‘Girls’: Painfully good

From left: Hannah (Lena Dunham), Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), Jessa (Jemima Kirke), and Marnie (Allison Williams) in HBO’s quirky 20-something drama “Girls.”
From left: Hannah (Lena Dunham), Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), Jessa (Jemima Kirke), and Marnie (Allison Williams) in HBO’s quirky 20-something drama “Girls.”
Jessica Miglio

I don’t think I’ve come across a character like Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath on TV before. She doesn’t easily fit into the young-single-women molds that TV writers have shaped over the past few decades — the coiffed ditzes of “Friends,” the frank, swank ladies of “Sex and the City,” Mary Tyler Moore’s lovable professional.

For that reason alone, for the rare act of breaking off from the familiar, I’m inclined to love HBO’s “Girls,” which returns in great form for season 2 on Sunday night at 9. Hannah is her own special creation. She’s frumpy, for one thing — check out her “stupid sailor-nun” dress in the premiere — in what is an out-and-out rejection of magazine-bred standards of beauty. Sometimes her voice even has an old-ladyish timbre. And she’s irritatingly blasé about love, career, and friends, until she’s irritatingly obsessive about them, over-thinking and over-sharing.

She’s a perfect, painful example of how miserable post-college narcissism can be, when you’re blinded by self-loathing, identity confusion, freedom, and financial insecurity. She’s anything but TV-ready, and yet, like Larry David on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” here she is.

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As star, executive producer, writer, and sometimes director, Dunham has complete control over Hannah, which is probably why she has been able to resist succumbing to mainstream types and warm-and-fuzzy resolutions about her generation. The national TV audience would probably prefer Hannah to lose weight, be less insecure, and be more likable. And it hasn’t hurt Dunham that her producing partner is Judd Apatow, a Hollywood force who has defined his own unconventional style in a similar way. Also advantageous: HBO, which is famous for its creative freedom. Dunham is going at TV like an independent filmmaker — what Louis C.K. does on his similarly New York-set “Louie,” except that her characters are still decades away from middle-age angst and their lives are paced far more quickly.

I was concerned that Dunham might not keep “Girls” and its main characters — the tightly wound Marnie (Allison Williams), the irresponsible Jessa (Jemima Kirke), and the innocent Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) — at the same level of dysfunction for another season. She faced an unfair amount of criticism last year, for showing a cast of only white people, many of whom have been coddled, some of whom are women submitting to abuse; and I feared she’d return to TV somehow chastened. Not so.

In the first four new episodes, her characters remain in their self-contained cultural warp, still only just beginning to mingle with hipsters and hard drugs and cold, careering artists, and, yes, black people. Some viewers may not like the fact that there are people who are just entering the world outside their mostly white towns and campuses in their 20s, who, like Shoshanna, are almost entirely creatures of TV shows and text-bred abbreviations. But they do exist, wandering bleary-eyed through the city, and Dunham captures them — and, at times, skewers them — with painful accuracy. “Just read one newspaper,” Jessa tells her.

In the first moments of Sunday’s premiere, we learn that Hannah is now dating a black Republican, Sandy (Donald Glover), which is Dunham’s direct nod to her critics — a comically direct nod. She doesn’t do things part way. But the Hannah-Sandy relationship nonetheless feels like a natural extension of Hannah’s exploratory journey, and Dunham resolves the plot with so much of her characteristic messiness that I foresee an endless, and fascinating, critical conversation about Hannah and Sandy’s confrontation in episode 2. “I never thought about the fact that you’re black once,” she says to him angrily, after quoting a Missy Elliott song, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

The scene is one of the many cringey moments that Dunham puts Hannah through. It’s not as obviously a setup for viewer unease as Larry’s over-the-top clashes on “Curb,” but it’s no less uncomfortable.

Refreshingly, the men on “Girls” fall outside of type, too. In the “Sex and the City” formula, the men were mostly there as targets for the women; here, they are strange beings in themselves, particularly Adam (Adam Driver), who fell in love with Hannah last season and then promptly got hit by a van. As she tries to overcome her terror of commitment to help nurse him, he remains a guy who struggles against his own worst impulses. He once seemed to be one of the show’s abusive men, like the artist who locks Marnie in an art installation this season, but then he became far more complicated thanks to Driver’s dimensional performance, which, alas, was overlooked by the Emmys.

Ray (Alex Karpovsky, who is from Newton) is also unique and elusive; dislike him, but remember that in some scenes he, like Hannah, will be surprisingly dear. He thinks he’s a tough guy but he is learning otherwise as he falls for Shoshanna. When he told Shoshanna at the end of last season, in what was a lovely moment, “You vibrate on a very strange frequency,” he could have been talking about himself. He also could have been talking about “Girls,” too, and the world it represents with wisdom, honesty, straight-up drama, and, most important, comedy.