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Season Two Brings Changes For 'Girls'

Lena Dunham's series <em>Girls</em>, which follows the lives of a group of young women in New York City, returns to HBO this month.
Jessica Miglio
Lena Dunham's series Girls, which follows the lives of a group of young women in New York City, returns to HBO this month.

Of all the cable comedies returning with new episodes Sunday, Girls is the most ambitious — as well as the most unpredictable, and occasionally unsettling.

When thirtysomething premiered on ABC more than 25 years ago — yes, it's been that long — that drama series was both embraced and attacked for focusing so intently on the problems of self-obsessed people in their 30s. What that drama did for that generation, Girls does for a new one — and for an even younger demographic, by presenting a quartet of young women in their mid-20s.

I say "young women," but this HBO comedy, being completely upfront about how much its characters still have to learn and grow, is titled Girls. That title is no accident — and the growing pains in this comedy sometimes are so uncomfortable to watch, they make you squirm.

But Girls, without question, has the definite aromas of both honesty and originality. The four main characters — aspiring writer Hannah, art curator Marnie, free spirit Jessa, repressed spirit Shoshanna — have problems holding on to jobs, maintaining their intimate relationships, even staying close to one another. The breakups are messy, but so are the less dramatic times. Sex, in this series, usually gets down to equal parts passion and awkwardness — which makes it seem all the more real, and, like the emotions displayed throughout, all the more raw.

HBO sent out four episodes of Season 2 for preview, and a lot happens that I won't reveal here. It's important to acknowledge, though, that these young women — these girls — really are changing and growing and adapting to tough life in the big city.

It's also important, I think, to note that the show addresses head-on one of the central complaints leveled against it last season — that Hannah's world was so relentlessly white. And it addresses it in such a clever way, it reveals just how smart a show Girls really is.

Hannah, played by Lena Dunham, is committed to a new boyfriend, Sandy, played by Donald Glover. Sandy happens to be black — but also happens to be a Republican. And when he criticizes some of Hannah's writing in Episode 2, they begin to fight, and both sides end up playing the race card.

Girls is the polar opposite of a cable show like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad — and not because it's a comedy and those are dramas. The dramatic scenes in Girls, and there are lots of them, are plenty intense. But Tony Soprano and Walter White would go through entire seasons without ever uttering exactly what they're thinking — while, on Girls, that's just about all any of the characters do. It's unfiltered honesty on parade — but it's quite a parade. And even though I'm way past the target demographic, I still find it a fascinating parade to watch.

All of the other cable comedy shows returning this Sunday, coincidentally, feature characters who talk openly, and a lot, and who are as abrasive as they are attractive. On HBO, Girls is followed by Enlightened, starring Laura Dern as a demoted former executive trying to bring down her corporation from within. And on Showtime, there's a trio of shows starring dysfunctional protagonists, all returning with their season premieres this weekend.

On Shameless, William H. Macy plays the patriarch of a resourceful family of con artists — a family that throws him out when he returns after an extended bender. On Californication, David Duchovny plays a hedonistic writer whose family throws him into rehab. And on House of Lies, Don Cheadle plays a corporate adviser who is just the sort of scheming one-percenter Dern's character is targeting over on Enlightened.

Individually, these seriously flawed characters may make for bold TV writing — but collectively, they're a little tiring. And as comedies go, or are supposed to go, they're not always that funny.

But the fact that HBO and Showtime are going head to head with their best and brightest sitcoms, on the same night and at the same time, means both premium cable networks are taking their comedy very seriously. And their competition, too.

But for me, of this entire group, the sitcom to take the most seriously is Girls. I watch, and enjoy, all of the others, but Girls is the one that's the most surprising — and that, in the long run, I suspect will be the most memorable and influential.

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David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.