Hank Stuever
Hank Stuever
Critic

‘Girls’ returns to the New York of now, while ‘The Carrie Diaries’ dials back to the 1980s

HBO’s “Girls” is back, and somehow not quite as strong as it seemed. If nothing else, its return for a second season Sunday night reminds us that we can never recover all the time and energy spent watching it, writing about it, blogging about it, tweeting about it, recapping it, leaving often-sexist anonymous comments about it, and torturing ourselves and other people with it. By now I’ve read so many other people’s thoughts on “Girls,” pro and con, that I forgot what I thought about it. And, as “Girls” teaches us, “I” is the most important letter on the keyboard. When the screen freezes up like that, there is only one recourse — reboot the machine.

There.

Hank Stuever

Hank Stuever is The Washington Post’s TV critic and author of two books, “Tinsel” and “Off Ramp.”

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(Craig Blankenhorn/THE CW) - Austin Butler as Sebastian and AnnaSophia Robb as Carrie in “The Carrie Diaries.”

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Now.

“Girls” is a television show.

“Girls” is a television show erroneously billed as a comedy (though it can be painfully funny). “Girls” is a television show about four young, narcissistic women living in New York on what we are led to believe is the cheap. If it irritates you that the young women are largely supported by their parents, and are in fact played by actresses who have famous or semi-famous parents, then congratulations, you are enjoying the full range of value-added responses to “Girls.”

The show is collaboratively made, but springs forth mainly from Lena Dunham, a 26-year-old auteur who must now live up to (or down to) her own hype; not only does she have to make an entertaining half-hour show, but she must somehow speak for the puzzling and even maddeningly self-absorbed generation to which she happens to belong.

That about covers it, only it doesn’t.

There is something elementally powerful about “Girls,” because, at its core, it is just another iteration of one of America’s most beloved and intoxicating narratives: the young woman who moves to the Big Apple and tries to make something of herself.

We’ve liked that story ever since New York got paved streets and penicillin. Add electricity and strappy heels to the tale and you get a century of romantic songs, movies, fashion magazines and serialized television.

If you strip “Girls” of its hipster cred, subtract the 5,000-word essays and temporarily free Dunham and company from making heads or tails of present-day feminism, “Girls” is just a show in too much of a hurry to get nowhere. The first four episodes of this new season have the same raw and gritty-cool feel as the first season’s (it takes no time at all for Dunham to bare her now-famously doughy naked body in a sex scene), but the show has become significantly more predictable.

Not much has happened since we left 24-year-old Hannah Horvath (Dunham) wallet-less and resolute on a Coney Island beach last season. She is an aspiring memoirist/essayist who simply hasn’t experienced enough life and drama to distinguish her from all the other would-be 20-something memoirists. Tough-cookie Marnie (Allison Williams) moved out of the Brooklyn apartment she and Hannah shared; Hannah’s gay ex-boyfriend Elijah (“The New Normal’s” Andrew Rannells) has moved in. The giddiness between Elijah and Hannah foreshadows the doomed friendship and slammed doors that await. “Girls” insists on yo-yo emotions — I love you, quickly tailed by I hate you — and it gets more burdensome from episode to episode.

Hannah tries to extricate herself from her on-again/off-again boyfriend Adam (played by Adam Driver), who is easily still the show’s most intriguing and complex character, which is a shame, since the focus is supposed to be on four women.

Of the other two girls in “Girls,” I’d watch a whole lot more of Zosia Mamet’s dart-eyed performance as Shoshanna, who seems to be falling in love with that coffeehouse manager (Alex Karposky) who deflowered her last season; and I’d be satisfied with a whole lot less of Jemima Kirke’s annoying reappearance as Jessa, the free-spirited post-hippie who impulse-married a skeevy Wall Street trader (Chris O’Dowd).

The more characters who drift in and out of “Girls,” the better — ex-boyfriends, potential bosses, frosty parents. They contribute to a tapestry that smartly captures a very narrow, very particular kind of New York.

In a capitulation to critics who found “Girls” to be alarmingly white, Hannah has a black lover this time (Sandy, played by “Community’s” Donald Glover), who is also a Republican. That goes about as well as you’d expect, but it does provide some of the argumentative stream-of-consciousness that lends “Girls” its millennial-generation cachet. Sandy and Hannah fight after she needles him to read one of her personal essays and he finds it . . . lacking. “I just didn’t feel like anything happened in it,” he says. (Note to Dunham or an obsessed fan: Write some of these Hannah Horvath essays and post them online, where we can all rag on them.)

