“Well, when you love someone you don’t have to be nice all the time.”
In this current age of message boards and morning-after recaps, the pressure is on to make your voice the loudest if you want to be heard in the wilderness of the Internet. For snarky TV critics, that often means declaring something is either the “Best ____ Ever” or the “Worst ____ Ever”, with little room for anything in-between. But even within these sharply-divided times, I believe HBO’s Girls — which is brilliant just as often as it is maddening — stands out as the most polarizing show on TV.
If you’ve never seen the show, here’s a quick rundown: writer/director/creator/star Lena Dunham plays Hannah Horvath, a floundering college grad in her mid-20’s who wants to write a great book/memoir. (Insert snide comment about how no person in their mid-20’s has led a life interesting enough to warrant a memoir.) When we met Hannah in the series premiere, she was being cut off financially by her fed-up parents (Peter Scolari and Becky Ann Baker) and leaning on her friends for support. Those friends include uptight roommate Marnie Michaels (Allison Williams), flaky and well-traveled Jessa Johansson (Jemima Kirke) and chipper chatterbox Shoshanna Shapiro (a consistently funny Zosia Mamet). I can’t believe I never noticed that all of their names sound like superhero alter egos.
After having a hand in writing all 10 season 1 episodes and directing half of them, Dunham somewhat loosened the reins for season 2. (She *only* has a writing credit on seven episodes, and directed four.) However, it’s obvious this show is still very much her creation. Season 2 picks up about a month after the events of the first season finale, and finds the girls more fragmented than ever. Hannah is living with ex-boyfriend/current gay best friend Elijah (a hysterical Andrew Rannells), following her epic argument with Marnie toward the end of season 1. Hannah is also helping nurse possibly psychotic ex-boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver) back to health, while trying to start a relationship with a new guy (guest star Donald Glover).
Meanwhile, Marnie — who started the show with a devoted boyfriend and a great job — finds herself single and suddenly jobless, forced to watch her former pushover of a boyfriend Charlie (Christopher Abbott) thrive without her. Jessa continues to float in and out of Hannah’s life after hastily marrying a dopey venture capitalist (guest star Chris O’Dowd) in the season 1 finale. That finale also had eternal optimist Shoshanna losing her virginity to intense pessimist Ray (Alex Karpovsky), and those two continue to tangle in season 2.
The first season followed the sexual (mis)adventures of each “Girl” as they occasionally convened to prop each other up. So those Sex and the City comparisons worked on a superficial level, I suppose. But by the end of the first episode — and Hannah’s first major humiliation — it was clear Girls wasn’t going to be presenting a fantasy version of Manhattan where a newspaper sex columnist can afford 2,000 pairs of shoes. By the end of the pilot, Hannah had also manically dubbed herself the “voice of a generation”, which a lot of people interpreted as Dunham boldly declaring herself the voice of her generation. (This interpretation ignored the fact that Hannah was high on opium when she made her foolish claim.)
And if Hannah/Dunham was to serve as the voice of a generation, a lot of people seemed to take exception with that voice being so whiny and self-absorbed. Despite TV’s 21st century “golden age” being highlighted by anti-heroes who do unequivocally awful things, Hannah Horvath doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt. Maybe audiences root for Dexter Morgan’s serial killing, Don Draper’s stylish womanizing, Walter White’s slow and steady transformation into a monster or Tony Soprano’s everything because there’s still an element of detached fantasy to their exploits. Hannah’s tragicomic shenanigans, on the other hand, usually make her look weak. They also come uncomfortably close to some stuff we’d rather forget we felt or did in our 20’s.
Now, Dunham has never even suggested this show is supposed to represent the experiences of every girl in her 20’s. But the reason I consider season 2 somewhat of a step back from the trailblazing first season is because more of the material felt either too outlandish or downright indulgent. And I’m not just saying that because I’ve never gone on a cocaine-fueled bender like Hannah and Elijah in Ep. 3/“Bad Friend”; I have no doubt that episode spoke to a lot of people out there. There’s also the sudden bout of OCD that Hannah suffers toward the end of the season. It’s a well-played arc — Dunham admits to fighting some form of the disorder herself — but it came out of nowhere within the context of the show. The biggest indulgence, however, is definitely Ep. 5/“One Man’s Trash.” The episode eschews every Girl besides Hannah and is basically a two-person vignette with guest star Patrick Wilson as a handsome stranger.
