Lena Dunham spurred predictable controversy with her election video for President Obama, which is appropriate, since her HBO series “Girls” is almost equally polarizing. There’s no doubt the 26-year-old Dunham (who writes, directs and produces, as well as stars) is a formidable talent, though the hubbub surrounding the show’s debut had as much to do with demography (Millennials!) and geography (Manhattan!) as merit. Season two finds more of the same, with strong moments surrounded by lots of irritating ones. As a critic, “Girls” is that odd duck that shouldn’t be missed, and at times, can barely be watched.
The first four episodes are driven (to the extent there’s any real narrative momentum at all) by Dunham’s character, Hannah, having reconnected with her college boyfriend Elijah (“The Book of Mormon” and “The New Normal’s” Andrew Rannells), who came out after they broke up. Her attempts to “repurpose” him, as she colorfully puts it, as a gay friend/roommate runs into complications, as does pretty much everything else as these twentysomethings claw to make sense of relationships and find steady (much less, fulfilling) work.
There’s no denying Dunham has brought a fresh perspective to her cohort in this age of easy hookups and AIDS cocktails, texting and sexting, student loans and marginal prospects, social media and personal disconnection. “You’re my main hang,” Hannah’s sometimes/sort-of boyfriend, Adam (Adam Driver), says, and to him, that’s supposed to sweep her off her feet.
Still, those who have raved about the series appear to be grading on a generous curve. Yes, it’s bracing to see sexual encounters that are awkward, unexpected, meaningless and (mostly) just plain bad. But while Dunham captures a generational voice, as her aspiring writer put it in season one, she still hasn’t figured out much coherent to say about it. Even a sequence in which Hannah agonizes over whether it’s acceptable to sleep with a Republican never gets much more provocative than that.
Nor does it help that everyone over 30 or with a penis comes across as Charlie Brown’s parents or mildly nuts, though to be fair, Dunham isn’t much more charitable in dealing with her central quartet.
Said foursome consists of Hannah and friends Marnie (Allison Williams), Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), and the Hannah-Marnie friendship — exploring how bonds can be tested after college, resulting in those inevitable “You’re a lousy friend!” exchanges — is the only one that exhibits a consistent dose of humanity.
The fourth episode, meanwhile, does reflect a modest step forward, thanks mostly to one genuinely laugh-out-loud scene involving the free-spirited Jessa and an uncomfortable dinner with the parents of her well-heeled husband (Chris O’Dowd).
Taking inventory, “Girls” has become so buzzworthy in the eyes of a youth-worshipping media, and caters to such an elusive younger demo (even if they haven’t uniformly embraced the show) as to be a clear winner for HBO in fulfilling its cultural-zeitgeist mission, despite a relatively small audience.
That said, there’s something almost poetic about the show’s second season being stuck in a rut mirroring these young women’s plight. Because much like its characters’ brave exterior, “Girls” gets by, yes, but exhibits few signs of truly maturing.