The third season of Girls, actress/writer/director Lena Dunham's HBO comedy, was perhaps the "funniest" that the show has done yet. Ever since the show premiered in April 2012, it's been lobbed with numerous criticisms, ranging from issues of diversity (most valid) to whether or not Dunham is an appropriate role model for young girls (this has been a Fox News pet cause, missing the fact that this isn't really a show for young girls but rather young women). But the most common criticism has been that the show isn't really a "comedy," because it lacks "jokes" and relies mostly on cringe-worthy moments of embarrassment for its characters. Though it describes itself as a "comedy," there aren't very many laugh-out-loud moments in any given episode, if there are really any at all.
In a way, the third season seemed to at least be somewhat interested in this. The first couple of episodes, particularly "Females Only," "Truth or Dare," and "Dead Inside," were set up almost like episodes of a sitcom, with a collection of the characters interacting around a central conflict and delivering humorous dialogue and actions. The show also added sitcom veteran Paul Simms (NewsRadio, The Larry Sanders Show) to a writers' room that already included Judd Apatow (Knocked Up), giving the impression that there would be more humor. Though the show did drift back into its normal rhythm, there was an added element of humor peppered throughout the season.
But the truth is, Girls isn't interested in being funny. This is a "comedy" in the classical Greek sense, in which two groups of people are pitted against one another in an amusing fashion. The difference is, the characters of Girls aren't fighting others so much as they are fighting themselves.
More after the jump.
The season covers numerous changes for each character. Hannah (Dunham) finds a job writing advertisements for GQ Magazine after her eBook deal falls through, though she struggles with what she thinks is a stifling creative environment. She also faces problems in her relationship with Adam (Adam Driver), who finds his acting career taking flight when he lands a role in a Broadway revival of Major Barbara. Marnie (Allison Williams) is reeling from her breakup with Charlie (Christopher Abbott), and wanders into a job as a gallery worker and hooks up with Ray (Alex Karpovsky). Jessa (Jemima Kirke) gets out of rehab, even though she doesn't completely have a grasp on her addictions. And Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) is getting over her breakup with Ray by sleeping around, while still trying to balance her studies in her final year of undergraduate at NYU.
Girls has never been exceptionally good at telling multi-episode narrative arcs, with each episode mostly being a self-contained story normally centered on Hannah with subplots for the other characters. However, this isn't a problem, because the show isn't interested in telling long-term arcs in the way that, say, Game of Thrones does. In his review of the season's ninth episode, "Flo," A.V. Club television critic Todd VanDerWerff proposes that Girls is a kind of spiritual successor to Seinfeld. Where in the latter show each episode felt like the experiences that informed Jerry's stand-up routines, Girls plays like the material that will form the book of essays that Hannah is going to write one day. I would even take that a step further and say that Girls has more in common with Louie than it does Seinfeld. Louie attempts to make Louis C.K.'s stand-up material cinematic, and in the same vein, Girls could be seen as a collection of filmic essays and short stories involving the same characters. There are some key differences in this comparison: whereas each episode of Louie is written, directed, and edited by C.K. himself, Girls has several recurring directors and is a room-written show, albeit one filtered through Dunham's point-of-view (and, of course, Louie is also a spiritual successor to Seinfeld). But it makes sense when considering the show's run thus far, and particularly how the third season plays out.
The other girls, as usual, don't get nearly as much of a focus, but the show addresses them in new ways this season. Marnie has always been the least self-aware of the quartet; even though Hannah can be self-absorbed, she at least is able to see through herself at times. Marnie, on the other hand, constantly seeks validation from those around her, and generally can't see beyond her own desires and actions. The season finds her rebounding from an awful YouTube video of her performing Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians' "What I Am" to wandering between hookups and gallery jobs. Marnie's character is best defined as "wandering," because she has no clear direction of where she wants to go in life. The season ends with her pining for one of Adam's co-stars, Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who has a girlfriend and has proven himself to be a shaky personality. Elijah (Andrew Rannells) warns that it won't end well, and it's a warning that Marnie likely won't realize until long after the relationship has entered a disastrous tailspin.
Jessa, on the other hand, is probably the least-served character of the season. She's presented as a "free spirit," but this season there's a sadness to her actions that gives her story gravitas. Jessa can't quit being flaky and using drugs, and even though she has a curious habit of falling up (one of the show's most detrimental plot points), this season has demonstrated just how pathetic Jessa is becoming. In her early-20s, her behavior was understandable, but now that she's entering the back-half of that decade, it's becoming flat-out depressing that she hasn't figured out a direction for her life. She quickly blows off rehab, failing to realize how helpful it could be. As the season ends, she may be on the cusp of a much-needed moment of clarity, as she begins to assist her employer, Beadie (Louise Lasser), commit suicide via drug overdose, only for Beadie to change her mind after the dose had been administered.
All of these ideas came together in the season's standout episode, "Beach House." Marnie invites the other women to join her for a weekend at a beach house on Long Island, where, she hopes, they will bond and rekindle their friendship. Instead, things don't go her way, and as she tries to force the group to bond, their buttons are pushed until they finally explode into a difficult, spiteful fight. Shoshanna leads the charge, calling all of them terrible people and wonders why she's even friends with any of them. In there is a powerful and unfortunate message about friendship: we become friends for a variety of reasons, but as we grow up, we don't really stay friends with everyone we're close with. People move away, frequent phone calls become more sparse until they end altogether, and bonds that once seemed unbreakable have faded with time. But that doesn't diminish the importance of those friendships at the time.
Ultimately, Girls is a show about growing up in your 20s, an age at which adulthood is still new and terrifying. The third season didn't have as many standout episodes as the previous two, and even "Beach House" and "Flo" can't match the highs the show reached in "One Man's Trash" (season two, episode five) or "All Adventurous Women Do" (season one, episode two). This show may not always be laugh-out-loud funny, and it may not be the reliable joke machine that New Girl or The Big Bang Theory are. But it does speak volumes about growing up, and it always finds a way to be relatable and deliver a gut-punch when you least expect it. Whether we want to admit it or not, I think most of us have been Hannah at some point in our lives, and all of us who aren't still under 21 know what it's like to have to face adulthood. It's messy, it's painful, and there's no clear way of doing it. We fall down, we hurt ourselves, we lose direction. Girls captures that experience better than any other show on television right now. And that keeps it firmly cemented as one of the best shows on television, period.
Season grade: A