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Girls: Where Does Lena Dunham End and Hannah Begin?

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(Spoiler alert)

With the ultra-sharp new season of Girls, I finally understand -- though I don't agree with -- the Lena Dunham backlash. For all I know, in real life she's perfectly likable. But her character, Hannah, is the most squirm-inducing character on television. Hannah's total self-absorption (as if the world should be interested) and defiantly strong self-image is combined with its reverse: the cringingly bad self-image her bravado masks, and her utterly self-destructive relationships. Who would want to be this whiny mess' friend? But Dunham plays her so convincingly that the distance between herself and Hannah seems to vanish -- which is especially weird, considering that Dunham is the writer/director/actor/ and Judd Apatow protegee with a reported $3.5 million book deal and Hannah is a struggling, post-college work-in-progress.

The backlash itself has been odd, cloaked as an attack on Dunham as a privileged upper-middle-class white girl; but the "Who does she think she is?" response, and the hint that Dunham stumbled her way into success, reeks of envy. In fact, she is a daring artist who -- as this season makes extremely clear -- knows exactly what she's doing. I was relieved to read in a recent New York Times Style article that the Girls costume designer sometimes makes Hannah's oddball, unflattering clothes fit even worse than they have to. Her look reflects the way Dunham refuses to prettify Hannah's character, inside and out, never more so than in the first episodes of the new season, when her spikiness and sense of entitlement soar.

The season begins (Sunday on HBO) with her in bed, non-sexually, with her gay ex-boyfriend and current roommate, Elijah. (Did I mention self-destructive?) All around, her friends are floundering in new directions. Marnie gets fired. Jessa comes back from her honeymoon with the rich husband she scarcely knows. Shoshanna plays at being a sophisticated grown-up even though she awkwardly describes herself as recently "deflowered."

Dunham, who directed the first two episodes, gets great performances from the actors, especially Allison Williams, who shows the insecurity and the depth beneath Marnie's beauty, and Zosia Mamet, who make the quirky Shoshanna believable.

The Girls plots are sometimes unconvincing, especially when Elijah (Andrew Rannells) sleeps with someone who is a most implausible partner (and not just because she's a woman). And Hannah's new African-American boyfriend, Sandy (Donald Glover), seems too obvious a response to the criticism that the first season of Girls was pasteurized white.

But the dialogue can be brilliantly layered. During a fight that Hannah says is about race and politics, and Sandy knows is about his tepid reaction to her writing (yes, she's still a would-be writer, and I suspect an extremely self-indulgent one: all personal essays all the time). Hannah says, "I never thought about the fact that you were black once," and he calls her on it. "That's insane!" he says, "Because you should."

Even more layered: Hannah reacts smugly when Marnie gets a job as a hostess at a club. "I've made a choice... not to cash in my sexuality," Hannah says, and when Marnie is skeptical she adds: "Oh, you think I'm not pretty enough for a pretty person job?... A range of different kinds of men like me. Black men, Republicans, et al." ("Et al?" Marnie says, "Really?") Hannah's speech would sound a lot more convincing and less defensive if she weren't eating Cool Whip straight out of the container at the time -- the giveaway detail that reveals Dunham's knowing distance from her character.

It's not always possible to parse that distance, and maybe at times it truly disappears. Hannah is constantly tearing off her clothes for the cameras, and that's Dunham's imperfect body we're seeing, not just Hannah's. Dunham has said the nudity is way of showing that you don't have to be a size zero, which is fair enough. And as the child of a painter and a photographer, she grew up in an atmosphere in which nudity is no big deal; it's just what artists' use. Still, there is some in-your-face exhibitionism in the frequency of Dunham's nude scenes, and her rationale about body image echoes the insecure bluster of someone who mainlines Cool Whip while insisting she's sexy to many kinds of men.

Even so, Girls is inspired in the way it pushes the boundaries of comedy. In Episode 3, Hannah and Elijah do cocaine together so she can write about it, and the story is very funny until it turns ugly for reasons that have nothing directly to do with drugs: someone simply blurts out the truth, always a dangerous thing. Dunham grasps the power of truth with such clarity that Girls is less comfortable and closer to the nerve than ever.

For more reviews and to watch a trailer for Girls, please go to jamesonscreens.com