She was in her mid-20s. After attending Oberlin College and spending some time as an urban bohemian, she released a high-profile project that garnered her an avalanche of critical praise and media coverage.
Her endlessly debated work was derided by some, who thought her nothing more than a careerist and a barely competent child of privilege who traded on her sexuality and connections to jump to the head of the line. There was much talk of her not having paid enough dues before shooting to national prominence, and a substantial chunk of the chatter and critiques were driven by sublimated jealousy and undeniable sexism, all of which fed into endless debates about how much her appearance and media savviness had to do with her success.
But the naysayers were often drowned out by the legions of fans and critics who fell like a ton of bricks for the artist's sexually charged, challenging and entertaining work. It was rough around the edges, but that was part of its charm, and the way it fearlessly depicted the loneliness, the intensity and the unintentional comedy of the confusing post-college years was admirable. The work didn't just change the conversation in the artist's chosen arena -- it spoke to an entire generation, especially women who'd felt marginalized by a dude-saturated culture that rarely took their concerns and stories seriously.
The year: 1993. The work in question: Liz Phair's "Exile in Guyville." To quote "Battlestar Galactica," "All this has happened before and will happen again."
Twenty years later, history is repeating itself with Lena Dunham and "Girls" (Season 2 premieres Sunday, January 13 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO), which, at this point, isn't just a TV show, just as "Guyville," in the white-hot year that followed its release, wasn't just an album.
The HBO show, like Phair's debut album, has become a litmus test, a battleground, a debate-prompter, a symbol of both progress and exclusion, a repository for a whole host of expectations, an icon of a certain kind of privileged existence and a beloved talisman of those who finally feel recognized. HBO likes its shows to have a certain amount of buzz, but "Girls" has gotten the kind of hype (some of it on this site) that can turn attention into a buzzsaw.
After all the profiles and the praise and the controversy and the naked Emmy appearance, Dunham, like Phair before her, had to figure out what to do after a polarizing but auspicious debut, and the results, in the show's second season, contain more than a little flop sweat. You know what people don't talk about when they talk about Liz Phair? "Whip-Smart," the next album she released. But that's partly because inflated expectations can be a bitch.
As Phair's fellow traveler in the Chicago indie music scene, "Exile" spoke to me so deeply that anything not on that level of confessional artistry was bound to be a big disappointment. But years after the furor over Phair had died down, I gave "Whip-Smart" another listen, and I was able to evaluate it with the kind of detachment I hadn't possessed when it first arrived. "You know what?" I realized. "It's not half bad."
That level of scrutiny and personal investment on the part of fans is bound to take a toll on an artist's work, especially an artist who is still figuring out who she is and what she has to say. Who can create on a pure and unfettered level when it feels as though the whole world is watching? Comment boards had only recently become a thing when Phair emerged on the rock scene; now there are an endless number of venues, in print and online, in which people can discuss Dunham's looks, weight and lineage. It took a few years for Phair to become a "pinata for critics," but for Dunham, it was the day her multi-million-dollar book deal became public knowledge.
There's no doubt all of that has affected "Girls," if the first few episodes of Season 2 are anything to go by. The first two episodes in particular have a sour, meandering air, and they indicate, to my eyes anyway, a number of growing pains. This isn't me hating on the show because the first chunk of Season 2 is disappointing, compared to the best stretches of Season 1; I have more perspective on the process of creation than I did back in the '90s. This is me recognizing that "Girls," a show about both resisting maturity and learning to plumb its complexities, has some growing up to do.
Two things become clear early in Season 2, one of which doesn't have anything to do with the tidal wave of scrutiny that "Girls," Lena Dunham and her on-screen alter-ego, Hannah Horvath, have been subjected to. First of all, while she's a talented, original and bold artist, Dunham is not yet in full control of all of her storytelling skills, and she's got a ways to go when it comes to consistently mastering nuance and tone (this was also an issue in Season 1, which I generally loved, but wasn't perfect). Second, she's clearly trying to address some of the controversies that arose during the first season, and while that's both understandable and laudable, the results are iffy.
Regarding the first point, it would be unrealistic to expect "Girls" to make the kind of leap "Louie" made between its first and second season. Louis C.K. has been honing his craft for decades, while Dunham has only been writing and filming autobiographical tales for a few years. Season 2 has some nuanced writing and some cleverly observed moments (particularly when a buzz-chasing website editor tells Hannah to "do a whole bunch of coke and write about it!"). But there are also a number of grating elements on display as the season gets underway and as Dunham and her collaborators experiment with how far to take Hannah and her cohorts.
A few meaty scenes and encounters in the fourth episode, in which the characters drop their poses and deal with the pain in their lives and the consequences of their actions, are funny, poignant and thoughtful in ways that reinforce the idea that Dunham and executive producer Jenni Konner are distinctive voices very much worth listening to. But there are also times early in Season 2 when the New York hipsters of "Girls" seem every bit as clueless and unpleasantly narcissistic as the show's detractors said they were when the show debuted.
