Girls returned to UK screens tonight for the premiere of its hotly anticipated third season. Creator and star Lena Dunham is clearly setting a different direction in these opening episodes, but it’s unclear so far exactly what that direction is.
Cracks beneath the surface
If the show’s second season became weighed down by the growing sense of disconnection and disillusionment between the four friends – and in particular the focus on Hannah‘s descent into OCD-fuelled darkness – then season three strikes a distinctly less dark tone with its first two half-hours.
Initially each of the girls appears in a better place than in the latter part of season two. Hannah seems to have her more damaging tendencies under control and is energised by her e-book deal. Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) is focussing on both studying and expanding her sexual horizons. Marnie (Allison Williams), temporarily back with her parents, has a new job and is moving into a new place. And Jessa (Jemima Kirke), though in rehab, professes to have all her issues straightened out.
The cracks are not far beneath the surface, however. Hannah’s book makes her even more self-absorbed than before, turning every conversation on to herself and acting as if she expects life to turn her every move into a compelling narrative. Shoshanna’s shedding of her naivety is beginning to reveal a less beguiling side to her nature, and her insistence on burning the candle at both ends is unlikely to end well. Marnie’s career has gone from art gallery to Ray‘s coffee shop, and she still has issues over her sudden break-up with Charlie. And Jessa’s brutal honesty and lack of empathy does not sit well with her fellow patients as she blithely refuses to acknowledge her own issues.
And herein lies one of the problems with these opening instalments. Gone is the chummy esprit de corps of the first season that made the characters attractive despite their flaws. Now, with the relationships between the girls increasingly superficial in nature, all of them – even the kookily naive Shoshanna – are merely flawed and hard to root for.
A shift in focus
The focus has (at least for now) also shifted away from Hannah, whose narrative dominated season two and pushed her friends’ trials and tribulations to one side. This is very much a change for the better. Jessa, who was absent from most of the second half of last season, is under the spotlight in Females Only, while Shoshanna steps forward in the road trip episode Truth or Dare.
Indeed, it’s Hannah’s boyfriend Adam who gets the best material across these opening stories. Females Only opens with the pair in apparent domesticated bliss. Their relationship seems calm and stable, with Adam playing guardian angel to ensure Hannah takes her medication.
Hannah has always smoothed over some of his rough edges and brought out his sensitive side, but he’s still the same Adam underneath. He openly complains about having to have dinner with her friends and professes not to be interested in the minutiae of their lives, and yet when Marnie breaks down over Charlie he cannot help but jump in to talk her back up again in a way that his self-absorbed girlfriend cannot. And his silent despair as Hannah and Shoshanna sing along to Maroon 5 during their road trip is as eloquent as it is funny.
Where’s the funny?
Adam is also the subject of the funniest scene of the first two episodes, as he encounters former girlfriend Natalia and her friend at Ray’s and ends up on the receiving end of an excruciating and embarrassingly public rant. There are several other sharply observational moments of humour. Jessa outing fellow patient Laura as a lesbian (and then personally ensuring her exit from the closet). Marnie’s hang-up over her middle name being Marie. Adam catching himself quoting the Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want. Shoshanna’s feeble attempt to play Truth or Dare. The awkwardness of being the third person with a couple in a motel room.
Even so, these opening episodes felt a little light to me, in terms of both fun and the more provocative and discomforting squirm-on-the-sofa type moments. At times it almost felt a little safe, not an accusation you could ever have levelled previously at the series. I’m not entirely sure what Dunham’s vision for this third season is – other than that we can be fairly sure that Hannah is being set up for a painful fall – but for me there was not enough joie de vivre and a little too much ennui for my liking.
My verdict so far? Good but not great, and a definite step down on the early episodes of the previous two seasons. We’ll have to wait and see how successfully the quiet build-up of this opening double-bill pays off in subsequent episodes. I’ll reserve the right to change my judgement until then.
Girls continues on Sky Atlantic on Mondays at 10pm.
Link: Season 2 review