Nobody likes you when you’re 23, as the wise men of Blink-182 warned us. And it’s even tougher when you decide to stay 23 forever, like the messed-up ladies of Girls. As Lena Dunham’s groundbreaking HBO satire returns for its fourth season, Hannah Horvath remains the same fumbling spaz she’s always been. Four years after graduating from college, she’s floundered her way into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which means now she has to actually sit down and write something. How does she handle the pressure? She doesn’t. “Everybody’s saying it’s such a gift, you know?” she complains. “To have all this time to write. But then how come the only thing I want to do is Google the one month where Woody Harrelson and Glenn Close were a couple?”
Dunham’s often maddening, often preposterous, always divisive comedy had a particularly divisive third season. And that’s mostly because these girls just keep on repeating the same disasters and clinging to the same dumb habits, including one another. So nobody would blame you if you’ve run out of patience with Hannah and her equally self-obsessed friends. But the things that make Girls grating are often the same things that make it such a poignant sendup of twentysomething stagnation.
Last season had its ups and downs, but the finale dropped a ridiculous plot twist that would have made even Shonda Rhimes think twice: Hannah gets accepted to the prestigious Iowa MFA program in fiction, even though her literary output consists of autobiographical anecdotes and the occasional dating listicle. So it feels about as plausible as the Fonz going to Harvard Law School. There’s also a lot of fish-out-of-water humor about this city girl feeling dazed by the cornfields of the Midwest, which is weird, since she went to Oberlin. She’s seen bicycles before, right?
While Hannah pedals around campus, her pals back in New York fade into the background. Despite its title, Girls has unmistakably turned into the Hannah show. The secondary characters get more secondary and less interesting all the time – Adam and Ray have their moments, and Elijah remains a riot, but is anyone holding their breath to see what happens with Marnie’s career as a folkie singer-songwriter? At this point, Marnie and Jessa seem to be taking up space just because it would be bad manners to write them off the show. Zosia Mamet’s Shoshanna, sadly missing in action for most of last season, finally graduates and takes baby steps into the real world, but she’s still disconnected from the rest. Why are any of these people still friends?
The new season will be rough going if you’re the kind of viewer who’s waiting for these girls to move on with their lives. There’s a truly disastrous scene at a grad-student party where Hannah tells off her classmates for being rich, sheltered phonies, which is – well, “tone-deaf” seems to be the current euphemism. It’s impressive how Dunham still refuses to make Hannah likable. “Wherever you are, there you go,” Elijah tells her, mangling a quintessential college-kid quote but somehow doing it justice at the same time. Nobody on Girls ever seems to get anywhere – even in Iowa City, a thousand miles from Brooklyn, Hannah’s a neurotic mess. That’s Girls’ most painfully on-point joke: No matter where Hannah goes, she’s stuck being herself.