Even if it seems like it’s been around longer, Lena Dunham’s addictively maddening HBO dramedy “Girls” is only on its fourth season. More curiously, the time we’ve spent with “Girls” so far apparently represents little more than a year in the lives of the four characters it depicts, who are each attempting, like millions of young women before them, to navigate life and love in New York.
And really that’s all they’re doing here. After so much buzz and the many, many arguments over what the show might or might not be telling us about the millennial generation, post-feminism and what-have-you, it’s still mainly a show about making it in the city. Although Dunham herself is nearing the once-fraught milestone of a 29th birthday, her character on “Girls,” Hannah Horvath, is still 25 and as nervously self-absorbed as when we first met her.
Season 4 begins in mirror image to Season 1, in yet another scene of Hannah enjoying a restaurant dinner on her long-suffering parents’ dime. She shouts out to a waiter that she’d like a side of fries while her father sincerely offers a heartfelt toast to her recent acceptance into the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. (“To our daughter, Hannah — slow to grow, but, oh, how beautiful is the blossom.”)
Despite Hannah’s outward immaturity and scant evidence that anything has blossomed besides more tattoos, there are encouraging signs that this is the season “Girls” will at least attempt to cover some measurable ground, perhaps in anticipation of series end on the horizon. Hannah says goodbye to her friends, puts her relationship with moody Adam Sackler (Adam Driver) on hold, and relocates to Iowa City, where the air is clear and the rents are low. The first few episodes of this new season (beginning Sunday night) toggle between there and Brooklyn.
In grad school, Hannah immediately discovers she’s ill-equipped for the experience of workshop-style criticism. Dunham and the other writers on “Girls,” who clearly know a thing or two about building stories around a difficult and often unlikable protagonist, seem to have it in for Hannah’s dubious talents as a writer; viewers of the show have always been somewhat privy to the terrible secret that Hannah’s prose is probably mediocre at best.
In workshop session, it’s interesting (rewarding even) to see Hannah start off and remain in a defensive crouch, given the real-life blowback Dunham has received to some of the stories she’s told in her best-selling memoir, “Not That Kind of Girl.” Hannah’s peers simply don’t buy — or trust — the semi-autobiographical junk she struggles to produce.
Meanwhile, Hannah’s best friend, Marnie Michaels (Allison Williams, lately known as Peter Pan) is messily having an affair with Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), the actor/musician with whom she is trying to launch a music career.
And Shoshanna Shapiro (Zosia Mamet, who in a more just TV world would be the star of her own show) has unceremoniously graduated from New York University and is looking for an entry-level job that comports with her vision-board notions of fulfillment. Jessa Johansson (Jemima Kirke) is maintaining her sobriety and status as an increasingly irrelevant character; she lost her job as a caretaker to an infirm artist (Louise Lasser) after the woman had second thoughts during a suicide attempt.
There’s a great scene where the woman’s daughter, played by “Orange Is the New Black’s” Natasha Lyonne, upbraids Jessa for her immaturity. In fact, in 30-plus episodes, “Girls” has now supplied a steady stream of cameo roles for actors slightly older than Dunham and her cast mates, all there to deliver real talk aimed squarely at millennials. The joke is that their lectures usually make the older person look like a grouch, or worse, a fool.
At this point, all the characters in “Girls” could use the personal breakthroughs that emerge around age 25 or 26 whether one likes it or not, when youthful ambitions come due for their first serious revision. It’s getting harder for the show’s talented cast — especially Driver, Williams and Mamet, plus Alex Karpovsky as coffee-shop manager Ray — to mask the boredom that comes with acting out the same sort of scenes, the same sort of way.
For the most part, “Girls” is still wickedly written and, for some viewers, the best hate-watch around. Yet it too easily runs on fumes from a hipster era (circa 2012) that is already ossifying. Before it’s all over, Dunham and company need to prove once more that they can deliver something truly and subtly excellent.
For an example of what I mean, look no further than Michael Lannan and Andrew Haigh’s starkly authentic “Looking,” another of HBO’s dramedies, which gets a second-season chance Sunday night.
“Looking” is the network’s best and most original effort in the half-hour category since “Enlightened.” Those who stuck with its first season were treated to a story that took a modern, downbeat vibe and extended it into full, fragile beauty in a mere eight episodes, as three gay men in present-day San Francisco — Patrick, Dom and Agustin — each ran aground in matters of the heart.
By unburdening itself from any obligation to be a story about gay rights and gay issues, “Looking” makes even the most banal personal crises seem freshly tragic. Lannan, Haigh and the show’s writers almost never waste a word or visual detail; each scene is a perfect vignette on its own, forming a universal narrative of the sort that “Girls” still reaches for. “Looking” feels spot-on and real; it falters only when it occasionally pauses to let one of its characters gaysplain, in dialogue, a subject that it believes a larger audience might not get.
It’s hard to persuade straight viewers to give “Looking” a try, probably because of its explicit sex scenes. HBO devotees can and have survived untold cumulative hours of naked heterosexual frolicking; “Looking” is asking merely for true equality in this regard. Shunning the “nice, normal” gay characters spoon-fed to American audiences during the same-sex marriage movement, the men in “Looking” aren’t looking for strollers and nanny-shares, and they can’t afford new open-floor-plan condos. There’s something almost primal and reassuring about their ambivalence toward convention.
The show picks up a few weeks after the end of Season 1. Dom (Murray Bartlett) has the keys to the Russian River cabin belonging to his lover, Lynn (Scott Bakula), and he invites Patrick (Jonathan Groff) and Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez) to spend a weekend in full revel, where they join a Molly-fueled midnight rave in a forest populated by Radical Faeries and big bears.
When they return to the city, each man has his own problem to solve: Agustin, who has abandoned his art career, looks for new purpose by taking a clerical job at a youth center. As an aspiring restaurateur, Dom has to decide whether or not to accept Lynn’s financial benevolence at the cost of his own independence. And Patrick, a video-game designer who tends to nervously sabotage any social situation he’s in, has unwisely (if understandably) fallen into an affair with his handsome boss (Russell Tovey), who already has a boyfriend.
Fans of the show are likely to be pleased to see the return of Richie (Raul Castillo), whose heart was so memorably broken by Patrick at the end of last season. As a strong-willed, blue-collared, straight-acting barber, Richie might be seen as “Looking’s” least plausible character, but so be it: He is also the show’s most easily identifiable and necessary moral center. And it doesn’t hurt that the camera adores him.
(30 minutes) returns Sunday at 9 p.m.
(30 minutes) returns Sunday at 10 p.m.