Much of early “Girls” ’s terrain was traversing through its characters’ most cringe-worthy stages — those chunks of life you mentally block out and wonder how you had any friends. If you experience vicarious embarrassment, the first three seasons of HBO’s polarizing show were not for you. Between Hannah’s (Lena Dunham, “Tiny Furniture”) rape joke (at an interview, no less), Shoshanna’s (Zosia Mamet, “Mad Men”) bevy of bad haircuts and Marnie’s (Allison Williams, “Peter Pan”) graceless career swan dive, Jessa (Jemima Kirke) was the only girl left un-shredded by the camera’s merciless gaze (which had a lot to do with her lack of storyline). But somewhere in early-mid season three, the show pivoted a few degrees: Hannah got a respectable job that didn’t involve doing coke for bylines, Shosh experienced heartbreak and Marnie’s lifetime purchase of “pretty girl privilege” finally started seeing a return, but now with a dose of real person struggle. The girls grew up, and so did the show — richening as the always-excellent comedy widened its genre’s grooves.


Season 4 premiere
Sundays 9 p.m.

But the first episode of season four’s modus operandi is to show that the more you change, the more things stay the same. It opens with Hannah and her parents at the same restaurant the series pilot opened on, and, against all odds, Hannah is moving closer to being “a voice of her generation.”

Part of the reason “Girls” remains such an addictive show to a certain type of viewer (including this very writer) is that it replicates and exacerbates the necessary hardships of being a young adult: sure, you have a better sense of who you want to be than you did in high school, and probably early college, but this newly found sense of self collides with the real world. Great, you want to be a writer? Well, how badly? Enough to move to the Midwest, and give up the nest of friends and co-workers and frenemies you’ve spent years building, enough to crumple up that assemblage of regional-trivia that keeps you sane: Which subway exit to leave from, what time the bodega closes if you run out of toilet paper, what time your annoying neighbor leaves for work so you can avoid him … that loosely held-together constellation called your life? And it’s during this jarring time that you realize that other things — the things harder to collect and compile, that feel like bodily appendages — like long, deep, important relationships, aren’t always portable, they grind to a stop even after you keep moving.

It’s here where Adam (Adam Driver, “Frances Ha”) and Hannah’s relationship is achingly real to anyone anxious and neurotic and obsessive (hi, writers!) who hates to work without a plan. Adam, for all his pathology, doesn’t worry; he glides into his acting career with little of the self-destroying pathos Hannah finds her writing from. So we can see the alarm bells going off when he says, “With cell phones and modern communication we’re gonna talk, like, 10 times tomorrow.” I beg to disagree, Adam, but I do predict this show will explore just how fragile a cradle “cell phones and modern communication” are for Hannah and Adam’s relationship.

Speaking of fragile (wow, what a segue), Marnie’s presence in this episode shows how drastically she has changed over the seasons. Sure, Marnie is screwing Desi and exuding the same hyper-calculated façade since season one, but Desi’s tongue (Ebon Moss-Bachrach, “The Royal Tennenbaums”) is up her ass and she’s unafraid to break down after a pack of brats in the SoHo brunch spot she’s singing at ruins her performance. This Marnie has been beaten down so much, that this new vulnerability is etched all over her face.

Where Marnie finds grace from her sincerity, Jessa is sinking down from her mythic cloud. For most of “Girls,” Jessa has been the cool girl: even when she is struggling with a cocaine addiction, we’re noticing how fucking cool her rehab wardrobe is and wondering why our (hypothetical) benders were never with British hotelier silver foxes. There has never been a single crack in the flawless façade that is Jemima Kirke. And, as it turns out, it isn’t another depraved weekend that cracks her, but a steady dose of normalcy, the nine to five job. In this episode, Jessa doesn’t arrive swathed in a blanket of glamour, and damn, is it nice to see. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens after Beadie (Louise Lasser, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”) leaves for Connecticut — while Jessa has instability written into her DNA, the writing has not aided in giving her a narrative direction. It seemed like every time the show gave her a channel (a new job, a husband, rehab) it buckled quickly or was tossed aside without much analysis.

Shoshanna doesn’t have much in this episode except a new bob and a perfectly pitched performance by her divorced parents (Ana Gasteyer, “SNL” and Anthony Edwards, “ER”), who are both named Mel (doesn’t that explain everything?). Regardless, “Girls” has been my favorite 20 minutes of 2015. I’m not sure if that’s a testament to Lena’s brilliance or my lackluster year, but I’m just glad to have the voice of our generation back again this Sunday.

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