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Now and Then: ‘Girls’ Was the Season’s Best New Series. When Did That Happen?

Now and Then: 'Girls' Was the Season's Best New Series. When Did That Happen?

The pilot of “Girls” was an ugly, awkward little thing, delivering its one-liners with a nervous titter. Despite its refreshingly frank appraisal of modern sexual mores, its quartet of young women came off largely as archetypes, not characters. But I stuck with the series, and it paid off.

It’s common for a new show to start strong and fade fast, to lose its way once the sharp edges of a pilot are blurred by the rigors of the production schedule. Far more rare is the “Girls” model. This is a series that, for all its first few episodes’ flatness and insecurity, clearly contained the germ of a fresh idea — it marked itself from the outset, with the pilot’s canny joke about a poster in Shoshanna’s bedroom, as the anti-“Sex in the City,” and so it was. Though it took a while to find its footing, “Girls” emerged as the best new series on television, mastering a light, commanding rhythm that proved it was unafraid to blur the lines between comedy and drama, sex and love, adolescence and adulthood.

I can trace my own crush on “Girls” to a pair of episodes at midseason. In “The Return,” Hannah (series creator Lena Dunham) heads home to Michigan for her parents’ anniversary; in “Welcome to Bushwick, a.k.a The Crackcident,” the protagonists head to a wild warehouse party. The former has its funny moments, namely Hannah’s excruciating attempts at talking dirty to a white-bread pharmacist and former classmate, but its atmosphere is elegiac, even painful. Hannah cycles through excitement, comfort, anger, regret, and guilt — especially guilt, for not coming home often enough, and then for the sense of relief she gets from leaving once more. The latter, my favorite episode of the season, hilariously nails the tenor of youth’s late, late nights, which always start off with so much promise but tend, in the gloaming of the very early morning, toward disappointment.  

The two episodes could scarcely be more different in tone and subject matter, but this is the subtle genius of “Girls,” moving easily between the serious and the comic in ways its initial bawdiness seemed to preclude. Here the series first achieved its strange brand of realism, similar to that of Dunham’s breakout feature, “Tiny Furniture”: a preternatural understanding that laughter and sorrow exist only in tandem, that life as we live it is built from their consonance or dissonance.

In the episodes since, “Girls” has embraced this complexity, dispensing with archetype in favor of unexpected developments. Hannah, once almost pathetic, found the relationship she’d been looking for, then managed to muck it up. Marnie (Alison Williams) and Charlie (Christopher Abbott), the perfect couple, wrecked and regretted and tried to move on. Laissez-faire Jessa (comedienne extraordinaire Jemima Kirke) proved soulful, and strait-laced Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), the series’ weakest link, at least got to smoke some crack. Adam (Adam Driver), Hannah’s boyfriend with the off-putting sexual predilections, made perhaps the most surprising transformation — from diffident creep to font of sweetness and encouragement.  

These were earned developments, cultivated over time rather than revealed out of nowhere, and if the wedding of Sunday’s finale felt, to its discredit, more like a plot device than an organic outgrowth of the previous nine episodes, then it at least became a perfect set-piece for the mistakes and regrets that will surely imbue the second season. The episode was funny and ultimately quite sad, ending on a beach out by Coney Island with only the braying of gulls audible in the background. It was a note of introspection fitting for a series that’s grown up so quickly, ugly duckling no more.

The complete first season of “Girls” is now available on iTunes and HBO GO.

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