There's no doubt that it's hard, very hard, to get an audience to stick with characters who are blinkered and self-absorbed, but the "Girls" team managed to do that on a regular basis in Season 1, and that's what's prompted so much of the critical praise for the show. The women at the core of the show -- Hannah, Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Marnie (Allison Williams) -- were, at their best, realistically frustrating, adventurous and hilarious ("Whip-Smart in Guyville" could have been an alternate title for the show).
This season, however, the difficult challenges "Girls" has taken on are intensified by the expansion of Hannah's world and the number of bases Dunham and company need to cover. The show has to re-establish who the characters are, what they want and where they're going, and also flesh out Hannah's friend Elijah (Andrew Rannells) and other supporting characters as well. Integrating all those competing agendas and storylines into an organic whole can be tricky for veteran shows, and "Girls," which is still a relative newbie, has trouble mastering the bigger challenges of its second season.
A bigger problem is the show's tendency to go to extremes. Case in point: Last year, Marnie dated the overly compliant Charlie, but this year, the controlling and cold artist she dates is the ultra-ultra opposite, and not in ways that are particularly interesting. "Girls" seems to think his behavior is funny or at least harmless, but I found it unamusing, if not disturbing and sociopathic. I get that Marnie is flailing, but I don't quite buy that she'd put up with this particular creep, and the reasons offered for why she would put up with it aren't sufficiently convincing. (I hope to write more about the show after the third episode airs. I had a lot of issues with that installment.)
I don't need the "Girls" characters to be likable, and extreme behavior is often part and parcel of figuring out your adult identity, but I do need the show to get me to be interested in their activities, progress and motivations, but that wasn't consistently the case in the first four episodes I saw. Hannah's on-again, off-again boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver), for instance, started out as a clown, but over the course of Season 1, he grew to be one of the most weirdly compelling people on the show, as it became clear that his aggressiveness masked a deep well of awkwardness and confusion. This season, he's back to being a rude, self-pitying ass with boundary issues, and his regression doesn't feel like as much a choice as a storytelling convenience.
Of course, the biggest hue and cry that went up during the first season of "Girls" had to do with the fact that the cast was all white. To an extent, that frustrated me, given that both women and people of color have been subjected to persistent and institutional racism and sexism in Hollywood, which has shown no real interest in addressing this issue. As I wrote last year, finally a woman gets to make a show about her experiences, and of all the programs with writing rooms, directorial staffs and casts that are all or mostly white, this is the one show that gets called out?
But that was just one strand of my reaction: I also understood the frustration of those who felt shut out, ignored and unrepresented, and a show that calls itself "Girls" -- which implies that it's about the full range of young women's experience -- is asking to have a universe of expectations placed on it. The thing is, I don't know that anyone's going to be satisfied by Sandy, the black character played by Donald Glover of "Community" in the first two episodes of Season 2. Glover gives a fine performance, but the character feels thin and perfunctory, and there's a "twist" to Sandy that I wouldn't call subtle. And just when the show begins to throw interesting obstacles at him, he departs, to be followed, no doubt, by a wave of "Girls"-related blog posts, think pieces and tweets.
Some of the attempts to expand the "Girls" universe work very well. Shoshanna is a continual delight: I can't get enough of her hyperactive talking style, which reflects her overheated and charmingly odd way of thinking. Her rocky relationship with Ray (Alex Karpovsky) turns out to be one of the most enjoyable things about the second season, and there's a scene between them in Episode 4 that may be one the best things HBO airs all year. Shoshanna's basic optimism and naivety is so artless and winning that it makes up for a certain amount of narcissism on the part of everyone else, and I can't imagine the show without her.
Also on the plus side, there are a series of encounters between Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and her financier husband Thomas-John (Chris O'Dowd) that are both laugh-out-loud funny and sharply observed, and there's a very good set piece in their apartment in Episode 4, which is by far the strongest of the episodes I saw. "Girls" often works best when one character is vividly calling another on their bullshit, and there are some good examples of that in that half-hour.
So, all in all, it's a mixed bag from a creator who's still figuring it out, and I can live with that. What made a lot of critics -- including me -- fall for "Girls" (which ended up on my Top 10 list last year) was the impromptu dance party shared by Marnie and Hannah at the end of Season 1's third episode. That's when the transcendent charm of the whole thing kicked in and that's when I, for one, vowed that I would spend a lot more time with these girls (and boys).
Though Season 2 doesn't start off nearly as strongly as Season 1 finished, Episode 4 made me optimistic about where "Girls" is heading, and there's a Jessa-Hannah scene at the end of that episode that kind of melted me. "Girls" isn't consistent or perfect: Sometimes it's distractingly disorganized and frankly, a bit full of itself. Other times, it's euphoric fun.
And like Liz Phair's songs about fucking, "Girls" sure gives us a lot to talk about.
"Girls" returns 9 p.m. ET Sunday on HBO.
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