Wearing several hats as creator and central writer, Lena Dunham introduced us to a cluster of idiosyncratic twenty-somethings in the Golden Globe-winning premiere season of Girls, where the group's only unifying trait seems to be their puzzlement over where their professional and romantic lives are headed. Quirky, sharp, yet endearing scripts get the point across that their mutual frustration seems to be (almost) enough to overcome their differences, even if conflicts routinely spark over their clashing attitudes -- namely Hannah's, the erratic, loose-lipped, promiscuous writer played by Dunham. Instead of getting comfortable with the status quo of its nocuous relationships, Girls takes a leap of faith in its second season by exploring what happens when a rift really drives them all apart, away from each other and away from their significant others. Dunham dials up the self-deprecation, lonesomeness, and instability in her flawed yet curiously engaging follow-up, one that seems more interested in embellishing the characters' destructive traits and unlucky life developments.
The seeds for a gloomier, more detached look at the women's lives were planted at the end of the previous season, which you should see before looking too far into this review. Hannah's quaky relationship with borderline-psychotic carpenter, Adam (Adam Driver), reached new heights following a scene of ambulances and wayward train trips. Marnie (Allison Williams), a cog in the art-world machine who recently broke apart from her living situation with Hannah, was coming to grips with her doting ex, Charlie (Christopher Abbott), quickly landing a new relationship. Sheltered, virginal Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) indulged the idea of sleeping with the group's abrasive coffee-shop manager, Ray (Alex Karpovsky). And, of course, there's free-spirit Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and her impromptu wedding to a socially-awkward entrepreneur (Chris O'Dowd). Surprisingly, Dunham bravely continues these situations without skipping a beat, picking up relatively soon after the events of the season finale without "righting" any of the wrongs left at the end. The raw wounds and general awkwardness all linger, as relationships often do.
Girls' first season struck a reasonable balance between real-world sexuality, employment, and ambition and presenting it in an elevated-reality sitcom package, from Hannah's struggles with supplementing her penniless writing with odd jobs to Jessa's man-eating and Charlie's obsessive love for Marnie. Perhaps the content hit a little too close to home for some, because Dunham and her creative team have loosened their grip on reality in the second season -- and more often than not, for better or worse, it comes at the expense of keeping some viewers at arm's length. This affords the writers more opportunities for outside-the-box humor, especially with Hannah's shenanigans: she develops an unlikely relationship with a staunch Republican guy (Donald Glover) while shacking up with her gay ex-boyfriend, Elijah (Andrew Rannells), and she opts to seek out hardcore recreational drugs to experience a night of research for work. The writing sacrifices character boundaries and authenticity for sardonic humor, and whether it hits the mark and becomes relatable varies by the episode.
Dunham and her creative crew almost seem to have taken on a challenge: to make every one of the focal girls noticeably less likable and dejected than they already were, a further result of their poor decisions and an inability to comprehend things outside of their egocentric spheres. Unsurprisingly, this chiefly applies to Hannah and her self-destructive tendencies, which were increasingly frustrating come last year's finale. This time around, however, her actions and reactions seem deliberately contentious and trouble-making, not just the byproduct of an inability to see outside her own bubble -- such as consciously inviting two people at-odds with one another to a dinner party, then falling back on a lame excuse. She becomes alienated and depressed as time passes while she tries to capitalize on a coveted writing opportunity, but you can't really blame any of her friends for not wanting to engage her. Dunham's boldness with her appearance, her ability to intelligently lampoon herself, and how she fits Hannah in awkward sexual situations are still capable of provoking shrewd responses through her humiliation, though, despite the more manufactured and pessimistic tempo of the drama this time around, and she deserves some credit for having the stones to go even darker when her childhood condition returns.
Even considering its faults, Girls keeps up with its admirable perspective on the current generation's bout with ambition and insecurity (both personal and financial), chronicling the turbulent transition period between higher education and being "out there". While Hannah deals with her exaggerated range of experiences, the rest of the host of characters tackle the issue on a more grounded level, such as Marnie enduring a "pretty-girl job" beneath her qualification level and world-traveler Jessa being trapped in a hasty marriage born of a misguided desire for security. The show's pointed, awkwardly-dark humor understands how to trigger thoughts about how its scenarios apply to a broad range of lives, and it works because of how articulately these actresses voice the disappointment, confusion, and intermittent sparks of aspiration found in their characters. Again, the series teeters on the brink of breaking its own suspension of disbelief -- Marnie's response to Booth Jonathan's "art"; Hannah's cocaine bender and fling with an underage boy; Jessa's estranged family (with guest appearance by Ben Mendlesohn and Rosanna Arquette) and their rabbit farm -- but the ideas it touches on are conveyed with enough performance validity to take its harder-to-believe situations in stride.
