Lena Dunham has received ample praise (and plenty of flak) for her HBO creation "Girls," in which she portrays the irksomely egotistical yet endearingly sincere and struggling Hannah Horvath. While the series has been effective in its depiction of her (mis)adventures as an aspiring writer in New York tackling a serious relationship with eccentric loner Adam, it often seems at a loss for persuasively developing its secondary female characters.
It's no wonder, then, that Dunham frequently casts outside actors to infuse her fictional universe with fresh energy and disrupt its insular perspective. We here turn our praise away from the Golden Globe-winning actress to the guest stars that have often saved the show from falling into a repetitive mess of recycled character gags and meandering self-searching. With the latest addition, Felicity Jones ("Like Crazy,” “The Invisible Woman”), having made an appearance last week, we're relishing the near-three seasons of great guest stars by focusing on five especially noteworthy ones.
Patrick Wilson as Joshua (Not Josh)
Patrick Wilson guest-starred on one of the most surprising and unique episodes of "Girls": season two’s "Another Man's Trash." He shared the screen with only Hannah (and briefly with an irritable Ray), thus giving us a happy break from the other girls. Wilson did an impressive job with the difficult task of playing the well-to-do doctor Joshua who welcomes Hannah, a stranger, into his brownstone, woos her with his high-class living, and takes the day off from work to play naked ping pong and read the newspaper with his newfound companion. Few others could manage charming the offbeat Hannah as a separated man who spends his leisure time grilling meat while complaining about the noise of the Greenpoint neighborhood he is helping to gentrify.
Dunham used Wilson to address her critics, specifically by having him, in the midst of pleasuring Hannah, tell her that she's beautiful. Hannah responded, "Really? It's just not always the feedback that I've been given." Nonetheless, her self-destructiveness again surfaced through her contact with the outside world; the fantasy ended with self-implosion, as she dumped a bit too much of her baggage onto his lap, knowing full well he would not be up for the challenge. The episode exposed the petty sexism of many critics, who deemed Wilson too pretty to be fooling around with the likes of Dunham's frumpy Hannah, but the acting is so on-point that the two manage to have engaging, if not totally believable, chemistry.
June Squibb as Grandma Flo
While over at the Oscars, host Ellen DeGeneres was teasing June Squibb (nominated for "Nebraska") for her age, Lena Dunham was celebrating her senior insight in "Flo," one of the more reflective episodes of the "Girls" third season. Squibb played Hannah's ailing title grandmother and stole the episode with the piercing sagacity with which she, for example, advised: "Someday, you will look at him, hating him with every fiber of your being, wishing that he would die the most violent death possible. It will pass." She was, of course, referring to the on-looking Adam, whom she was made to believe is Hannah’s fiancé.
A proven comedic talent, Squibb was a perfect fit to play the dry-humored, tough matriarch of a family of squabbling women. The latter are not unlike the usual Marnie-Jessa-Shoshanna trio, yet refreshingly intimate. Flo’s calm and self-assured honesty momentarily mitigated the volatile passive aggression of her middle-aged daughters and their millennial counterparts. Through her, Hannah’s mother became more fleshed out in confiding to Hannah her anxious ambivalence towards her own parent. The two never share a scene alone, but instead were mediated through Hannah’s presence as their shared object of concern, both sternly though sincerely diagnosing her relationship with Adam. Squibb told Vulture that she related to the show as someone who, in-between her two husbands, had been a single woman in New York for several years. (She was also, to our happy surprise, charmed by Adam Driver, whom she called "darling,” “kind of wonderful” and “cute as can be.") We unfortunately will not be seeing her again on "Girls," as Flo (spoiler alert) did not survive the episode; however, her brief appearance leaves an important, perhaps game-changing mark on Hannah.
Donald Glover as Sandy
After the first season of "Girls" was vehemently (and sometimes rightly) criticized for depicting minorities as only marginal caricatures, Dunham responded by casting Donald Glover as her rebound boyfriend in the meta-titled “It’s About Time.” Emotionally stable, communicative and openly affectionate, Sandy functioned as a revealing contrast to the increasingly erratic, dependent and shady Adam. Sandy, however, when forced to give his honest opinion, was critical of Hannah’s writing, and the two broke up over a wonderfully written and acted scene in which race played not a little role. While she was too afraid to acknowledge their racial difference, he was bitingly straightforward about her racist forced obliviousness: “This always happens. ‘I'm a white girl, I moved to New York and I'm having a great time. I've got a fixed gear bike and I'm going to date a black guy and we're going to go to a dangerous part of town!’ I know this, I've seen it happen a million times, and then they can't deal with who I am."
His sadly brief presence played to Glover’s strengths as a likable, easy-going guy; and it was nice to see him shake off the stupidity of Troy (although who didn't love him in “Community"?) to play a law student with a point of view who wasn't afraid to stand up to Hannah and her self-entitled demands. While the writers made it easy to dismiss him by making him a Republican (to whom Hannah’s gay roommate Elijah was hostile by principle), Glover won our sympathy with his laidback charm, making it clear that Hannah risked the relationship out of pride (and insecurity regarding race) and not political conviction.
