Girls Returns with Season 3 in 'Excellent Shape,' Says PEOPLE's TV Critic

01/13/2014 at 04:00 PM EST

Girls Returns with Season 3 in 'Excellent Shape,' Says PEOPLE's TV Critic
Lena Dunham and Adam Driver
Jessica Miglio/HBO

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It's not clear whether HBO's Girls will ever achieve the perfection of its first season: You can't expect lightning to hit the same spot twice, whether in nature or the hipster hothouse of Brooklyn, N.Y. But Lena Dunham's contemporary comedy of manners – following the lives of four young women in a world of sex, ambition and artisanal coffee – returned Sunday night in excellent shape.

This was just a few days after a viral controversy erupted: A critic at the Television Critics Association's conference asked if Dunham really needed to be nude so often on the show. This in turn was interpreted as asking why someone with a body like Dunham's needed to be nude so often. It could be interpreted as implying the further question of why someone with a body like Dunham's should be naked instead of someone with a body like costar Allison Williams's.

If this is a concern for you, the question will not be resolved. Dunham, as writer, complainer and joke-dispenser Hannah Horvath, still likes to peel off her clothes, at least judging from the first six episodes of the new season.



But she has managed, probably with the help of executive producers Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner, to smooth out the drastic, nearly disastrous inconsistencies of season two, in which Hannah suffered an obsessive-compulsive collapse and, among other things, played naked ping-pong with Patrick Wilson in an episode that felt like a very bad art film.

The new season finds Hannah dutifully taking her medications with the help of boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver), who is strange-looking and stranger–acting, yet somehow deeply magnetic, like a disturbed philosophy student out of a Russian novel. Jessa (Jemima Kirke), doing her seductively funny best to be expelled from rehab, has succeeded. (Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon contributed a sharp cameo as a drug addict – the show continues to be wonderfully cast.) Marnie (Allison Williams) is without a boyfriend, and still certain that Manhattan is depriving her of the glamour, career and romance that she singularly deserves.

The viewer is in on the secret, however: Marnie doesn't deserve success, because she is incapable of earning it. Unlike Hannah. This is why we indulge and even enjoy Hannah's aggressive self-absorption. (There's a good episode coming up in which she tries to feel sad about a death, and can't, especially.) She has talent to go with her longing, and she has our affection. Marnie gets only our pity.

Shoshannah (Zosia Mamet) still talks on and on, like a broken record inside a broken parrot, but for me she is the most irresistible character. Partly because Shosh's ridiculousness never completely masks her shrewdness about life choices – none of the other girls could be mistaken for shrewd – and because Mamet is such a terrific actor. All the women on Girls are funny, but only Mamet is delightful.

I continue to miss the sense of a true ensemble from season 1, but at least these initial weeks give each girl her fair share of the scenario. The episodes also have great lines, including: "Fedoras are worse than genocide." This, spoken by a smart young writer working for an ad-supported supplement of GQ, is meant to mock the way his superior sense of irony is outpaced by his insensitivity. But it's also a great line.

So, Girls fans can feel relieved. The show has not turned into the dead-on Saturday Night Live spoof, the one that introduced Tina Fey as Blerta from Albania.

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