This week’s Girls was a high point in a second season that’s been a bit of a disappointment. After making a well-deserved media splash as a novel TV approach to the depiction of Young Women In Our Time, Girls is showing some of the wear and tear that occurs when an ambitious creator also becomes The New Voice of Her Generation. (Promise: no more capitalized theme phrases from hereon.) At least, that’s the sense I get, given the timing, shooting schedule, and result of Lena Dunham’s intensely scrutinized, It’s Not Just TV (oh, damn – sorry) creation.
The second season feels more like a conventional sitcom, with snappy punchlines and increasingly lovable characters, or at least characters we’re meant to understand as earnest, wounded birds. Except for the male characters, who tend to be angry wounded pitbulls. Dunham’s Hannah and her sisters-in-the-sisterhood are never more engaging when they’re not engaging each other, but rather, interacting with people older than themselves: Parents, employers, would-be mentors, patrons, and sleazebags.
So it was this week’s installment, which found Hannah accompanying Jemima Kirke’s Jessa to spend the weekend with the latter’s father and most recent stepmother – played respectively by Ben Mendelsohn and Rosanna Arquette. The half-hour contained the usual amount of Girls hijinks, Seinfeldian phrase appropriations (the repetition of “sexcapade”; “You are ‘the cushion’” – i.e., the absorber of too much emotion), and sight gags (Hannah, her bladder too full at a remote outdoor train station, squatting to pee in semi-full view of an older couple).
But this episode, titled “Video Games” after a nutty belief of Arquette’s character – that the world is “literally” a video game – was filled with nice touches and filled in a bit more of the Girls universe. Jessa is, you’ll recall, coming off the dissolution of her brief marriage to a wealthy heel. If it was typical of Dunham’s writing strategy that this haughty, assiduously devil-may-care yet totally-together Brit would prove to have a thoroughly dissolute, emotionally unstable and needy father, it is to the show’s credit that the relationship felt right – that Jessa is the daughter such a man would produce, in that we-react-against-what-we-dislike-the-most about our parents.
Significantly, I think, this episode was written by producer Bruce Eric Kaplan, better known in some circles as “BEK,” the cartoonist whose work has appeared frequently in The New Yorker. I say significant not merely because Kaplan also wrote a few episodes of Seinfeld, but because the series this season has featured more fully delineated male characters whenever Dunham and/or another female collaborator aren’t writing them. Sorry, not sexist, but it’s just true: The early half-hours of this second season featured the show’s least believable new characters, most notably the happily brief appearance of Donald Glover as Sandy, the dreary, surprise!-he’s-a-black-Republican creation.
Where the second season of Girls has frequently carried a distracted air, as though the cast members were rushing through their jokes and problems because Dunham had a scheduled Rolling Stone or I-D cover photo-shoot, “Video Games” had a wonderfully languid pace – Kaplan created a warped idyll that allowed the series to pause, take a deep breath of non-Brooklyn air, and gather its senses.
The beautiful capper to the episode was that, having seen how dreadfully Jessa had been parented, Hannah felt moved to call her own parents to express in a sweetly sincere, fulsome manner, how much she loved and appreciated her own parents, played with the usual terrific verve and comic-stressfulness by Peter Scolari and Becky Ann Baker. The phone call was a failure for Hannah, of course – her neurotic, suspicious, yet always-Hannah-obsessed parents chose to interpret her call as another occasion for worry, suspicion, and alarm. But the final scene provided a lovely conclusion to a 30-minute meditation about how they fuck you up, your mum and dad.