"Who is Hannah Horvath"? That's the question a book publisher asks Hannah in "Only Child," the latest Girls episode to air. But increasingly in its third season, it seems like the show itself is having an identity crisis. It used to feel like it had such a firm grasp on its characters, criticizing them while giving you ample reason to understand them, but now I don't know if it has a clear vision of what it's trying to say about them anymore. I'm one of the few people who loved how dark season 2 got -- it was willing to put these four women through the ringer, but also had a great amount of sympathy for them. In season 3 though, Girls has gone back to having a lighter, more comedic feel reminiscent of season 1.
Now don't get me wrong, I loved season 1. The problem is that season 2 was such a "you can't go home again" season, that trying to go back to the tone of season 1 just doesn't feel right. It's what I like to call The Buffy Season 6 problem. That's another season of television that I love, but one that put the show in a difficult position. After the unrelenting darkness of that year, it'd be easy to make up for it with lighter fare in the next season. But being a Joss Whedon show, it decided to only step off the gas a little bit when it came to the misery, and the final season is often derided for how dreary it is. (To be fair, there are many other problems to lob at it that don't have to do with the tone.) Likewise, if Girls continued following the slope established by its second season, it would be in danger of becoming a depressing slog. So I definitely understand the tonal choices made by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, but that doesn't forgive the many problems that still exist within this season.
The biggest of those problems is that the characters are approaching the point where they're starting to feel like cartoons, instead of the living, breathing people that they were written to be in the show's first two seasons. Now the main characters feel so aggressively self-involved, way past the point of seeming real. Take the end of "Dead Inside," where Hannah pretends to finally have some reaction to her editor's death by retelling a story that Caroline told her earlier, for instance. The moment is extremely dark on paper, but it's treated like a cute punchline to end the episode on. It's the biggest example of the gap between what the show was ("These people are awful. Let's figure out why.") to what it often is now ("Look at how awful these people are!"). I'm just not interested in the show if it wants to point and laugh at the characters. I know that may not be Dunham and Konner's intention, but it sure does feel that way. Just look at Marnie's storyline so far this year, where we're supposed to find her constant floundering funny. When did the show become so cynical?
The introduction of Adam's sister Caroline, doesn't help matters much either. Gaby Hoffmann is perfectly cast in the role, but the writing has yet to elevate her past the level of being a zany cartoon. She's just the random force there to disrupt Adam and Hannah's life. Adam might be a strange guy, but he had depth from almost the very beginning. You can see how Lena Dunham is trying to say something about the mirrors between her and Hannah, but it feels so half-baked because the show is so distracted by her oddness. It's surely leading somewhere, but the road to get there could be a little more interesting.
Weirdly, the strongest and most sympathetic season 3 material comes from Jessa. For the most part, she was everybody's least favorite character, a matter not helped by the relatively shallow storylines she got in the first two seasons. But this year, her character has been fertile ground for compelling stories. When watching her scenes in rehab early in the season, it'd be easy to think that it's just another example of the cartoonish awfulness I complained about, but there's something much deeper going on with her. She's still an awful human being, but the show depicts her maliciousness in a way that exposes an inner pain, not just using it as a setup for sitcom laughs.
Yet despite some of my fears and misgivings, I think this season is strangely engrossing nonetheless. Every week, I find myself hating the first 15 minutes of a given episode, only for the second half to really grow on me. By the time the end credits roll, I'm eager to see the next episode. Even when it's frustrating, Girls feels as if it's an experience unlike anything else on television. I throw my hands up in annoyance, but I also find it so daring. Regardless of the actual intent, the inherent darkness of the final scene of "Dead Inside" is ballsy stuff. And look at the jarring way that "Only Child" just ends. In my blurb about it on my year-end list last year, I mentioned how Girls is a insane highwire act. It hasn't quite fallen yet, but watching it struggle to maintain balance is both frightening and fascinating at the same time.