Impressively, the boys on the show continue to be as compelling as the central women, if not more so. The main one I'm talking about here is Adam, of course, the peculiar shirtless carpenter who attends AA meetings and exhibits unusual sexual tastes. While he diverts from the network of central women for a period, several episodes offer a glimpse at his evolving life without Hannah, showing his clumsy metamorphosis within a more "normal" relationship set up by a member of Adam's alcoholics group. Marnie's ex-boyfriend Charlie also sees an intriguing professional shift that presents him as one of the series' most stable and confident players, which has an interesting impact on Marnie's own plummet. But it's not limited to the show's regular guys, either: one of the stronger episodes of this season came with a guest appearance from Patrick Wilson, who plays a wealthy, confident, yet lonely doctor that sees something worthwhile in Hannah after looking at her with "outsider" eyes. The guys' presence doesn't change one's overall impressions of the series' trajectory, but they do inform and enhance what's going on.
Ultimately, the second season of Girls follows a similar tempo of uncomfortable humor and maddening characters that polarized audiences last season, only this time it focuses even less on the bond between the four women and more on guiding the series down a more complex emotional path, their differences and life issues preventing a sense of camaraderie from developing. It's a frustrating dichotomy that's hard to explain: these are people we're not intended to like, really, yet there's something intriguing about watching their highs, lows, and extreme lows, where it's hard to figure out if you're supposed to be rooting for their trainwreck lives to correct themselves or not. And that never really happens, since each opportunity that comes their way is, in one way or another, jeopardized or squandered. Those who weren't sold on this level of eccentric despondency last season won't find anything to convince them otherwise here, and there's plenty here this season to turn away others; however, those seeking a continuation of Hannah's ramshackle journey through adulthood will find more of the same peculiarly cynical humor this time around, and with a surprisingly upbeat-bittersweet conclusion to boot.
Girls: The Complete Second Season arrives from Warner/HBO Home Entertainment in a package that'll appear extremely familiar to those who own the first season: a two-disc foldout package holds each of the color-topped discs, featuring stills of the cast member (without quotes this time around). A thin DVD/Digital Copy presentation also arrives in a slim foldout add-on, and the two fit within a semi-matte slipcase with embossed letters and classy pastel coloring.
Video and Audio:
If you've recently plowed through the first season of Girls on Blu-ray or remember how it looked, then expect a continuation of the same quality, pretty much beat for beat. Shot digitally with a dim, naturalistic vibe, the ten episodes of this season -- five on each disc -- exhibit more complex palette decisions and contrast levels than other shows often do, which HBO/Warner's 1.78:1-framed, 1080p AVC treatments handle extremely well. Black levels stay committed to the aesthetic without losing any details, either in dim sequences within Adam and Hannah's apartments or in nightclubs, while the brighter sequences outdoors or in Ray's coffee shop take the opportunity to really shine in terms of natural skin tones and textile appearance. If you keep your eyes open, you'll spot an interesting texture here or there -- the grain of wood, the weave in a knit hat, the grid pattern of a see-through shirt -- and these HD presentations handle every curve and detail in the darker presentation really well.
It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the 5.1 Master Audio tracks accompanying Girls rely heavily on dialogue, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't exhibit moments that really shine in clarity and power. Naturally, verbal audibility is paramount when it comes to the success of these tracks, and they certainly don't disappoint: scenes in exterior apartments are clear, centered, and rarely have any issues with upper-end distortion (there are a few points in the episodes that scrape on the upper-end), while other scenes in open-aired coffee shops or echoic workplaces show awareness of the surroundings. The show's music is where most of the muscle gets flexed, though, namely in the ambient tunes that play during parties or events (or in video torture chambers); the bass pounds with respectable force and awareness of the location, while the clarity and surround elements react well to the scenes' purposes. English, French, Spanish, and several other subtitle options are available with the episodes.
