One of the most self-aware shows on TV takes aim at its characters
The second season of Girls, was for us, one of 2013's most frustrating television experiences. It started off with a bang – remember Hannah's delightful mesh-singleted coke adventure? – but by the second half had us whimpering in pain, the once insightful window onto twentysomething Brooklyn life derailed by an overdose of its main character, plotline flatlines and that sudden bout of OCD.
The boys were still great though.
We've now watched the first six episodes of season three and can report that the train is back on its tracks, if not rollicking along quite so nicely as it did when it first left the station (sustained metaphor: done!). So, verdict: season three > season two, but < season one.
Why? Well it's not that we're suddenly getting a more compelling plot (though one new coupling, if we can call it that at this stage, is sure to set Twitter ablaze). The show has never been about narrative (or character growth, some would argue), and that doesn't change in 2014. When we catch up with Marnie (Allison Williams) she's paralysingly pining for Charlie (who never actually appears – Christopher Abbott left the production because he "didn't like the direction things are going in"). Jessa (Jemima Kirke) is causing a lot of trouble in rehab (for one of her myriad issues) but not really learning much. Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) is sluttier, and she smokes now, but she's still got a thing for Ray (Alex Karpovsky) – and we kinda do too.
Hannah (Lena Dunham, whose name appears three times in a row when the credits roll on episode one) is the only who really does much of anything, or has much happen to her. She's officially together with Adam (Adam Driver), her book is rolling along, she gets a job writing advertorial for GQ, she turns 25, and she frolics in a cemetery, right before having to deal with a death…
The series' improvement does not come via the big-name guest-stars, either, though they provide fun diversions. That's Rita Wilson as Marnie's mom, and Richard E Grant as the guy trying to get into Jessa's pants in rehab. And astute viewers will notice J Crew creative director Jenna Lyons in the role of Hannah's boss at GQ. Depending on your view, these slightly-more-than-cameos will thrill, or just annoy: oh look, Dunham's roped in some more mates for a couple of days on the set.
Which gets to why season three marks an improvement. The process of watching Girls is, more than nearly any other show on TV, inextricably intwined with the process of thinking about and discussing the real-life people who put it together, especially Dunham. Everyone has an opinion on the young comic genius (and we do think that's what she is), and the internet is full-to-bursting with 'analysis' of the world she creates (is it a real reflection of the world? is it racist? why are the people within it so fucking awful?). When she sat down with her writers for season three, it's clear that all at the table took a lot of this on board.
For many of the girls in Girls, season three is a series of punishments: they're told, over and over, exactly what the audience thinks is wrong with them. Hannah, who turns conversations back towards herself more quickly than ever, is berated by Adam when all she can care about after hearing of a friend's death is the future of her book. For Hannah haters, it will gratify. In one scene, Marnie actually asks one character to lay it out there: tell me everything that's wrong with me. What she gets in response might have been lifted from Jezabel.
This bout of meta masochism does lend the season a somewhat bitter taste, but it's still very fun to watch. The lines zing, the music is very, very on-point, and there's a genuineness to the relationships on screen. And, in a big bonus, we get more Shoshanna than ever. Which can only be a good thing.
Girls airs Mondays at 7.30pm on Showcase.