Season Three of ‘Girls’ Might Be Its Strongest Yet

Much like its closest television contemporary, Mad Men, Girls comes alive through character detail rather than plot.

The HBO series Girls has been and continues to be a flash point for controversy and thinkpieces. If its status in that department diminished ever so slightly in its third season, it seemed to be only a case of bloggers, culture writers, and assorted creeps conserving energy for the release of creator and star Lena Dunham’s first book of essays a few months later. What the pontificating — and often insane animosity — centering on Dunham, particularly in the form of personal attacks, sometimes obscures is what a terrific television show Girls is. The program’s third season, now on Blu-ray just as season four is about to begin, may be its strongest run yet.

Over the course of these 12 episodes from the spring of 2013, the show levels out some of its characters and its seriocomic tone, with fewer of the melodramatic swings that capped the second season with the introduction of Hannah’s OCD. The season finds aspiring writer Hannah Horvath (Dunham) turning 25 and in a relatively functional relationship with Adam (Adam Driver), who pursues acting with more seriousness, Jessa (Jemima Kirke) leaving rehab and attempting to rejoin society. Marnie (Allison Williams) flailing in search of a career in art or music, and Shoshannah (Zosia Mamet), the youngest of the group, sowing wild oats as she stares down graduation.

More happens over the course of the season, but the episodes come alive not with plot so much as details. Several of these details are among the show’s best ever, even or especially when separating or isolating some of the characters. Among the regulars, only Hannah and Adam get real screentime in “Flo”, as Hannah leaves the city to visit her ailing grandmother (played beautifully by Nebraska‘s June Squibb). The episode introduces several new characters and sets of family dynamics, but it never feels like a distraction; rather, it shows off the versatility of the show’s writing staff. On the opposite end of the spectrum, all of the girls get plenty to do in “Beach House”, where a weekend getaway for re-connection blows up into spectacular displays of hostility and frustration. Neither of these episodes are as structurally daring as the dreamlike “One Man’s Trash” from season two, but they’re at least as good.

While Hannah was front and center in “Trash” and featured in many of the other memorable episodes from the second season, the show’s developing ensemble gets stronger material in the third season, particularly Allison Williams as the much-loathed Marnie Michaels. The season picks up with Marnie completing a transition from put-together professional with a secret loathing for her longtime boyfriend to unceremoniously dumped coffeehouse employee and aspiring singer-songwriter; those sentences may contain everything anyone could possibly want to know about why Marnie has seemingly emerged as the most hated of the main girls among fans. She edges out the far meaner, more self-impressed, and flightier Jessa, probably because her desire (and sometimes uncomfortable demand) for validation is more nakedly obvious. But while the show occasionally seems like it’s joining in with its fans, glorying in putting Marnie in her place, she’s also a richly developed portrait of a woman whose lifetime of organization and preparedness has somehow left her near-helpless in the face of adversity. Her mini-monologue in “Incidentals” about the yogurt shop ruining her day is a season high point, and her complete music video for her cover of “What I Am,” shot off-screen between seasons in the world of the series and perfectly emulating the kind of music video effects Marnie surely grew up loving in the ’90s, is a must for Marnie aficionados.

The Blu-ray set provides plenty of extra material for hungry fans, even if they maintain knee-jerk disdain for Marnie: half of the episodes have commentary tracks, and most of them have a wealth of often-strong deleted scenes. The deleted material and commentaries work well together, the latter providing insight into the show’s creative and logistical decisions. This is a balm of sorts for anyone wondering how the show could cut a scene as hilarious as one where Marnie talks frankly about how everyone is better off without Jessa around. In a commentary on the episode “Truth or Dare” wherein Hannah, Adam, and Shoshannah take a road trip to pick Jessa up from rehab, Dunham and producing/writing partner Jenni Konner talk about having written scenes for the unseen character of Chad, Adam’s only male friend, but never shooting them, and eventually deciding he wouldn’t be shown, “like Tino on My So-Called Life,” Dunham explains.

With the commentary playing over the soundtrack, it’s even more striking how much of “Truth or Dare”, especially in its opening section, focuses on the framing of faces: of Dunham, Driver, and Mamet, together and apart in different configurations as alliances form and break apart in miniature. The filmmaking seems simple enough, but it lends the show an intimacy missing from more plot-focused shows. Usually when television is called cinematic, it’s meant that a show has impressive scope, locations, or mood; “cinematic” becomes “novelistic” on a bigger budget, essentially. Girls is cinematic in the sense that Dunham and her fellow episode directors (most often Jesse Peretz and Richard Shepard) compose their shots thoughtfully and meaningfully, but its best episodes have the precision and satisfaction of short fiction. When “Dead Inside” ends with Hannah stealing a made-up story from Adam’s nutty sister Caroline (Gaby Hoffman) and telling it to Adam as her own, it’s not building to a later revelation of the lie, or beginning a long-developing arc about Hannah’s honesty or empathy or understanding of death. It’s just putting a sharp, concise period on the end of this particular episode, which deals with empathy and death directly, in the moment.

In that respect, the third season of Girls plays less like a rebuke to its HBO ancestor Sex and the City than a logical companion to AMC’s Mad Men, another TV show less concerned with plot than with character. HBO shows are known for their epic serialization; even one of its major comedy series of recent years, Eastbound and Down, is designed for a single season to be basically continuous, each episode picking up almost exactly where the previous one left off. Both Girls and Mad Men are serialized in the sense that characters’ lives grow and change, but they let some individual episodes stand alone, enhanced but not wholly dependent on the show’s history. This keeps Girls from descending into soap opera; instead, it dissects the soap-opera moments from its characters lives.

RATING 8 / 10