Gaby Hoffman as Caroline Sackler
The smart aleck preteen of the 1990s hits "Now and Then" and "Sleepless in Seattle" has been making a comeback with a guest role in TV's "Louie" (as Louie's too-serious girlfriend) and a title one in the indie feature "Crystal Fairy." She has a knack for playing slightly (or very) unhinged, aggressively blunt characters, and she appears in the third season of “Girls” as Adam's sister Caroline to unbalance Hannah's already-tilting world. Overbearing, intrusive, and possibly more self-involved than Hannah, Caroline was purposefully nearly unbearable; yet it worked within the context of a series often concerned with the limits of sanity in young people facing failure. We knew little of her backstory but enough to understand why she might be on the verge of collapse; she recently ended a relationship with an abusive boyfriend and had been struggling in her professional ambitions.
Caroline first appeared in “She Said OK” to challenge the apparent harmony Adam and Hannah have achieved in their cohabitation, and she reemerged in several scenes to provoke the other “Girls” characters (including Ray in an awkward dance seduction that went nowhere). Like Sandy, her perceptive reading of Hannah led to a quarrel, and, in “Only Child,” she was hastily kicked out of the apartment. With her storyline still pending, she seems sure to be back, and we welcome her with open arms. (Enjoying herself on television, Hoffman stars in the new Amazon pilot "Transparent," which has received very favorable reviews and is thus likely to be picked up for a full season.)
Chris O’Dowd as Thomas-John
Last on the list is the choice that will have the most readers shaking their heads in disagreement, but we had to go with Chris O'Dowd. He is best known for being a likably funny Irishman on British TV's “The IT Crowd” and, in his American breakout role, in the hit Kristen Wiig comedy “Bridesmaids.” “Girls,” however, cast him against type as a jerk banker whom Jessa and Marnie meet and charm in the appropriately titled "Weirdos Need Girlfriends Too." From dropping lame pickup lines and shamelessly ogling the girls to showing off his non-existent DJ skills and freaking out over spilled wine (albeit on his rather expensive rug), he was truly despicable, in typical “Girls” fashion.
Jessa’s liberal presumptuousness turned out to parallel his conservative self-importance, and, despite showing outright disgust for him then, she married him in the season finale. They broke up in a deliciously candid scene filled with the bitterness that often underlies the tired, forced relationships on the show. With only a first name (but two of them) -- Thomas-John -- and a strange American accent, O'Dowd pulled off being easily hated while delivering some memorably cutting though sometimes overly nasty lines. A personal favorite is when he questions Hannah about her "shorteralls," but he was less forgivable when he yelled, “I’m a miracle! I’m a unicorn!” and accused Jessa of being a “fucking dumb hipster.” He was also a reminder of the misogyny and classicism against which Hannah is often pushing though while frequently reinforcing. I do not believe O'Dowd will ever be returning to the show, though perhaps Jessa will run into him and his new, parent-approved and waspy trophy wife.
Other notable recurring characters and brief stints include: MTV's Colin Quinn as Ray's cranky boss, John Cameron Mitchell as Hannah's editor (RIP), Richard E. Grant as Jessa’s enabler, Rita Wilson as a believably uptight mother to Marnie, Patti Lupone as herself in a cutely funny interview with Hannah, Kathryn Hahn as the forgiving mother for whom Jessa babysat, Shiri Appleby (“Roswell”) as Adam's short-lived too-sane girlfriend, writer-director-actress Jennifer Westfeldt as a grieving wife, Melonie Diaz ("Fruitvale Station") as Jessa's former junkie friend, and rocker Kim Gordon and “Orange is the New Black” breakout Danielle Brooks as Jessa's co-rehabbers.
Four guest stars we
would like to see return:
Jenny Slate, currently making waves with her Sundance film “Obvious Child,” showed up in season two's "Leave Me Alone" to play Hannah's frenemy Tally Schifrin. (Incidentally, Michael Imperioli also guest-starred in that episode as Hannah's old writing mentor). She was delightfully evil as a self-involved, materialistic writer launching a new book exploiting the tragic death of her boyfriend. Her rapport with Hannah was mutually passive aggressive and a perfect example of the rivalry between insecure, amateur writers. Leaving a strong impression with her just few minutes onscreen, Slate fit right into the “Girls” universe, and it'd be nice to see her return.
Sarah Steele's (“Please Give”) Rebecca, cousin to Hannah, is a serious Med student who berated Hannah for her "loose" ways and oblivious selfishness. Lena used her as a soapbox for the show's critics, while also leaving a potential friendship open for the future. Dunham might welcome her back for a painfully revelatory night away from her demanding studies, controlling mother and Wednesday boyfriend.
Finally -- and this is very unlikely -- the very funny Amy Schumer (who will soon have her own movie, produced by “Girls” executive producer Judd Apatow) was so good as the angry, defensive friend of Adam's ex in one of the most amusingly embarrassing scenes (of so many), that we would love to see her back to generate even more tension in the intensifying (and potentially dissolving) relationship between Adam and Hannah.