The second season of Girls needed to pull out quite a few stops to match the extras from last year's Blu-ray set, but it's made sure not to disappoint fans of the show with the wealth of content available here. Again, several Commentaries have been made available on this disc, for the following episodes: Disc One: It's About Time (Allison Williams and Andrew Rannels), Bad Friend (Director Jesse Peretz), It's a Shame About Ray (Zosia Mamet, Alex Karpovsky, and Jesse Peretz), One Man's Trash (Director Richard Shepard); Disc Two: Video Games (Richard Shepard), On All Fours (Lena Dunham, Producer Jenni Konner), Together (Lena Dunham, Producer Judd Apatow). Dunham keeps a leisurely, unpretentious conversational pace that organically reveals details about her directing an writing techniques, while Richard Shepard takes a structured, insightful approach to his two commentaries as he reveals details about shooting around specific locations. Fans of the show will dig the participation from the cast members for their two episodes, too, as well as Jesse Peretz's comments during the "coke episode".
The commentaries are just the tip o the iceberg. Disc One includes, as one can expect, a solid and insightful Charlie Rose Interview with Lena Dunham (28:54, HD) that reveals the creator/actress' inspiration and drive, leading off with the very simple question "How would you define what you do?" and going from there. Dunham presents herself with assured yet humble effervescence as she describes her perspective on her history and audience, then shifts to elaborating on the series itself and its characters. We've also got this massive Interview With Lena Dunham at the New Yorker Festival (1:25:53, HD) in 2012, conducted by Emily Nussbaum, which takes a more casual yet deeper-digging approach to exploring Dunham's current state. She delves into her creative process and partitioning between being a writer and executive producer, but then she goes into specific (and sometimes graphic) sequences from the show to discuss their meaning and discomfort levels. Furthermore, we've also got a Table Reading for Ep. 5, "One Man's Trash", featuring Patrick Wilson with the other cast members.
Disc Two starts off with a pretty clever take on what might be expected of a featurette with the title: Guys on Girls (18:21, HD) features Lena Dunham sitting around a table with the four primary male cast members, where they offer their own outlook on who their characters are to their creator. They share stories about the audience's reception to their characters, then chat about how improv played a hand in shaping their personalities. Much like it did last season, the Making of Girls: Season Two (15:03, HD) reveals how producer Judd Apatow takes an active role in the creative and refinement process in the show, while snippets of on-set footage, table reads, and further off-hand interviews with Dunham and the crew briefly chronicle the season's conception. There's also a two-part collection of Gag Reels that can be pretty darn funny, as well as three Music (HD) performance for three of the song featured in the series, both direct clips and live performances.
Both discs also have brief three-minute Inside the Episode snippets for each episode, coming out to around thirty-one minutes of total extra material. This is genera press-kit stuff that touches on things featured in each installment, but Dunham's more casual demeanor makes them somewhat worthwhile to watch. Each Blu-ray also has its own Deleted / Extended Scenes for the episodes that appear on each one, and the total deleted material measures up to nearly an hour of clipped material. Also included in this package is a flipper single-disc DVD Copy of the season that contains some of the special features from the HD presentation, such as the commentaries, the table read, and the Guys on Girls featurette.
It's hard to put into words how I feel about Girls: this kinda-comedic glimpse at the lives of four twentysomething women in New York is polished, solidly-written in terms of relating to an audience, and acted extremely well, but the self-critical humor can also be infuriating and uncomfortable to endure at the same time. Lena Dunham's second season takes strides to push the envelope with the latter half of that impression, causing many of the characters -- especially wannabe writer Hannah -- to become even less likable and frustrating through some questionable social and employment decisions. The foundation is still clearly there, being a show about discovering one's identity and following ambition when everything sucks around them (many creatives have been there), yet it's lost some of its original charm by tapping into more awkward relationship scenarios and bleaker quasi-drama. It's still fairly challenging and engaging television, though, with a few standout episodes, and this Blu-ray from Warner/HBO is stacked with extras and exceptional audiovisual renderings of the episodes themselves. Fans will relish the set, and those who enjoyed the previous season should find something to enjoy here. Lukewarm Recommendation.