A key moment in the first season of HBO’s Girls arrives, rather unceremoniously, in the middle of its eighth and best episode, “Welcome to Bushwick.” Hannah (Lena Dunham) is attending a massive warehouse party in Brooklyn with her friends when she runs into Adam (Adam Driver), the quasi-boyfriend she’s never actually seen outside of his apartment—or even, she notes, “with a shirt on.” Adam’s friends—a band of punk-rock lesbians, apparently—seem at ease with a version of Adam to which Hannah is wholly unfamiliar; when one lets slip a passing reference to Adam’s history with alcoholism, a fact she describes as basically the most important thing about him, Hannah begins to wonder how much she actually knows about the man she sleeps with nearly every night. And we begin to realize that the show’s perspective is so closely wedded to Hannah’s own that, until this point, we’ve effectively been seeing only what Hannah wants to see, which is that Adam is callous and uncaring and a wholly unreasonable partner. It takes nearly an entire season for us to learn that he’s not.
Because if the first season of Girls is indeed about anything, as a cohesive whole, it’s about Adam’s transformation from repulsive caricature to fully realized—and ultimately even likeable—human being. The revelation in “Welcome to Bushwick” is a sort of tipping point to that effect: When Adam chastises Hannah for showing no interest in him beyond his capacity to offer her sex, we begin to understand his coldness toward the prospect of the relationship developing further as a natural response to what he perceives to be Hannah’s passing fancy in their time together—in other words, precisely the opposite of what we’re meant to understand about Adam until this point. And what’s interesting is that Dunham achieves this fairly substantial shift in audience sympathies without resorting to any major change in the characters or in their behaviors (we don’t need to suddenly see Adam’s sensitive side or find out that Hannah has been hiding some subconscious maliciousness), instead offering a more elegant explanation in the form of a new perspective on a dynamic we’ve already seen played out. The blame is put on us as much as it is on Hannah: We’ve been misinterpreting Adam even while his attitude remains the same.
By the end of its first season, Girls brings us from finding Adam’s behavior borderline abusive to feeling as though he’s more victim than aggressor. That’s a significant coup for Dunham, whose screenwriting talents clearly lend themselves best to long-form drama of this kind: She understands better than most that television is an ideal format for the character study, and she uses her series as a platform for really getting to know somebody. And so, in a sense, what Girls aspires to is not unlike what Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret accomplished last year—at least insofar as both grapple with one woman’s maturation from solipsist to socially conscious individual. The difference is that while Margaret‘s Lisa learns to understand her place within a web of the lives of others through the intrusion of tragic circumstance, Hannah’s growth is undertaken far less dramatically. It’s telling that while the season begins with Hannah in a place of comfort and security (at dinner with her parents, basking in privilege), it ends with her literally lost and alone, falling asleep on a train and ending up at Coney Island by dawn; despite the hangover, her displacement is better, in the end, than her complacency. In the last shot, which slyly recalls the last shot of Barton Fink, we see Hannah sitting despondently on the beach, eating a slice of leftover wedding cake; the sense of unspecific longing it inspires is the perfect coda to a series defined by twentysomething ennui.
Girls makes up for its lack of eye-catching period production design (a la Mad Men) or garish angles and filters (here's looking at you Breaking Bad) with that rarest sign of visual acuity: a classically good eye for clean and simple photography, particularly evident in episodes directed by Lena Dunham herself. Thankfully, HBO's 1080p transfer does right by Dunham's confident, unfussy style, retaining the crispness of the show's digital photography and really bringing out the richness of its palette (of special note are those block-colored titled cards at the beginning of each episode). This set's new 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track sounds great, too, keeping dialogue audible and well-balanced while bringing in the show's liberal use of indie rock and pop tunes (Robyn's "Dancing on My Own" is a highlight) loud and clear.
Dunham's brand of long-form autocritique might not lend itself to giddy fandom as readily as, say, Sex and the City, but HBO has nevertheless stacked the deck in this show's favor by delivering a decidedly obsessive-friendly package. Thus special features of all kinds abound: Select episode commentary tracks with Dunham and a host of collaborators offer droll reflections from their time on the set, several lengthy featurettes dig deep behind the scenes, and the requisite gag reels, deleted scenes, and extended scenes are as amusing as they are arguably superfluous. The real joy here, though, is the inclusion of a book of Dunham's tweets—maybe the most surreally contemporary extra ever.
Lena Dunham's Girls, the best series of the year, arrives on home video with a stellar A/V transfer and a slew of novel extras.