Sandy’s blunt criticism leads to one of those allegedly race-blind fights about race that used to (still do?) dog MTV’s “The Real World,” but is more entertaining when filtered through “Girls’s” natural gift for words: “This always happens,” Sandy fumes. “This. ‘Oh, I’m a white girl and I’m having a great time, and oh, I’ve got a fixed-gear bike and I’m gonna date a black guy!’ ”

Note the fixed-gear bike. That’s not a completely fresh reference, but it’s certainly of its time. That’s what “Girls” is chiefly here to do: Get down a whole world set of details, ideas and conversations for the cultural record. This creates a full, if flawed, accounting of what it might be like to be that young woman in the New York of 2013. It furthers the never-ending epic of her.

‘The Carrie Diaries’

Meanwhile, there’s not enough Visine in the world to soothe the eyeball-rolling that greets the arrival of CW’s “Sex and the City” prequel series, “The Carrie Diaries.” But even here, several artistic dimensions away from Hannah Horvath and “Girls,” the allure of a story about a young woman’s self-discovery in New York is indomitable. And, pleasant surprise, “The Carrie Diaries’s” premiere episode is a nimble and entertaining trip back to Carrie Bradshaw’s high school years.

AnnaSophia Robb stars as an engaging and eerily on-point teen version of Sarah Jessica Parker’s character, living in teenage oblivion in a Connecticut suburb in 1984. This Carrie is as introspective as the adult Carrie — and just as plagued by a tendency to sum up her world in overwrought voice-over narration. As the show opens, that world darkens with the recent death of her mother and a troubled relationship with her rebellious younger sister, Dorrit (Stefania Owen).

To cheer Carrie up and presumably reward her maturity, her father (Matt Letscher) arranges an internship at a Lower Manhattan law firm every Friday. No sooner is Carrie loosed on New York than she winds up in the Century 21 frock emporium and befriends an Interview magazine photographer (Freema Agyeman) who invites her to cocktails and dancing at Indochine with an assortment of late-Warholian-era hipsters.

There’s so much to get wrong about all this that it’s a relief to see “The Carrie Diaries” striving to get so much right, as far as the period details (girls with heavier eyebrows; walls decorated with Patrick Nagel prints) and the mood of the 1980s. Not everything is perfect — the World Trade Center is conspicuously absent from skyline shots 17 years before its destruction; and not one of these girls is sporting a perm-mullet.

Like anyone else who was in high school in 1984, I am duty-bound to quibble with such details, as well as fondly remember when an actual teenage Sarah Jessica Parker braved adolescence in the beloved but short-lived “Square Pegs” in 1982-83. If “The Carrie Diaries” passes my sniff test (and comes out smelling like a strawberry-scented Swatch watch) then it ought to pass yours.

It’s all so full circle, isn’t it? “Sex and the City” so thoroughly colored and influenced trend culture in the 1990s and 2000s that it seems almost criminally unfair to let it also take a whack at the MTV era. After all, isn’t “Sex and the City” at least partially responsible for ruining New York, for driving up its cost of living and flooding it with tourists in search of cosmos, cupcakes and Jimmy Choos? Does it have a right to now dreamily fetishize a dirtier, cheaper and more authentic New York?

Well, that’s a war for Fran Lebowitz and other Gotham grumps to wage. The producers and writers of “The Carrie Diaries” (with their “Gossip Girl” and “Sex and the City” pedigrees) appear to be working from a place of reverence — not just for the ’80s, but also for the original promise of “Sex and the City,” which was horribly marred by its big-screen sequels.

This Carrie is managing two worlds: high school, with its cliques and wannabes, and a budding romance with the bright lights and the big city. Her friends (Ellen Wong and Katie Findlay) are losing their virginities, while another (Brendan Dooling) struggles with his homosexuality. Heady from her night with the Danceteria crowd, Carrie of course jots it all down in a notebook (there are no laptops or bejeweled cellphones yet). Cue a tender ballad version of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” while, in the earnest style of Carrie’s “Sex and the City” columns, she reaches for one of the first of her million, inelegant metaphors: She has lost her virginity, she realizes. Not to a boy, but to a town.

I know, I know — gag me with a spoon.

But that’s how it goes with stories about New York and its naifs. You must accept the gobbledygook they spout with each self-discovery, or you have to tune it out entirely.

Girls

(30 minutes) returns Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.

The Carrie Diaries

(one hour) premieres Monday at 8 p.m. on CW.

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