There may be no more buzzed-about TV show this winter than HBO's Girls, kicking off its second season Sunday with great reviews, hip guest stars and awards galore for star/creator Lena Dunham — the Millennial generation's Tina Fey.
But after watching the first four episodes of the new season, I have to wonder: Is Dunham pulling a Friends-style head fake here?
Astute small screen fans will remember how much criticism Friends got for its seriously whitewashed vision of the country's most ethnically diverse metropolis, New York City.
Imagine my surprise when, minutes into Girls' Sunday return, self-described black nerd Donald Glover (NBC's Community) pops up as new beau to Dunham's Hannah Horvath. You see, Girls faced its own criticism over its lily-white vision of Manhattan, despite creating a world for four 20-something women that felt so right in other ways. A blizzard of sharp stories followed; everyone from the New York Times to CNN weighed in and Dunham explained on NPR.
Glover's character emerges as an interesting sketch; a black Republican who looks and dresses like a member of Afro-bohemian rap band the Roots, coming into Hannah's life just as she has decided to leave a boyfriend who once took her for granted. Just as we're getting to know Sandy, he's gone; split with Hannah after he criticizes one of her essays and she picks a fight over his political beliefs, angrily spitting a Missy Elliot lyric at him while he's complaining about white women who fetishize dating black men.
Worse, there still doesn't seem to be any other characters of color on the show. It's as if Dunham concluded shoehorning in one black character answered all those folks who noticed a vision of New York with virtually no black, Asian or Latino people just feels … wrong. It's unfortunate, because Dunham has in many ways created an excellent second season.
Executive produced by movie comedy god Judd Apatow, Girls' challenge always has been to make stupendously self-centered characters seem sympathetic, lampooning the culture of a certain kind of overeducated, underemployed urban 20-something in the process.
Dunham may avoid writing black people because she's not black, but she did a wonderful job on Hannah's often-clueless boyfriend, Adam Sackler – a note-perfect rendering of so many sex-focused, self-obsessed young men. And she does it again with Elijah Krantz (Andrew Rannells from NBC's The New Normal), a gay man who once dated Hannah in college.
If the history of Sex and the City, Friends, Seinfeld and Mad Men is any guide, Girls won't change much and the show's fans won't care. But if that happens, Girls also will stand as an opportunity missed; a reflection of our segregated society instead of a bridge to something better.