By Jeff Jensen
Updated January 27, 2014 at 05:00 AM EST
Jessica Miglio/HBO
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If season 3 of Girls proves anything, it’s that Lena Dunham listens to her haters. Minutes into the premiere, the season 2 story lines that pushed the dramedy into some seriously dark territory are walked back. Hannah’s (Dunham) crippling OCD: miraculously managed. Self-loathing Adam’s (Adam Driver) degrading sexual humiliation of girlfriend Natalia (Shiri Appleby): sorta apologized for, then awkwardly laughed away. I’m not sure what to worry about more — the show’s sudden interest in being slightly more likable, or the lack of vision.

So begins a lighter season that engages the chief criticisms of Girls — Hannah and her maturity-challenged pals are self-absorbed; they’re actually hideous friends to one another — if only to say: That’s part of the point. In the second episode, Hannah, Adam, and always totes supportive Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) go on a road trip into the woods to help a friend in need, free-spirited Jessa (Jemima Kirke). What selflessness! What self-improvement! And what a joke! The story quickly reveals itself to be a showcase for the girls’ self-centeredness. When Hannah starts bellyaching that their ”boring” adventure lacks enough metaphorical value for her book, Adam jumps out of the car and literally takes a hike. Metaphorical, indeed.

Empathy is further tested with the arrival of Adam’s troubled, freeloading sister Caroline (Gaby Hoffmann), whose extremes make her brother look like a portrait of reserve. Eliciting comparisons — and compassion — seems to be Dunham’s goal. It’s as if she took every awful thing that has been said about Hannah and built a rabidly alienating Frankenstein out of them. You think Hannah’s a horrible, selfish phony? I’ll show you horrible! Caroline functions to shed some light on Adam’s personality and feelings for Hannah, and to teach Hannah grace. Still, she’s polarizing. I’m not sure I want more of her.

Girls finds a good groove around episode 4. A major spoiler sends Hannah to a funeral (a killer comic scenario) and sets in motion events that require her to rethink her identity as a writer. More self-aware commentary: Forced to define her brand, she buys into a dubious comparison to Mindy Kaling, until another smart plot twist blows that up, too. Jessa’s love-hate relationship with ”adulthood” finds hilarious expression when she takes a job at a children’s boutique. Marnie (Allison Williams) — adrift at the start due to the abrupt departure of Christopher Abbott, who played boyfriend Charlie — gets her most meaningful story line since season 1 when she asks Ray (Alex Karpovsky) for an unsparing critique of her character. These plot points imply questions for the future. Can the ladies and gents of Girls help each other change? Or do they keep each other from changing? Is Girls even interested in growing its flailing, failing-forward characters — or merely the flailing and failing? Don’t take a hike just yet: Girls still might have places to go. B

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Four young ladies live in New York City, and it’s SO hard.
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