Among many other things, Girls has always been great satire, lampooning with scolding empathy the callowness, narcissism, and insufferableness of early-to-mid twentysomethings who are privileged enough to spend their post-grad years making mistake after mistake with no serious consequences. But the HBO dramedy’s fourth season, in which Hannah (Lena Dunham) leaves Brooklyn to attend the University of Iowa’s famed writers’ workshop, suffers a kind of repetitive-motion injury from hitting its tiny target one too many times. Despite the new setting, the show’s failure to develop past its initial raison d’être of sending up youthful foibles encases it in a cast of sitcom stasis.
That’s certainly a disappointment after Girls attained new heights of emotional complexity in Season 3, which upended the earnest promise of Sex and the City, its closest predecessor — that your gal pals will always be there for you no matter what — by exploring how once vital friendships can fall apart in your twenties as you and your BFF mature into different people from the ones you used to be when you first met each other.
Hannah and Marnie’s formerly codependent relationship hit its nadir in last season’s “Beach House” episode, when they finally confronted how little they enjoy each other’s company anymore — a female-friendship story that feels as urgent as any celebratory narrative about bestie-ship, and wholly novel and necessary in its honesty.
That episode represents a long stride toward the series’ implicit end-goal of greater maturity. Once we discovered what (relatable) fuck-ups these girls are in the inaugural season, there seemed to be a waiting game until they finally learned to stop failing at life. The first episode of Season 4, which aired this past Sunday, certainly promises another step toward real adulthood, with the central quintet (the girls and Adam, played by Adam Driver) all working, or at least actively looking for a job. But the first five episodes, i.e., the first half, of this new ten-episode season imply a desultory return to form, with the first scene of last night’s season premiere even echoing the pilot’s instantly infamous excerpt, in which 24-year-old Hannah announces to her parents in a warmly lit restaurant that she “may be the voice of [her] generation.”
The rest of the premiere is a prolonged goodbye so that Hannah can try to be just that by scribbling in the big leagues at Iowa. We learn in the second episode, though, that only a year, maybe eighteen months, have passed in the show’s timeline since her big pronouncement. (She harrumphs to an undergrad that it must be nice that his parents still support him and that she’s older and wiser and more self-sufficient at 25, because of course she does.) Notwithstanding the newly minted MFA student’s life change, the show’s slowed-down chronology seems to suggest that Dunham and her writers have no intention of letting Hannah and her friends grow up anytime soon — nor of dealing with how the characters adapt to the increasingly large stakes that life throws their way. Ever the expert underminer, Adam calls Hannah’s journey to Iowa “the next step in a series of random steps” (in front of her parents, natch), which hopefully isn’t a foreshadowing of what we can expect from the rest of the season.
Girls does have something new to offer this season — a dubious gift that reveals Dunham to be a very smart lady (if that wasn’t already abundantly obvious) who can be embarrassingly on-the-nose. More than during any other season, she and her writers use the show as a forum to respond to its critics, riposting to the reasonable ones and ridiculing the loons.
This isn’t the first time Dunham has responded to detractors via the show. Girls gave Community star Donald Glover a small guest arc during Season 2 in response to indictments of the show’s whiteness (still a problem), and had Hannah describe Jezebel as a “place feminists can go to support one another,” after the site put out a $10,000 bounty for untouched photos of the actress’s Vogue cover shoot.
In the fourth season premiere, guest star Natasha Lyonne spews a tirade about how she can’t stand the millennial generation: “Every time I meet someone five or more years younger than me, they are a complete asshole! Is it because you were told you were special one too many times and you believed it? Because when my generation and every generation before me were called special, we were smart enough to know it meant that we were stupid, so it made us work that much harder to stop being stupid!” It’s a typical Girls rant, in that the show admits that its 25-year-olds — particularly Jessa (Jemima Kirke), who nearly succeeded in helping her depressed, elderly employer kill herself last season — are total fuck-ups, but also contends that those who believe this generation of twentysomethings to be any dumber than any other previous generation of twentysomethings are sputtering rageaholics. (In a deft, undercutting character touch, Lyonne’s Connecticut-residing WASP wannabe deems Jessa’s actions “unconchable” (she can’t manage to say “unconscionable.”)
The rejoinders get uncomfortably specific in the season’s second episode, where Hannah finds her work rejected by her classmates. She reads an obviously autobiographical story disguised as fiction — about a tattooed girl named Anna — detailing a sadomasochistic encounter with Adam, to which a fellow workshopper accuses Hannah of trivializing sexual abuse — an unmistakable reference to allegations that Dunham wrote of sexually assaulting her little sister when they were both five or younger in her recently published memoir. Dunham also seizes the opportunity to defend both her confessional style and the show’s supposed navel-gazing when Hannah speaks out convincingly of the marginalization of women’s fiction as a whole (which is a real thing) and “feminine topics” specifically in the third episode.
But as fascinating as it is to get (what appears very much to be) Dunham’s take on these critiques, such meta bits distract us from the actual show, in which Hannah is rarely so cogent. Meanwhile, we’re still left wondering whether or not Girls believes Hannah to have talent as a writer or not — and what the rest of the cast is up to.
As an uncommonly powerful magnet for internet outrage, Dunham certainly has earned the right to respond to her critics. But here’s something you definitely learn as you get older: Success is the best revenge. Girls still boasts great observational humor about hipster life and an energizingly radical take on women’s bodies. But by binding the show to a formula with diminishing returns and responding to petty criticisms, Dunham’s pulling a Hannah Horvath by being her own worst enemy.