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Lena Dunham Caved to Her Critics on Race, and It Made "Girls" a Better Show

Donald Glover delivers a plot curveball.

The backlash to season one of HBO’s “Girls” erupted as soon as the wunderkind glow around Lena Dunham had dimmed. On The Hairpin, Jenna Wortham lamented Dunham’s failure “to weave a main black character” into the show. The blog Racialicious posted a piece titled “Dear Lena Dunham: I exist.” And Dunham leapt to apologize. “If we have the opportunity to do a second season, I’ll address that,” she told The Huffington Post. Soon after season two began shooting, news was leaked that “Girls” had put out casting notices seeking “hipster types” of “all ethnicities.”

But the racial critique of “Girls,” while understandable, felt mostly beside the point. The world of the show was small because the world of its characters was small. It was not so farfetched to imagine that the small posse of Oberlin grads on the show had a mostly white social circle. (A massive new coffee table book about Oberlin, apparently released to capitalize on Dunham-mania, describes the way the school’s “glorious isolation and self-containment creates a sense of special-ness, a benign bubble.”) The girls’ narrowness of context, their inflated sense of the daily catastrophe of post-college life: all this was crucial to the show’s specific angle on coming-of-age in New York. So it was easy to worry that Dunham would try to overcorrect, either by suddenly recasting Hannah Horvath’s Brooklyn as a post-racial fantasy or by feeding her characters clunky apologias. Now season two has arrived—it premieres Sunday—and Dunham has indeed taken the criticism of her show to heart. But so far, Dunham’s response to the racial critique of her show has actually been among the best parts of the new season.  

The main addition to the cast is the excellent Donald Glover, a comedian and actor on “Community,” who plays Hannah Horvath’s new boyfriend Sandy, a black Republican. The relationship is in full swing by the time season two begins. We first meet Sandy as he and Hannah are having energetic sex on somebody’s couch. They canoodle in bookstores, chasing each other around the shelves. Meanwhile Hannah’s relationship with Adam—he was hit by a truck at the end of season one, and she is nursing him back to health while fending off his requests to date her—continues to chug pitifully along, in sad juxtaposition. Sandy is the confident and sexy alternative, teaching her new ways to be appreciated. “I love how weird you are,” he says.

But the dynamic between them complicates by the second episode, in an especially satisfying scene. Hannah and Sandy are sitting on his couch, and that early adrenaline rush has started to wane. She is hurt that he has not yet read an essay she sent him. Sandy admits that he did read it, but didn’t like it. “It wasn’t for me,” he tells her. “It’s for everyone,” she says. The obliviousness of this reply is a jab at the idea that one work of art should be saddled with the responsibility to be “for everyone,” the question that has dogged Dunham so persistently: whether “Girls” is about all girls or about four girls’ very particular bubble. Hannah’s rant segues to Sandy’s political beliefs, blasting his views on gay marriage and gun control. “I would also love to know how you feel that two out of three people on death row are black,” she says, and you can feel a new gulf open up between them.

It’s a strange feature of TV criticism that, once a specific complaint reaches a certain cultural decibel level, it can seep into the universe of the show itself.  “Friends” was for years pelted with complaints about the whiteness of its cast and eventually added two black female guest stars, Gabrielle Union and Aisha Tyler, both great comic actresses. Tyler had a longer run on “Friends” than Union, but neither made for especially memorable characters, and the show dealt them nearly identical storylines, embroiling each in a love triangle with Joey and Ross. The pasted-in plots felt like a cheap kind of appeasement, a cursory nod to the world outside the show.

Other TV writers have been more direct: Aaron Sorkin staged arguments about feminism between Sam and Ainsley to fend off charges of sexism in “The West Wing.” “Modern Family” tried to explain away complaints that gay couple Cameron and Mitchell never kissed onscreen by devoting an episode to discussing Mitchell’s fear of public displays of affection. But a week later, Cam and Mitchell were as chaste as ever. That’s the problem with subplots designed to quash criticism: they tend to feel parenthetical, a quickly-dispensed-with detour from a protagonist’s main emotional arc. And it can be intrusive to be reminded that a show is so explicitly aware of its audience.

But in the case of “Girls,” some amped-up self-awareness was just what the show needed. Season one, at its best, mixed quiet internal drama with a nagging sense of the absurd. The party scene in Bushwick was a great episode because it captured the genuine exuberance and anxiety of this corner of twentysomethingdom with a certain loopy surrealness: think Zosia Mamet’s Shoshanna, stoned on crack, streaking pantsless across the screen. But the first season of the show, like Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture, could also feel somewhat slight—all that trudging from unsatisfying part-time job to part-time job, the hooking up with people you half-hate, rendered with such diary-like naturalness that the depiction of urban hipster life could seem a bit too fond and close to its subject. Hannah’s self-indulgence at times felt suspiciously like Dunham’s.

So far the biggest change in season two, though, is a new engagement with the question of what we should think about these people. Dunham uses the Sandy plot line as an opportunity to skewer both the complaints of her critics—Hannah herself echoes them with the misguided assumption that her  essays are “for everyone”—and her characters’ blinkered worldview. Glover’s arc on the show is brief, but he is key to illustrating the limited scope of Hannah’s experience. “This always happens,” Sandy tells Hannah during their fight. “I’m a white girl and I moved to New York and I’m having a great time and oh I’ve got a fixed gear bike and I’m gonna date a black guy and we’re gonna go to a dangerous part of town. All that bullshit. I’ve seen it happen. And then they can’t deal with who I am.” Hannah responds with an explosion of goofy knee-jerk progressivism: “You know what, honestly maybe you should think about the fact that you could be fetishizing me. Because how many white women have you dated? Maybe you think of us as one big white blobby mass with stupid ideas. So why don’t you lay this thing down, flip it, and reverse it.” “You just said a Missy Elliot lyric,” Sandy says wearily.

It is wholly unsubtle, but it is still “Girls” at its best, at once affectionate and credible and lightly parodic. There is Hannah: impulsive, oblivious, tangled up in her own sloppy self-justifications. And then there is Lena Dunham, the wary third eye hovering above the action. “The joke’s on you because you know what? I never thought about the fact that you were black once,” Hannah tells Sandy. “I don’t live in a world where there are divisions like this,” she says. His simple reply: “You do.”