Watching “Girls,” “Looking” and the new half-hour “Togetherness” (reviewed separately) in close proximity over the holidays revealed the game of small-ball HBO is playing with this 90-minute comedy block. All three shows represent variations on the same theme, with self-absorbed characters (twentysomethings, gays, yuppies, respectively) living and loving in an urban setting (New York, San Francisco, L.A.). That’s not to say the shows lack strengths, only that the sameness begins to feel a trifle numbing, perhaps foremost in “Girls” — which has been around the longest — and least with “Looking,” which fares best as the equivalent of one long, serialized indie movie.
For all the plaudits that have been heaped on Lena Dunham’s portrait of post-college angst, “Girls” continues to operate in a very limited range, both benefiting from, and in some ways handcuffed by, its generational specificity. So when Dunham’s Hannah rather boldly decided to enroll in the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the end of season three, what that yields in practice is essentially a replay of her experience working in an office, with Hannah again as the outspoken oddball whose frankness spills over into tactlessness, creating ill feelings with assorted members of her group.
In essence, the message is that the characters in “Girls” can only fully function in concert with each other. And those relationships are intriguing, if at times tedious: Marnie (Allison Williams) experiencing what it’s like to be the other woman thanks to an affair with her singing partner Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach); Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) braving the job market; and Jessa (Jemima Kirke) trying to stay sober while befriending Adam (Adam Driver) in Hannah’s absence, since, not surprisingly, he doesn’t deal particularly well with the prospect of change.
As exec producer Judd Apatow said when the show began, “Girls” doesn’t always expect the audience to like its characters. But when Jessa gets into an altercation with cops in a later episode for squatting to urinate in the street, it’s emblematic of the fact that just spending time with them feels like an occasional chore, too.
To be fair, the fourth and fifth episodes begin to find the show’s groove, suggesting this season, much like “Girls’ ” main character (and, indeed, the third go-round), might be a late bloomer.
For its part, “Looking” reduces the core roster from four to three, but many of the questions are the same. Indeed, the plight of the ostensible protagonist, Patrick (the excellent Jonathan Groff), essentially mirrors that of Marnie, as he continues to sleep with his boss (Russell Tovey), who is in a committed relationship, becoming more attached even as he downplays the notion that he’s participating in an act of betrayal.
Pal Augustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), meanwhile, has substance-abuse issues, while the eldest member of the bunch, Dom (Murray Bartlett), keeps chasing his dreams of running a restaurant, while resenting any attempts by his older, better-established boyfriend (Scott Bakula, moonlighting from his current “NCIS: New Orleans” gig) to assist him — or at least, prod him in the right direction. That’s among the more interesting threads, contemplating the challenges created by an unequal power relationship in a couple at different stages of their lives.
Created by Michael Lannan, with the second-season premiere written and directed by Andrew Haigh, “Looking” distinguishes itself by moving past the tired cliches involving gay life to a more matter-of-fact, intensely personal snapshot of these characters and struggles, told in a serialized fashion.
Watched in concert, one could argue these three shows do reinforce a message that what motivates us — the quest for love, security and fulfillment — cuts across boundaries, young or middle-aged, gay or straight.
Moreover, “Girls” and “Looking” can address specific groups in a way that few commercial enterprises do, whether portraying raw sex or elevating gay characters so often relegated to sitcom best-friend roles to leading-men status. And because HBO relies on stitching together a quilt of satisfied subscribers, nothing on its lineup need worry about being all things to all viewers.
Strictly in circle-of-life terms, “Girls,” clearly, has plenty of room left to grow, and has already been slated for a fifth season in which to do so. Yet while it’s interesting to think about where their paths will lead, it’s questionable that Hannah and company will hold much interest once they start getting closer to their “Togetherness” years.