Dunham probably doesn’t get enough credit for her acting from people who assume she’s basically playing herself. But she deserves all the kudos she’s getting for her vanity-free performance. This was also another great season for Driver, arguably the show’s breakout star. Despite some truly abhorrent behavior, Adam is fascinating — and even lovable to some — because he’s the one person on this show who single-mindedly and passionately pursues what he wants. He and Karpovsky (often a sarcastic stand-in for the audience) get a nice showcase in episode 6/“Boys.” I also liked how Williams was able to calibrate her performance this season to bring desperation and heartbreak to a mostly thankless role.
In-demand performers like Glover and O’Dowd make for great guest stars that disappear too soon. (At least Glover gets an excellent scene with Dunham in Ep. 2/“I Get Ideas.”) Jorma Taccone makes a triumphant return this season as turbo douche artist Booth Jonathan, and the lovely Shiri Appleby (Roswell) pops up for the final three episodes and is involved in what turned out to be the season’s infamous money shot.
The alienation among the four friends — it appears Jessa may have been missing from the last three episodes due to Kirke’s real-life pregnancy — and the looser narrative structure resulted in parts of season 2 feeling more like FX’s Louie than season 1 of Girls. (Except Girls didn’t go all-in on the jazzy flow or inspired surreal touches from Louie.) But whether you’re loving or hating Hannah and friends, the show remains incredibly compelling to watch.
Girls: The Complete Second Season is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 22 mbps. This image can never be as outwardly dazzling as HBO’s current period pieces in high definition. However, the versatility on display here is as impressive (in its own right) as it is on the Game of Thrones Blu-ray. Black levels are always spot-on, which is important for indoor party/club sequences and every scene that takes place in Adam’s scary apartment. The streets of Brooklyn serve as a strong baseline for this sharp, muted presentation. But the image also becomes brighter/softer (for the dreamlike “One Man’s Trash”) or warmer (Hannah and Jessa’s upstate New York jaunt in “Video Games”) when it’s necessary. In terms of a contemporary, straighforward presentation — there isn’t a lot of gloss or visual wizardry on display here — this is as good as it gets.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is immersive without clobbering the viewer over the head. There are great, subtle, ever-present city noises — which turn to country noises during “Video Games” — whenever the characters are outside. The rears only jumped to life during the scene where one character entered Booth Jonathan’s creepy sensory overload chamber. Dialogue, the most important thing in a talky show like Girls, comes through brilliantly. Subs only emerge when one of the songs on the soundtrack blasts through. This makes sense when the characters on the show are the ones blasting the music, but I found it slightly too aggressive when it was part of Michael Penn’s score or a song over the end credits. Either way, this track is every bit as impressive as the visual presentation.
All of the bonus material — except for the New Yorker interview on Disc 1 — is presented in HD.
(Features available on Disc 1.)
Episode 5 Table Read: (23:08) Pretty much exactly what you’d expect: Dunham, Wilson and Karpovsky sitting at a table and reading the script for “One Man’s Trash” aloud. I’m not really sure why they chose to show us this table read, since it only includes three characters. On the other hand, the laughter from everyone else in the room gives you a sense of what Girls would sound like if it had a laugh track. (No thanks.)
Charlie Rose Interview with Lena Dunham: (28:54) A fantastic interview conducted by Rose, who reveals himself to be extremely knowledgeable about the show. (I’m not sure why that amuses me so much.) It’s here that Dunham states her show isn’t supposed to speak for every woman and admits Hannah can be painful to play. She also reveals Shoshanna wasn’t originally supposed to be a series regular.
