seen in various media. It’s like a Don Henley song.” – was amusing both because Hannah Horvath is obsessed with being the most unique soul on the planet, but also because a show written in the distinct voice Dunham and Jenni Konner have given it is never going to feel like a rehash of things you’ve seen in various media. Even a familiar trope like a road trip is going to come out as a “Girls” road trip, whether that involves Hannah lying fetal in the woods listening to “This American Life” or Shoshana interrogating Adam about his favorite utensils.
So pleased to have “Girls” the TV show back, even if “Girls” the cultural lightning rod comes with it.
Some other thoughts:
* What a terrific, eclectic bunch of guest stars spread across these two episodes (above and beyond returnees like Rita Wilson and Bob Balaban), including Amy Schumer (whose Comedy Central sketch show is terrific) as Natalia’s “feisty shiksa” friend, Danielle Brooks (Taystee from “Orange Is the New Black”) as would-be lesbian Laura, Richard E. Grant as Jessa’s lecherous rehab pal (and looking very much like a slightly older, cleaned-up version of Jessa’s dad), Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth as another rehab patient and Debra Monk as the rehab director.
* Chris Abbott abruptly quit the show after season 2 wrapped, which puts Marnie in the same confused state about Charlie’s absence as some audience members no doubt are. And Marnie being pathetic – here letting the taco fall out of her mouth – plays better to Allison Williams’ comic strengths.
* The second episode concludes with a terrific new Jenny Lewis song, “Completely Not Me.”
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com