The third season of Girls kicks off with the implication that creator Lena Dunham has finally bought into her detractors’ claim that the series is an ode to privileged young things whining about nothing. The opening pair of episodes, “Females Only” and “Truth or Dare,” both directed by Dunham, pointedly denies the titular foursome of much of anything resembling sympathy. They’ve all appeared to mentally and emotionally regress since last season’s conclusion, and while regression is a perfectly reasonable subject to explore in art, it’s awfully tedious as dramatized by Dunham with her presently rote methods of comic stylization.
We learn that Hannah (Dunham) has partially pulled herself out of the abyss she was facing last season. Now on OCD medication, the administration of which is presided over by on-again boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver), she’s managed to avoid a lawsuit from her publisher (John Cameron Mitchell) by emphasizing her mental illness in the book that’s now beginning to emerge. Jessa (Jemima Kirke), who seemingly disappeared into thin air last season, is revealed to be in rehab out of some arrangement she has with her family. Predictably, she takes to ruining her group sessions with the glibly aggressive banter for which she’s known, her compassion, or what passes for it, occasionally surfacing in her interactions with rehab-lifer Jasper (Richard E. Grant), and with a young closeted lesbian (Danielle Brooks of Orange Is the New Black) who displays a vulnerability that sends Jessa, and Dunham, scurrying back to familiar shock tactics.
The spanning arc of this two-part season premiere is a road trip that Hannah, Adam, and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) embark on to spring Jessa from rehab after she’s kicked out for going down on her troubled gay acquaintance, a premise that Dunham utilizes as a springboard for scoring surprisingly cruel points on her characters’ self-absorption and cluelessness. Self-absorption is an accusation that’s been lobbied at Dunham’s work since her breakout film, Tiny Furniture, and, until now, it’s been unfair and seemingly rooted more in class resentment than in an active appraisal of her work. In that film, and in much of the first two seasons of Girls, Dunham displayed an awareness for the underlying pain and terror that boxed her characters into an escalating variety of impassioned and elaborate screwball/sitcom situations, but these episodes display a self-conscious effort to recapture past seriocomic glories rather than forge ahead into new emotional terrain.
That’s partially the point, as Dunham is attempting to gradually work her own creative success into the lives of the four girls, who’re beginning to show signs of achieving conventional stability, with the dramatic friction resulting from their need to brew familiar trouble out of habit. That’s fertile, truthful ground, but the situations that Dunham has devised here simply aren’t very funny or convincing. An early scene gets things off to a contrived, nasty start, when a friend of Adam’s ex, Natalia (Shiri Appleby), berates Hannah and himself with a catalogue of bitter sexual obscenities that no one would say given the setting and circumstances. It isn’t shocking, but a boring reprise of Adam’s legitimately unsettling coupling with Natalia last season.
Rendering these sorts of moments, which are plentiful, even more rootless is the ill-advised decision to place the narrative heart of two consecutive episodes in the hands of Kirke, who’s a strikingly inexpressive, uninteresting performer playing a strikingly inexpressive, uninteresting role. This use of Jessa is an instance where it’s hard to tell precisely what Dunham’s intentions are: Is she acknowledging that people you find so daring and fascinating while in your 20s have the tendency to reveal themselves to be tedious as you grow out of your insecure need to rebel against everything, including common courtesy? In the context of these episodes, that’s an overly kind interpretation. More likely is that Dunham hasn’t outgrown that fascination yet herself, a misperception that’s particularly obvious when Jasper attempts to sleep with Jessa in the tradition of every older male in the history of the series. It seems impossible for Dunham to imagine that viewers might not find Jessa attractive, or even tolerable.
But Hannah, Marnie (Allison Williams), and Shoshanna, who have all, hopefully temporarily, regressed to a nattering baby state that might even test the Sex and the City ladies’ capacity for unchecked consumption, are similarly shortchanged. With the exception of Rita Wilson (as Marnie’s mother), who brings crisp timing to the proceedings, it’s the men who shine in these episodes: Mitchell, Grant, Bob Balaban (as Hannah’s squirrelly shrink), and particularly Driver. Adam is the one element of Girls that continues to evolve and fascinate, partially because he’s clearly meant to embody the viewpoint of post-twentysomething males who’re growing impatient with the sort of minutae-laden theatrics that tend to dominate Girls, and also because Driver is palpably growing as an actor. There’s one scene in this double-header that’s authentically moving: When Adam tells Shoshanna that Hannah’s his best friend. It’s a moment of clean, pure emotion that’s unvarnished by the water-cooler need for Girls to do something flip or “relevant” every few seconds. Driver, and Dunham’s ongoing dialogue with him as a writer/director/actor, is the reason the series is still worth rooting for.
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