DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Season two of HBO's "Girls," the acclaimed and sometimes controversial comedy starring and created by writer-director Lena Dunham, begins Sunday. Season one is now out on DVD, two reasons why today we're featuring Terry's interview with Lena Dunham from last year.
But first, in my role as TV critic, I'd like to review the new season of "Girls" and other comedies returning this weekend on HBO and Showtime.
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. 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 aroma 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 and 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 two 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GIRLS")
LENA DUNHAM: (As Hannah) I'm actually so happy that you didn't like it. If you just loved it like everyone else does, that would be so simple, but this actually opens up a dialogue about my work, the same kind of dialogue we've had about your political beliefs.
DONALD GLOVER: (As Sandy) There's no dialogue. I know what I believe. I'm steadfast in it. I'm fine with it.
DUNHAM: (As Hannah) So you mean, like, even though you spend all this time with me and my gay roommate, you don't have any feeling that he should be allowed to have, like, a beautiful wedding, like all the ones we saw earlier on "Say Yes to the Dress"?
GLOVER: (As Sandy) Hannah, this is because I didn't like your essay.
DUNHAM: (As Hannah) It's not because you didn't like my essay. It's because we're having an open conversation about things we believe in, and I'm also a little horrified by the fact that you think people should just be allowed to own guns.
GLOVER: (As Sandy) It's way more complicated than that.
DUNHAM: (As Hannah) Is it, though, more complicated than that?
GLOVER: (As Sandy) Yeah, yeah it is.
DUNHAM: (As Hannah) I also would love to know how you feel about the fact that two out of three people on death row are black men.
GLOVER: (As Sandy) Wow, Hannah, I didn't know that. Thank you for enlightening me about how things are tougher for minorities. Thank you.
DUNHAM: (As Hannah) I can't tell if you're being sarcastic.
GLOVER: (As Sandy) I am.
DUNHAM: (As Hannah) OK, well, this is hard for me to say because I really like you, but I think our political beliefs are just too different and that we should just be friends.
GLOVER: (As Sandy) I knew this. This always happens. This always happens. I don't even know...
DUNHAM: (As Hannah) What always happens?
GLOVER: (As Sandy) This, this whole - like oh, I'm a white girl, and like I moved to New York, and I'm having a great time. And oh, I've got a fixed-gear bike, and I'm gonna date a black guy, and we're going to go to a dangerous part of town, all that bull (beep). Like yeah, I know this. I've seen it happen a million times. And then they can't deal with who I am.
DUNHAM: (As Hannah) You know what? Honestly, maybe you should think about the fact that you could be fetishizing me because how many white women have you dated? It sounds like a lot from what you just said.
GLOVER: (As Sandy) What? Really?
DUNHAM: (As Hannah) And maybe you think of us as just one big, white, blobby mass with, like, stupid ideas that you can't deal with. So why don't you lay this thing down, flip it and reverse it because I don't think it's very nice.
GLOVER: (As Sandy) You just said a Missy Elliot there, and I'm sure...
DUNHAM: (As Hannah) I don't know who that is.
BIANCULLI: "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 Laura 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, in the long run I suspect, will be the most memorable and influential.