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'Girls' Has Grown Up—And Isn't As Funny

How Lena Dunham's show went from a coming-of-age story to a comedy of manners

Throughout the first two seasons of “Girls,” most of the show’s trademark awkwardness stemmed from moments of physical humiliation and body horror: Adam instructing Hannah to “play the quiet game” as she lies naked on his couch, high-on-crack Shoshanna running pantsless down the sidewalk, Marnie’s depressing doggie-style sex with Charlie, Hannah puncturing her eardrum with a Q-tip in the throes of her OCD. And in season three, which premieres Sunday, there’s clearly still plenty of nudity and unappetizing sex. But for a show known for depicting the daily mortifications of twentysomething life with aggressive naturalism, this season has made a strange shift. It’s gone from sending up the excruciating particulars of young adulthood to something more dramatic and dark. And when it does aim for laughs, it's a shtickier kind of situational awkwardness, at times less Lena Dunham than Larry David.

Until now, the show has derived its humor from the small disasters and missteps that arise from being grossly inexperienced at love and work and sex. But now the girls are learning the ropes, getting real jobs, dealing with the escalating stakes of adult life. Season three opens with unprecedented optimism. Hannah and Adam are in an impressively functional relationship, most of the characters are gainfully employed (albeit many of them in the same coffeeshop), Shoshanna is embracing singledom, Marnie is not quite the sad sack she was after her first break-up with Charlie—despite having been dumped again to account for Christopher Abbott’s departure from the show. The worst off, by a long shot, is Jessa, who has checked herself into rehab and become something of a sociopath. (Danielle Brooks, Taystee on “Orange is The New Black,” has a cameo as one of the rehab patients on whom Jessa wages psychological warfare.) On the whole, though, the girls—well, Hannah in particular—are looking more adult than ever.

All this new stability poses a creative challenge: whether dire self-absorption can continue be funny as the girls of “Girls” get older. Hannah is increasingly finding herself plugged into the structures and circumstances of adult life. She and Adam move in together, she takes promising meetings about her book, she (spoiler alert) is hired in a fancy new job on the advertising side at GQ. She’s good at the gig, and it’s refreshing to see her do well and be recognized for her competence. But competence is also harder to satirize. The main workplace joke is Hannah raiding the snack room, dumping a huge armful of food onto the table at her first staff meeting. 

When Hannah bombed a job interview by telling a rape joke in season one, it was more queasy than funny, but it was also a key moment of character development, demonstrating just how much she still had to learn in the way of professionalism. By the third season, such scenes are more often clunky little parentheticals seemingly designed to signpost that the clash with adulthood is still ongoing. During the fifth episode of the season, there’s a funeral during which Hannah’s social graces implode under the weight of her own self-centeredness. Without giving too much away: Even for Hannah, with her propensity for blurting things at inappropriate moments, the obliviousness feels overstated. It’s an easier kind of cringe comedy than we’ve come to expect from the show, more like a surreal riff on the ridiculousness of its milieu than a recognizable reflection of it. The scene could have been plucked from the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode where Larry David, a smiley face sunburned onto his forehead, attends a funeral and recruits the bereaved wife to be his secretary.

“Curb,” needless to say, has always been more purely “funny” than the comparatively mature, dramatic “Girls,” so many of these new jokes can feel dropped in from another comic universe. But it should be said that the third season is not all overwrought social faux pas and workplace gaffes. As the episodes progress, Jessa is still a reliable mess; Marnie’s sex life has taken a turn for the disastrous; for Hannah, the old creep of existential anxiety is setting in again. It’s notable that this season, six episodes in, is probably the show’s least funny yet. And its darkest moments are actually some of its best. A highlight is the introduction of a terrific, intense, genuinely scary new character—Adam’s unstable sister, played by Gaby Hoffmann, whose deep well of craziness casts the other characters’ neuroses into sharp relief. It’s to Dunham’s credit that the show doesn’t always need to be funny. At a certain point, we just want to see the girls, at last, grow up.