Season two of Girls left us with a brilliantly inverted grand gesture: Adam, like any classic rom-com cad after his Big Realization, raced through the streets to "rescue" Hannah, his true and abiding love...from the throes of her severe mental illness. To me, it was perfect—illuminating the disconnect between Hollywood "romance" and actual human bodies smacking together; the willfulness with which we mistake codependence for love, self-destructiveness for steadfastness, and youthful idiocy for passion; the fact that if we lived life like the movies, we'd all be locked up.
That closing scene managed to be funny and dark and bright and frightening and, somehow, romantic. It held purpose. By contrast, the first two episodes of season three—"Females Only" and "Truth or Dare"—seem deliberately, aggressively light.
We open in the morning. Shoshanna is grumpy underneath a rando. Hannah is little spoon to Adam's ladle. Marnie is on her mother's couch. Jessa is in rehab, suffering the indignity of a top bunk.
There are so many straight-up gags in these two episodes that it almost feels (and not detrimentally) like plot points were lifted wholesale from the Tonight on Girls parody account. Hannah gets her head stuck in a rocking chair. Jessa is legally prohibited from talking to men. Adam, Hannah, and Shoshanna go on a road trip and search for metaphors. Jessa breaks rehab with the power of disdain. Hannah listens to This American Life in a forest while showing some squirrels her butt. Shoshanna is allergic to Chex Mix. Ray cracks up in the background. Marnie shrieks.
Lena Dunham and company have made funnier episodes, overall, but never have the characters seemed so heightened and the jokes so unrelenting. Even the dark and subtle moments have a tinge of absurdity. You get the feeling that Dunham is reacting to something—perhaps to the widespread misconception that Hannah's famous declaration, "I think that I may be the voice of my generation" is Dunham's personal mission statement and not a silly line spoken by a manipulative fictional narcissist. People have fixated on Dunham as a Representative of All Women, ignored her when she says she doesn't want that responsibility, and then chastised her (and not unreasonably) for her failures.
These episodes seem to say, "Fuck it."
Fuck it, here are some jokes. Fuck it, here is a sitcom. There's something powerful in the idea that women don't have to be powerful all the time—sometimes we can just make a sharply-written piece of entertainment that is enjoyable to watch. Men don't have to make meaningful man shows. They just get to make shows.
I personally think that Dunham—despite Girls's not-insignificant issues when it comes to representation and consistency—has the capacity to be a vitally important provocateur. I love the episodes of Girls with purpose. I think the show has the potential to really do something (Ricky Gervais's masterful gut-punches in the Office and Extras finales come to mind) in ways that most programs—even those that are more consistent in their tone and writing—can't. The New Girl, for instance, might be a "better" show from moment to moment, but it doesn't have a knife in me the way Girls does.
But it's balance and contrast that makes such meaning possible, and if the beginning of season three is an investment in lightness then I'm rabidly curious to see where she spends her darkness. Dunham brings it back to that knife point at the very end of "Truth or Dare." On the drive home from rehab (Jessa is kicked out for "fraternizing and distributing a zine of provocative cartoons"), Adam gruffly invites her to attend AA meetings with him, if she wants. She mumbles a maybe in reply. It's a subtle, complicated moment. You can feel Adam's obligation, as an addict, to take Jessa's recovery seriously. If he doesn't commit to recovery in general, then how can he commit to his own? But you can also feel his resentment at having to share this thing—the struggle of his life—with someone who, whether an addict or not, is essentially just fucking around. They could have had a blow-out. It would have been easier. It might have made for a more dynamic episode. Instead, we get this tiny moment—hopeful and hopeless—set off by Hannah's oblivious, selfish, shit-eating grin at what she can only see as her boyfriend and her best friend finally "bonding." It's everything and it's nothing. Welcome back, Girls.