'Girls' is back, with flak jackets at the ready

Aspiring cultural critics of the world, get those pitches ready: "Girls," the show that inspired a thousand think pieces, is back.

Created by and starring Lena Dunham, a Manhattan native who shot her first feature film, "Tiny Furniture," fresh out of Oberlin College, "Girls" received widespread praise and drew a narrow audience when it premiered last spring. The series, which returns to HBO on Jan. 13, follows the personal and professional struggles of four young women living in hipster Brooklyn. Raw, well-observed and often excruciatingly funny, it's "Sex and the City" for a more disenchanted age.

As the critics swooned over "Girls," which garnered five Emmy nominations, including one win, and hailed Dunham as a young, female version of Louis C.K. or Larry David, plenty of others scoffed at the show's nearly all-white version of New York City and the whiny entitlement of its aimless twentysomething characters.

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For many, the fact that the principal cast members all happened to have well-connected parents and that Dunham played a less fabulous version of herself created the impression of privileged navel-gazing. In a particularly hostile review, Gawker dismissed "Girls" as "a program about the children of wealthy famous people" and "the exhaustion of ceaselessly dramatizing your own life while posing as someone who understands the fundamental emptiness and narcissism of that very self-dramatization."

Much of the criticism was thought-provoking and yielded worthwhile conversations about race, class, gender and sexuality. But plenty of it also seemed like either knee-jerk hipster hatred or thinly veiled chauvinism directed at the 26-year-old Dunham, who was profiled in the New Yorker before she could rent a car, for being young, successful and slightly fleshier than the average woman to take off her clothes on premium cable.

The backlash wasn't isolated to anonymous Internet trolls or professional contrarians, either. Even James Franco — like Dunham, a protégé of Judd Apatow — chimed in with a review of sorts at the Huffington Post, accusing Dunham of reverse sexism because the show's male characters were "the biggest bunch of losers" he'd ever seen. There was a strong element of media in-fighting to the whole debate: Despite all the chatter, fewer than a million people tuned in to the premiere, meaning that seemingly everyone who watched the show had also written about it.

Via telephone from a cab in Los Angeles, where she was on her way to a writing session for Season 3, Dunham says she welcomed the controversy. "There's still a little bit of a high-schooler in me that's like, 'Wanna fight? OK, let's do it.' I do feel like good, important art should create a conversation and elicit multiple emotions, not just joy, or else it would be an Anne Geddes calendar or something. "

(She adds, only half-jokingly: "Oh no, I'm going to have an Anne Geddes backlash now. Anne Geddes' fans are going to come to my house and stuff my future children into sunflower outfits.")

Dunham says she welcomed the many debates prompted by the show — with the possible exception of the conversation about nepotism. "Really, guys? We're going to talk about this when there's important issues. Like, we're still in a war."

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The attention turned Dunham into a full-fledged celebrity. There were glossy magazine covers, Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, and even an invitation to the annual Met Ball in New York, where Dunham was escorted by Vogue editor Hamish Bowles. The frenzy reached its peak in October, when Dunham's proposal for an essay collection sparked a bidding war that resulted in a reported $3.5-million deal with Random House.

"It's a shock when you're sitting with your boyfriend outside a restaurant and some paparazzi comes up and takes a photo of you," Dunham says of her new-found celebrity status. "Obviously, me at breakfast with my boyfriend is the most interesting thing in the world to me, so I understand, but yeah, it's definitely a strange addition to anyone's life."

It's quite a contrast to Hannah Horvath, the would-be essayist and part-time barista she plays on "Girls" — a young woman who's barely able to scratch together the rent for her modest Williamsburg walk-up, much less buy a co-op apartment in Brooklyn Heights.

For an artist whose work tends toward the autobiographical, this disparity would seem to present a challenge for Dunham: How to relate to a struggling wannabe writer when one is, in fact, extraordinarily successful?

Dunham doesn't find it all that difficult. "No matter what you're doing professionally, you can't escape being a 26-year-old. You are constantly full of that indecision and anxiety," she says. "I'm not like Rihanna or something, but maybe having a lot of success in your 20s just makes it more confusing."

Indeed, confusion reigns in Season 2 of "Girls." Hannah finds herself juggling poorly defined relationships with three different men: She's now living with gay-or-maybe-just-bisexual college boyfriend Elijah (Andrew Rannells) while tending to her bed-ridden ex Adam and dating a new guy, Sandy (Donald Glover). In a two-for-one crack at diversity, Sandy is not only black but also a Republican. (No points for guessing which of these traits becomes a problem in their relationship.)

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"I think she's really trying to understand how much she needs to give other people and how much she should give herself," Dunham says. "That's a real thing that I go through."

Meanwhile, Hannah's best friend and former roommate, Marnie (Allison Williams), is forced to look for a "pretty person's job" when she gets laid off from her art gallery job, free-spirited Jessa (Jemima Kirke) settles into suddenly-married life, and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) adjusts to the idea of not being a virgin anymore.

In a sign of the show's cultural cachet, the new season of "Girls" also features some high-profile guest stars, including Rita Wilson in a scene-stealing turn as Marnie's mother ("You look 30," she tells her daughter, disgusted) and "Parks and Recreation's" Jon Glaser as Hannah's oddball neighbor.

If Season 1 was about the foibles of post-college life in New York City, Season 2 is "the moment they recognize they're not getting it right," Dunham says. "We're starting to wonder if we are just appropriately lost for our age or if we've somehow missed the exit from the highway."

meredith.blake@latimes.com

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