In its fourth season, the HBO dramatic comedy Girls explores its petulantly arrested characters in both familiar and surprising new ways. By starting the season with ostensible main character Hannah Horvath (show creator Lena Dunham) leaving her friends in New York to enter a writing program in Iowa, the show's writers take the focus off the titular foursome (which also includes Allison Williams as struggling singer Marnie, Jemima Kirke as recovering addict Jessa, and Zosia Mamet as uptight college graduate Shoshanna) in their original friend group dynamic and instead they allow all sorts of tangential threads to develop. Much like the similarly titled New Girl, the show has become a true ensemble showcase where the storylines focused on side characters are quite often more compelling than what's happening with our stars.
Hannah goes off to school with such hope... and it comes crashing down pretty much immediately. Her writers' group is far from enamored with her navel-gazing, pseudo-edgy prose, and she mostly feels lonely in the giant, empty apartment she is able to rent for much less than her Manhattan digs. Fortunately for her -- and for us -- Hannah's gay ex-boyfriend Elijah, played by the scene-stealing Andrew Rannells, decides to make a surprise drop-in and inspires Hannah to start raising hell. Rannells's hilarious social butterfly run amok is a welcome presence in these first few episodes of the season because, even though we get a new batch of people for Hannah to unintentionally insult and alienate (like Appropriate Behavior's Desiree Akhavan and SNL short-timer Brooks Wheelan), this trip to Iowa kind of derails the momentum created by the third season and feels like the writers treading water while they wrap up some story threads and try to figure out which direction they are going to send the characters toward next.
The show quickly finds its footing the moment that Hannah returns to New York, only to discover that her boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver) has put all of her stuff into storage and is now dating a seemingly more grounded artist named Mimi-Rose (Gillian Jacobs, from Community and Netflix's great new show Love). After Hannah's initial freakout over this, in which she closes herself up in her old room and refuses to come out for a day, the show smartly allows us to glimpse how Adam and Mimi-Rose's relationship continues in the next episode . This is not treated as a rote rebound, and the show doesn't frame the couple's shared scenes around how these interactions would impact Hannah: in this episode, it is fully about these two characters figuring out if they have a shot at being together.
Driver and Jacobs become the MVPs of this season largely because of their intensely emotional storyline, and the unexpected ways that their characters react and change. Jacobs is particularly good here at not reprising a performance we've seen her do before or relying on full-of-shit-artist cliches; there's a baseline of pretentiousness to Mimi-Rose and her work, but there's also genuine caring (and some confusion) at her core as well. Jacobs balances these all with surprising deftness. Driver was a major highlight of last season, and it's satisfying to see him continue to bring new colors to the unmediated ball of emotion that is his character.
On the other end of the couples spectrum, the musical-sexual relationship between Marnie and fake-hippie Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) has become tiresome and annoying. Desi is clearly a controlling, womanizing moron -- something Marnie herself acknowledges several times throughout this season -- and yet Marnie allows them to stay together (for the music? for the sex?). At this point, it isn't tragic that Marnie has this fatal flaw about accepting Desi: it's dumb and soapy.
The guest star roster for this season is formidable as always. Zachary Quinto is creepily funny as Mimi-Rose's ex, who starts dating Jessa to get back at Mimi-Rose. Jason Ritter is perfectly cast as the head of an upstart ramen company who asks Shoshanna for a date after she unsuccessfully interviews with him for a job. Marc Maron is a community council member whose misanthropic grouchiness (what else is new?) inspires Ray (the similarly sour Alex Karpovsky) to run against him in the upcoming election. Maude Apatow is wonderfully natural as a high school kid whom Hannah ill-advisedly befriends, making a case that Judd Apatow's daughters deserve to act in things that he didn't direct (see also: Iris Apatow in Love). Anthony Edwards and Ana Gasteyer make a brief but memorable appearance as Shoshanna's overbearing, divorced parents, both named Mel. Gaby Hoffmann and Jon Glaser return as Adam's unhinged sister, now pregnant, and her beta-male baby daddy.
Peter Scolari and Becky Ann Baker also get a juicy arc to dig into this season, as long-held secrets about both of Hannah's parents (whom they play) are bluntly uncovered, leaving pain, anger, and confusion in their wake.
The fourth season of Girls finishes much stronger than it begins, but even during the throat-clearing and re-calibrating of this batch's early episodes, the show never falters in its dedication to truthfully awkward moments, heartfelt drama, and uncomfortable comedy. If you've followed the show this far, it's certainly worth sticking around.