'Girls' Season 5: TV Review

Courtesy of HBO
Still childish, self-absorbed and funny after all these years.

In its penultimate season, Lena Dunham's HBO comedy is true to itself, for better or for worse.

HBO's Girls, a comedy about four young women who remain friends just because none of them have been able to form fresh relationships, is, appropriately, a show with absolutely no interest in making new friends.

The fifth season of Girls premieres on Sunday (Feb. 21) and we've progressed through so many different cycles of hype and backlash that I can't keep track anymore of where The Cultural Powers That Be say we're supposed to stand on Lena Dunham's series. Over the years, Girls has gone from Emmy darling and critical sensation to conservative whipping boy and That Show Adam Driver Did Before He Was Kylo Ren.

There's also been a perception, even from the show's critical champions, that Girls fell off a qualitative cliff at some point, a contention I find absurd. The episodes "Flo" and "Beach House" from the third season and "Sit-In" and big chunks of the Hannah-in-Iowa arc from the fourth season are Girls at its excruciating, self-obsessed, hilarious peak.

It's true, though, that Girls isn't a show that's going to attract virgin eyes at this point in its run and it also isn't a show that's going to win back alienated or departed devotees. Through the first four episodes of this fifth season, Girls is Girls, which probably isn't insightful commentary, but will also tell most readers exactly what they need to know about this penultimate run.

Although some have quibbled that the characters on Girls have remained stuck in stasis, the fifth season premiere is a reminder that recent seasons have done a lot to push Hannah (Dunham), Marnie (Allison Williams), Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) in different directions — and that they've rarely been together as a quartet.

Reunited on the brink of Marnie's wedding to Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), whatever once unified them in sisterhood doesn't really exist anymore. They're now four strangers with a shared history that lets them know exactly the ways to get under each other's skins. I've already talked to some people who question why Marnie would even have Hannah, Jessa and Shosh as bridesmaids and my answer is, "Who the heck else is Marnie going to have as a bridesmaid?" On the same count, who is surprised that Desi, Marnie's match in incompatible awfulness, is so fundamentally friendless that he has to have Elijah (Andrew Rannells) and Ray (Alex Karpovsky) as part of his wedding posse?

As much as Girls has always been associated with Brooklyn, it has done much of its best work when it gets out of the city — and if you love the ongoing nightmare of unearned egotism that is Marnie, you won't be surprised that Marnie-as-Bridezilla is utterly natural and, especially when it comes to styling the wedding party's hair, inspired.

The premiere also has to catch viewers up on the revised status quo between seasons, including Shosh's Japan-ization, Hannah's evolving relationship with too-normal-to-be-normal Fran (Jake Lacy), Ray's ongoing inexplicable infatuation with Marnie, and the continued insinuations that Jessa and Adam (Adam Driver) are spending an unsettling amount of time together.

After the reunion in the premiere, though, Girls shifts to the disparate narratives that will either continue to frustrate audiences who miss when the characters all share the screen together or will satisfy audiences who like the way the show is no longer entirely a Hannah Horvath showcase. This isn't to say that Dunham has ceased to be central. No, Hannah remains the only character with a full arc in every episode and her storylines are all solid, especially the ongoing sense that she may be the best worst junior high teacher ever and the progression of her father's (Peter Scolari) exploration of his sexuality.

What makes Girls so appealing in its fifth season — assuming you ever thought it was appealing before — is seeing the clash between characters who don't change and circumstances that do. The third episode isn't quite the All-Shosh episode of your dreams, but much of it was filmed in Tokyo and it's a great showcase for Mamet, pinpointing both Shosh's eternal arrested development and her unusual capabilities.

Jessa has always been a similar mixture of exceptionalism and self-imposed stumbling blocks, and it's interesting to see how nicely those pair with Adam's myriad peccadilloes. Ray's political career, one of the best parts of the fourth season, isn't in play and both of the women he's had relationships with are elsewhere, but a rivalry with the new hipster coffee shop across the street gives Karpovsky plenty to be frustrated with. And finally making the most of his cast regular status, Rannells is finally getting to shape Elijah into a real character and not just a source of flamboyant comedy, with Corey Stoll guesting as a potential love interest.

Even when the East Coast media was hailing Girls as the embodiment of the zeitgeist — and every person I knew of that generation was swearing up and down that this wasn't a realistic depiction of their life, as if the show aspired to be a documentary — Girls had only a niche audience. It's possible that being freed from the responsibility of the zeitgeist is what has kept Girls so watchable. The start of the fifth season won't launch an armada of think pieces, but if you still get pleasure from watching these flawed, often awful characters make flawed, often funny choices, Girls is still Girls.

Cast: Lena Dunham, Allison Williams, Zosia Mamet, Jemima Kirke
Showrunners: Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner

Airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)

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