The first season of Girls ended on a note of pregnant irresolution. The titular girls' bubble of self-absorption was popped by the unquantifiable emotional turmoil of day-to-day life, and they realized, if only by intuition, that happiness isn't a birthright. Hannah (Lena Dunham), in particular, came to a rude awakening: Having mythologized herself as being at the mercy of the exploitative whims of her strange and elusive fuck buddy, Adam (Adam Driver), she came to understand that he was retreating from her increasingly demanding and exclusionary practices—a revelation that might have been obvious if Hannah weren't so preoccupied with herself as the put-upon Artist Who Might Be. The show's theme isn't unusual to a subgenre devoted to the existential torment of bored, privileged white youth, but it was delivered with a moving offhand grace. The girls began to understand that you're almost never the person you initially suspect yourself to be, for both better and worse.
Girls, however, is distinctive in one critical fashion. Dunham has captured, at times with eerie and remarkable specificity, technology's effect on young adults attempting to come of age in the contemporary world. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Skype, etc., have managed to unite the various niche groups that society produces, which is simultaneously reassuring and awful. Young adults, often already self-conscious of the potential that they might not be so special and might not make a lasting impression on the world (and, let's face it, odds dictate that most won't), are now capable of accessing confirmations of that very suspicion on a second-by-second basis, as their thoughts are confirmed online to be everyone's thoughts. The comedy in Girls, and Dunham's Tiny Furniture, springs from the panicked narcissism that results when technology assures talented, intelligent young people (with the essential security to worry about such inessential matters) that they might not be talented and intelligent enough to matter. Hannah, an aspiring writer, is especially enslaved to the instant gratification/disapproval that the Internet can conjure.
The second season, refreshingly, doesn't shy away from the implications of last season's conclusion. Dunham doesn't merely start the series over and plunge her characters into similar adventures that ignore what's come before. A surprising despair and longing now hangs over the series; having (admittedly faintly) brushed with the reality that lies outside the cocoon of their lofts and cellphones and laptops and theme parties, the girls go about their comic blunders with a newfound sense of urgency. Season one was eccentric and uneven; it had the frisson of a work by a young filmmaker clearly trying things out to see what played well (it's no surprise that Louis C.K. has endorsed Girls, as Louie has a similar fly-by-night energy). Season two is more controlled and evenly toned. Fans will be surprised, and perhaps disappointed, to find that it's often as dramatic as it is comic.
The jokes have been folded into the plots more organically and gracefully than they were last season, and the punchlines often tend to uneasily suggest domestic abuse. Marnie (Allison Williams) finally gets to bed Jonathan Booth (Jorma Taccone), the pretentious concept artist who rebuffed her last season, but not before he subjects her to his most prized creation: a tomb fashioned from a dozen TVs that simultaneously blast images of global atrocities, which are accompanied by blaring pop music. Jonathan, who clearly holds Marnie in contempt, makes himself an espresso and tinkers around at his tool bench before letting her out of his work of conceited absurdity. And when they finally get to the sex, he asks her how the life-size doll he's placed beside them is feeling.
This isn't the only instance in which this season tonally suggests a horror film. There's an extended riff on stalking that culminates in a quasi-absurdist request for dual restraining orders, and Jessa's (Jemima Kirke) marriage to a finance wiz unsurprisingly veers toward disaster in a moment that's characteristically frank, but also uncharacteristically charged with the threat of an out-and-out physical clash. Hannah purchases coke from a reformed drug addict for an article she's writing, and he follows her throughout the city like a vaguely lost guardian angel. There are a number of other sequences of similarly disarming emotional frankness, particularly a moment in which Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) and Ray (Alex Karpovsky) argue on a subway bench, airing to the audience almost directly the various insecurities that have always implicitly informed the series.
This directness is partially a response to the detractors who insist that Girls is a frivolous and insulting princess fantasy insensitively released at a time of political and economic doubt, and Dunham's self-consciousness sometimes undermines promising tangents. In the beginning of the season, Hannah ends a casual relationship with a black Republican because he, firstly, fails to coddle her ego and, distantly secondly, doesn't properly conform to her stereotypically privileged liberal idea of what a black boyfriend should be. This is potentially provocative material, and Dunham is to be commended for broaching the subject at all in a climate that frequently congratulates itself for achieving "post-racial" political awareness, but Dunham doesn't let the story breathe; she rushes to a scene in which the boyfriend essentially voices every criticism that has ever been made of the series. And Hannah's relationship with her gay ex-boyfriend turned roommate is reintroduced for similar reasons (to satirize Hannah's narcissism while parodying easy white liberal self-satisfaction, he's essentially tossed aside by Hannah when he doesn't play her intended role of pet gay), but it's also disappointingly discarded in a rapid, anti-climactic, and overly thematic fashion. (It's clear in this season more than in the last that Dunham has considerable, and understandable, issues with the white liberal coddling of shows like Ally McBeal and Sex and the City.)
So, yes, Girls is still undergoing ultimately minor growing pains, but it's frequently poignant and audacious, and actors who made little impression in the first season are allowed to flower. Marnie, surprisingly, is nearly elevated to the lead this season, which allows Williams to display a warm vulnerability that was barely visible last season. Mamet, the most talented regular cast member, was underused last season, but Shoshanna has a number of moments here that are quietly heartbreaking. Jessa's still the least interesting and least likable recurring character, but there's a moment near the halfway point of the season that promisingly suggests that Kirke will be allowed to explore emotional textures that might yield a character as opposed to what's usually a mean-spirited and easy caricature of the "free spirit." And, of course, there's Hannah. Dunham still has a disturbing and irritating propensity, as a writer-director, for scoring points off her character's chubby body in a fashion that amounts to a perverse reverse-vanity, but she's still her show's ideal nucleus: intelligent, demanding, infuriating, promising, and oddly lovable.