American actress Zosia Mamet posing for a portrait to promote...

American actress Zosia Mamet posing for a portrait to promote the second season of the HBO Comedy Series "Girls", in New York. (Jan. 8, 2013) Credit: AP

THE SHOW "Girls"

WHEN | WHERE Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO

WHAT IT'S ABOUT In the wake of her sort-of breakup with Adam (Adam Driver) last season, Hannah (Lena Dunham) has re-evaluated her approach to love and sex. Foremost, no "love" -- she banishes even the mention of the word when new boyfriend, Sandy (Donald Glover, "Community") makes reference to it in passing.

She's open and free, or sort-of free, for Adam -- sideswiped by that van in the first-season closer -- has a broken leg and needs constant care. Hannah's best friend Marnie (Allison Williams) has moved out of the apartment, replaced by Hannah's old boyfriend at Oberlin, Elijah (Andrew Rannells, "The Book of Mormon") who is now happily in a relationship with an older, wealthy man. Also apparently happy is Jessa (Jemima Kirke), newly married to hipster/financier Thomas-John (Chris O'Dowd). But Shoshanna's (Zosia Mamet) new relationship with Ray (Alex Karpovsky) has nearly come unglued. Everyone's still underemployed, or in Marnie's case, out of work. Like the universe, Brooklyn seems indifferent to their fates.

MY SAY The opening shot Sunday night mirrors the series' opening seconds last spring, with one key difference -- Elijah's arms and legs are interlaced with Hannah's arms and legs while both are lying in bed early one morning (Marnie was the human spaghetti strand last season). He's the new roomie, and to share an apartment with Hannah Horvath involves a whole other level of psychic (if not sexual) engagement beyond merely splitting the rent or refrigerator shelf space.

But the implied comedy -- or irony -- of the scene is that the more things change in this particular life, the more they stay the same. Hannah's trying to "redefine" her relationship with men by extricating herself emotionally from them -- only to become as entangled as a congealed knot of pasta. She now has three guys in her life -- a wack job, a gay ex-boyfriend from her deep past and a new one who is a black Republican -- which has the net effect of separating her from her closest friends and from herself.

"I'm right here," Marnie tells her old pal mournfully at one point. Good line because who is "I" and what is "right here" are questions neither Hannah nor Marnie have the answers to. And yes, you're right -- not exactly funny, nor for the most part is the season opener. But it is more sharply written and observed than just about any episode last season, and improves from there, which may be the trade-off.

HBO sent out the first four episodes for review, and as a sophomore, "Girls" seems more sure-footed and self-aware than before. You can actually witness Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna grow and regress at the same time -- a neat trick if you can pull it off, and they do. All this doesn't mean the haters -- you know who you are and why you hate -- still will find plenty to despise here. But "Girls" happily embraces detractors, because self-loathing is what this show is often about -- a precious, precocious corner of Brooklyn coated in narcissism and self-delusion. Language and sexual content remain shocking by TV standards but nothing "Sex and the City" fans haven't seen or heard. Sex is an essential part of this portrait, deployed for either comedy -- or horror.

BOTTOM LINE Sharper, smarter, more richly layered, detailed (and acted), "Girls" has improved upon its first season.


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