The New Yorker Festival 2012 — Emily Nussbaum Interviews Lena Dunham: (1:25:53) If the Charlie Rose interview gives you terrific insight into the show, then this wide-ranging discussion with New Yorker TV critic Nussbaum gives you oodles of insight into Dunham herself. Dunham talks about her life and career before the show, while Nussbaum praises Girls for daring to make people feel both “deeply uncomfortable” and “incredibly ecstatic.” There’s a 70-minute panel discussion followed by a 15-minute Q&A session.
(Features available on Disc 2.)
Guys on Girls: (18:21) Dunham hosts a casual roundtable with her four male co-stars/scene-stealers: Adam Driver, Andrew Rannells, Alex Karpovsky and Christopher Abbott. It’s a lively, interesting chat focusing on how each actor took Dunham’s creations to the next level in season 2. Driver, particularly, inspires strong reaction from fans on the street. As you can see, Dunham is all over these special features, so it’s cool to see her shine a light on the guys.
The Making of Girls: (15:03) This artfully-shot mini-doc opens in April 2012 — with a table read for Eps. 1-5 — and mixes in footage from the writers’ room as Dunham and co-writers/co-producers Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner map out the season. There is also some on-the-set stuff with the actors filming the show and footage from more table reads.
Gag Reel: (10:03) Not sure why this is presented in two separate parts, but it’s a pretty standard gag reel. (Ok, it’s considerably cruder.) All of the actors on the show are encouraged to improvise, so there are some pretty funny bits. (My favorites involved Peter Scolari and Chris O’Dowd.)
Judy Collins “Song for Judith (Open the Door)” (3:58) and “Someday Soon” (3:21) Extended Scenes: (3:58) (3:21) A treat for Judy Collins fans: the full versions of the two songs she performed in Ep. 8/“It’s Back.”
The Swell Season (with special guest Daniel Johnston) “Life in Vain” at Austin City Limits 2008: (4:37) I love the Swell Season, and Johnston is an incredibly compelling performer. In 2008, they teamed up for a live performance of “Life in Vain”, the tune featured at the end of Ep. 9/“On All Fours.”
(Features available on Discs 1 and 2.)
Inside the Episodes: (31:49) These segments each clock in at around three minutes and serve as a nice little postscript for every episode. Dunham addresses the unique challenge of writing the second season of a TV show after you’ve seemingly poured your entire life into getting it on the air in the first place. These are too short to offer any sort of penetrating insight, but Dunham always doles out bits of intriguing information. (Pointing out her mom’s cameo in Ep. 2; describing the experience of writing “One Man’s Trash” as a fever dream.) Both discs feature a Play All option.
Deleted and Extended Scenes: (56:17) A grand total of 30 scenes that actually feature some really good material (bonus Adam Driver and Donald Glover) and (surprise!) more naked Lena Dunham. (Not really a surprise.) Some of these scenes fill in story gaps, especially Hannah’s relationship with Glover’s Sandy. The best stuff on Disc 2 is additional material with Driver and Appleby — especially when they go shopping for an iPhone for Adam — and an extended version of the romantic/heroic season-ending sequence. Both discs feature a Play All option.
Audio Commentaries: There are commentaries for Eps. 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9 and 10. They tend to feature a pair of actors (the best of these is Williams and Rannells’ hilarious take on Ep. 1) a director (Richard Shepard does a great job breaking down the unique “One Man’s Trash”) or Dunham with one of her co-writers (Konner for Ep. 9; Apatow for Ep. 10). We get more interesting trivia, like the show filming in the same club where Chris Brown and Drake had their famous brouhaha days before the fight happened. Shepard also reveals that Dunham wrote the “One Man’s Trash” script in one night.
I wouldn’t use the words “sophomore slump” to describe season 2 of Girls. (I’m saving that term for a different show I’m reviewing next week.) However, this batch of episodes went in a different, surprising direction, and I’m not sure the show was better for it.
What I can say with certainty is this Blu-ray set from HBO is absolutely phenomenal. The A/V presentation is a full step above the pay channel’s HD broadcast, and the special features offer fans of the show everything they could ever want and more.