The season-two premiere of Girls opens with the show’s heroine, Hannah Horvath (creator-star Lena Dunham), waking up in the narrow bed that she shares with her ex-boyfriend Elijah (Andrew Ranells), who realized he was gay after breaking up with her. “I’m sorry I have a boner,” he says. “It’s not for you.” They laugh at the awkwardness of sharing a cramped and cluttered apartment. It’s a funny, honest scene. But it still made me think that you couldn’t pay me enough to be in my twenties again.
I have that thought every time I watch Girls, as much as I adore it. Girls isn’t likable — certainly not in a Hollywood rom-com way — and it doesn’t seem to lose any sleep over it. It’s telling the truth as it sees it, showing empathy but no mercy. This isn’t a warm-fuzzy show. The characters are screwed-up, immature, and thoughtless. Hannah, her friends, and her lovers are obnoxiously self-centered. (“Do these people even like each other?” asked the Guardian.) They have to remind themselves that other people exist, and when they do reach out, there’s often a whiff of performance to it: Here I am, caring. Say nice things about me, won’t you?
Hannah is demonstrating patience and loyalty by caring for her on-again, off-again boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver) after he got hit by a van in the season-one finale, but you can tell she’s not comfortable putting somebody else first — that the piss-pot and the sudden lack of sex are deal-breakers for her, maybe more so than Adam’s understandable self-pity and anger. She’s secretly taken up with a black Republican named Sandy (Donald Glover), in the show’s most rewarding new plotline. (Though his character appears to have been introduced in reaction to last season’s carping that Girls was too white, executive producer Jenni Konner recently told Grantland that he was cast before the criticism started.) Hannah sees the new hookup as proof of her enlightenment and maybe as a life experience that she’ll write about someday. Her jungle fever, as Spike Lee might term it, is in the spotlight, and Sandy calls her on it. (When he tells her that one of her essays “wasn’t for me,” she whines, “It was for everyone.”) Thankfully, though, the show doesn’t raise him up as an avatar. He’s enjoying the frisson of their trysts as well, and he’s as young and unformed as Hannah; like a lot of Girls characters, he’s nowhere near as sophisticated as he thinks. You see traces of baby fat in these aspiring adults’ faces. They’re having sex and paying rent and trying to land decent jobs, but in their hearts, they’re still teenagers. Just like everyone else.
The older characters that flit in and out of the story aren’t much wiser, just tougher, more cautious, and less obsessed with what the rest of the world thinks of them. Inside, they’re still teenagers, too. “Sometimes all you need is a pair of rough hands on your body,” says Marnie’s mother (Rita Wilson), advising her daughter (Allison Williams) on how to move past her breakup with her boyfriend Charlie (Christopher Abbott). You take her advice with a baseball-size grain of salt because she’s flush with adolescent excitement after hooking up with a dumb but sexy “cater waiter.” Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) is still heartbroken over Ray (Alex Karpovsky), the hyperarticulate, maybe-thirtyish guy who stole the flower of her womanhood. (I’m trying to describe the act as Shoshanna might; she’s got the mentality of a little girl dreaming of being a princess.) When Ray sees Shoshanna again at Hannah and Elijah’s housewarming party, he’s annoyed by her melodramatic girlishness — she turns away with a kabuki-exaggerated head-twist, as if miming, “I shun you!” — but he can’t stop following her around, demanding forgiveness and understanding with a condescending belligerence that reminds me of an early Albert Brooks character. (Brooks and Karpovsky as father and son; make it happen, Internet.) Marnie’s gallery boss takes her out to soften the blow of firing her, then gets distracted and forgets to do it (“I completely spaced!”). When Hannah applies for a writing job at a lifestyle blog, the show tweaks its own hype by having her would-be editor propose pieces that exploit immaturity for clicks. “You could just do a bunch of coke and then write about it!” the editor suggests. “I’ve never done it before,” Hannah says. “Even better!” the editor peals.
Season two of Girls is an even less pleasant and reassuring experience than season one, if you can imagine. The characters evolve slowly or sometimes only seem to. They’re aging in body but not in spirit, and life hasn’t kicked the stuffing out of them yet; they have no idea that the heartbreak they’ve already endured is but an appetizer before the feast.
When characters share an epiphany or assert an identity — Marnie proclaiming that she’s been sex-free for months and is fine with it, or Elijah insisting that his sexual identity is elastic — you laugh because it’s a cue that they’re about to prove how little they know about themselves. “I love how weird you are,” Sandy tells Hannah. “Don’t say ‘love’ to me,” she says. “It was a joke ‘love,’” he counters. “Don’t even say a joke ‘love’ to me,” she says. “I don’t want to hear any love.” But she does.
Girls zeroes in on a wafer-thin slice of the twentysomething demographic with such exactness that the show feels analytical, sometimes chilly. That’s not a complaint, just an observation. I like Girls’s brand of tough love. It lets you simultaneously laugh at and with the characters, and feel justified for laughing, then ashamed, and then the pendulum swings back again; this is a much messier and more fascinating set of reactions than what sitcoms typically evoke: Oh, what a bunch of lovable eccentrics. I hope they find happiness someday! Even when its characters are breaking down in tears, contemplating their loneliness, and beating themselves up for their mistakes, I often feel as if I’m in the hipster house at the people zoo. Do not feed the younglings, the sign reads. It will only make them want to move in with you.