Every generation thinks that it has it harder than those who came before. Girls has been lauded as giving voice to that sentiment for the Millennials: getting a job, dealing with the opposite sex, and starting a life are apparently more difficult for them than for anyone previously. However, based on the first episodes of the third season, this may be the year that the girls on Girls realize that those feelings are nothing new on the road to adulthood.
The new season, premiering 12 January, offers a bit of a reboot after last year’s full capitulation to despair. The show is always bitterly funny, but by the end of Season Two, it had stopped finding much humor in the pain that became its pervasive focus. Marnie (Allison Williams) and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) lost jobs and boyfriends. Jessa (Jemima Kirke) completely disappeared after a devastating encounter with her father. And Hannah (Lena Dunham) struggled with and ultimately lost her battle against OCD, a process meticulously portrayed through a series of incredibly difficult moments like the scene where she slowly and steadily pushed a Q-tip deep into her ear. While hard to watch, Hannah’s eventual acknowledgement of her mental illness was admirably restrained and a credit to the show.
This season opens with a quick montage of where they all are right now. Marnie has moved somewhere that looks quite suburban. Shoshanna has left Ray (Alex Karpovsky) behind, dividing her time between school and sex. Hannah is living a blissful domestic life with Adam (Adam Driver), having put their tumultuous relationship of previous years on a sound footing. Jessa turns up at rehab.
Yet, despite such appearances of progress, the four girls still have a long way to go to break out of the patterns that have marked their lives so far. When Shoshana says it’s amazing how little her three friends have accomplished with their lives since college, it’s clear that Girls is not speaking for a generation, but representing a certain type of privileged young adult who is financially and socially able to coast through a vaguely comfortable lifestyle and too often mistakes angst for actual suffering.
Amid the girls’ adjustments and continuing self-absorption, Adam seems particularly changed. In earlier seasons, he’s appeared to be a sexual deviant whose quirks made him disreputable, if not outright dangerous. But the show has turned him around so that he is the most honest, if still strangest, individual in the girls’ lives (his non-verbal grunts and growls constitute a seriously good performance). When Adam says Hannah is his “best friend,” you believe him unconditionally. His devotion to helping Hannah keep her OCD in check is truly touching.
The fact that Hannah’s treatment continues to be a major part of her life not only shows the deepening of the characters in Girls, but is also a sign that the show itself is maturing. Now, with every manic tic that Hannah displays, often in very funny circumstances, there is the very real threat that her OCD could reassert itself in destructive ways. Similarly, Jessa has frequently been the bluntest and most caustic of the four girls, her nasty barbs played for laughs. Now that she’s in rehab, Girls maintains an unflinching and unsympathetic eye on Jessa’s brutal taunting of her fellow addicts in group sessions, leaving no doubt that both her substance abuse and need to tear others down stem from a deep personality issue that must be addressed.
In the first few episodes of this season, Girls does a much better job of finding the balance between humor and drama that has eluded it in previous seasons. The show is becoming more complex along with its characters, and as a result, the viewer feels a greater investment. Regardless of the generation, fumbling toward adulthood is always awkward and difficult. But for Girls, like its main characters, it is a necessary transition.