After eight months away from our screens, the Girls are back in town. Well, almost. The hit comedy’s fourth series actually begins with protagonist Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) preparing to leave town and swap the Big Apple for the orchards of the American Heartlands.
Hannah – played by the show’s creator and co-writer, Lena Dunham – is joining a prestigious writing course in Iowa, to the delight of her exasperated parents, and much to the dismay of brooding boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver).
Is it a sign that she’s finally grown up? Not quite. There are still glimmers of the self-obsession and entitlement that drive much of Dunham’s comedy. Hannah has certainly matured, just not enough to say conclusively that she is ‘mature’. It’s a description that fits all the main characters.
Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) has finished her degree, and we meet her neurotic parents for the first time as she’s picking up her certificate. The trademark verbal diarrhoea clearly, for want of a better word, runs in the family. ‘Shosh’ is quieter now though, more self-assured. Only when she bumps into former flame, Ray, does she revert back to the giggly, breathless girl of old.
When we last left Jessa (Jemima Kirke), she was trying to help her old friend Beadie (Louise Lasser) commit suicide. On past form, such an intense situation would have sent Jessa running for the hills. Yet she’s still there, picking up the groceries and the dog food – a picture of domesticity, albeit an unconventional one.
Unfortunately, it’s not to last, as Beadie’s aggressive daughter arrives to take her to Minnesota. As Jessa begs her friend not to go, we get a glimpse of her truer nature. “At least tell me you love me more than her,” she asks, pointing at the daughter, delighted when her request is granted.
And what of Marnie (Allison Williams)? She has always considered herself the most grown up of the bunch, but she’s as neurotic as ever. She’s now involved in a full-blown affair with guitarist Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who still has a girlfriend, so at the very least she has learned to share. As Hannah departs for Iowa, only Marnie turns up to say goodbye, a signal that her priorities are still in the right place.
It’s easy to say that this episode introduces a natural progression for the characters – this isn’t Peter Pan, after all – but it’s the freshness and tone of the writing that represent a bigger departure from the last two series; to look for an explanation, we have to focus on the writer herself.
The phenomenal success of Girls launched Dunham into the public eye, but the nature of the show meant she attracted an excessive amount of criticism. In the last couple of years, she has been accused of racism, anti-feminism, unwarranted nudity and arrogance, among other things. People were taking Girls very seriously, and it reflected in the writing.
Series two and three were darker – still funny, but the balance between comedy and drama drifted towards the latter – and it felt as though the freedom of the original had been lost as the writer took up arms against her detractors.
The most scathing attacks came last year, when Dunham released her much-publicised memoir, Not That Kind of Girl (2014). She was labelled an egomaniac – well, how dare she write an autobiography and make herself the central character? – but it was a story about her sister that caused the most uproar.
Dunham remembered how, as a seven-year-old, she had ‘opened’ her younger sibling’s vagina to find ‘six or seven pebbles in there’. It was an honest memory about the curiosity of a little girl who didn’t understand the meaning of her actions. Absurdly, the account led to her being branded a child molester.
Despite issuing an angry rebuttal, Dunham was later forced to release a public statement condemning sexual abuse.
In light of this, we expect the opening episode of series four to contain a few thinly veiled repartees, perhaps a shocking scene designed to provoke her opponents. Instead, the tone is breezier, in spite of the overtly funereal theme surrounding Hannah’s departure.
It feels like Dunham has washed her hands of all the hype and controversy surrounding her writing. This is Girls stripped back. The change is symbolised in the opening scene of this episode, which deliberately sees Hannah and her parents revisit the very same restaurant where the show began in 2012. It’s a welcome return.
Dunham has been described in the media as the ‘voice of her generation’ – no doubt encouraged by her press team – but the tag has been a burden. Girls is a comedy. At best, it’s a subtle and brilliantly observed character study. It’s not a vehicle for making sweeping political statements about feminism or youth culture or race, and it certainly shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
If this new series is making any point at all, it’s that Girls is returning to its roots; critics will always find something to pick on, but the vitriol won’t have a lasting effect. Dunham’s back to doing what she does best, and we’re all the luckier for it.