January 13 was a big day for Lena Dunham. The second season of Girls premiered on HBO at 9 p.m. ET that evening; around 10:30 the very same night, Dunham’s show was awarded the Golden Globe for Best Television Series, Comedy or Musical.
Dunham – already a winner that night for Best Actress in a TV Comedy – accepted the award with an exuberant yelp, urging her co-stars and creative team to get “super close” to the microphone. Her heartfelt acceptance speech ended with Dunham thanking Chad Lowe, a joking reference to Hilary Swank’s famous omission at the 2000 Oscars. It was frank, funny, and a little bit awkward – just what someone who loved Girls’s first season would expect from the show’s visionary.
But two months later, the jokey joy Dunham displayed at the Globes seems to have disappeared from her creation.
When Girls launched, it was immediately labeled Sex and the City for the Millennial crowd – a sexually explicit comedy about four white, female 20-somethings fumbling their way through life in New York City. From the start, Girls acknowledged its predecessor; shallow Shoshanna revealed herself to be an SATC fan in the series premiere, and Dunham’s program has knowingly tackled some of the same material that Sex covered back in the early aughts.
Stylistically, however, Girls barely resembled HBO’s earlier hit. While SATC was broad and bawdy (all those puns!), Girls was messier and more introspective, finding humor in its characters’ flaws and humiliations. Its signature cringeworthy comedy shared more DNA with Curb Your Enthusiasm than the glamorous series to which Dunham’s show was most frequently compared; can’t you imagine a young Larry David totally tanking a job interview the same way Hannah does in episode 2?
In its sophomore season, though, Girls seems to have dropped the “comedy” part of that equation altogether. Since Hannah and Elijah’s ill-fated – and very funny – cocaine binge in episode 3, the series’s plotlines have gotten more and more serious. And while the show never really induced belly laughs, its last few episodes have been downright dire. Between Hannah’s sudden-onset OCD, Shoshanna and Ray’s crumbling relationship, Marnie’s increasingly hard to watch road to rock bottom, and Adam’s horrific sexual assault of his new girlfriend Natalia, there’s been hardly anything resembling humor on Girls for weeks. Those stories haven’t even been explored in a darkly comic manner; they’ve just happened, grimness be damned.
To many critics, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Badass Digest’s Film Crit Hulk applauded Girls’s ambition in a 7,000-word essay last month, comparing it favorably to The Sopranos and the films of Stanley Kubrick. The A.V. Club’s Todd VanDerWerff says the series is “plotted like it wants to be a TV adaptation of a Fiona Apple album,” which he means as a compliment. EW’s own Darren Franich likes season 2 even more than season 1.
But whether you love or hate the series’s darker, more experimental direction, one thing is clear: It’s tough to argue that 2013’s Girls can still be classified as a comedy, even if the Hollywood Foreign Press and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences insist otherwise when compiling their list of potential nominees for next year’s awards. Yes, comedy can be ambitious; indeed, good comedy should be ambitious. But comedy also needs to amuse – and even if Girls’s second season has kept you spellbound, it likely hasn’t made you laugh as much as Dunham’s Globes acceptance speech did.