It’s easy to remember a time before Girls. It was a more innocent time, when the internet was not yet overrun with discussions about whether or not Lena Dunham should be naked onscreen, or if the way young women are spending their lives today is substantially different from the way they were spending their lives a generation ago, and if this is cause for concern. Despite drawing modest-at-best ratings over its past four seasons, the show launched a genuine era and spawned a wave of TV shows chronicling the lives of fictional young people living in big cities. Girls is now in its fifth season on HBO, and its characters have changed as much as the real demographic they’re supposedly commenting on — which is to say, maybe not at all.
The scene might look more adult, but the pieces are still the same
The four central girls of Girls are rarely all in the same place this season; one of the only times we see them together is in last night’s season premiere, at Marnie’s wedding. Hannah (Lena Dunham), Jessa (Jemima Kirke), and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) have reunited in a picturesque wooded area, so that Marnie (Allison Williams) can have a wedding that is both contemporary and reminiscent of a Joni Mitchell album. Some time has passed between the end of season four and now: Shoshanna has blond hair and lives in Japan, Hannah is comfortably dating her teacher–boyfriend Fran, and Marnie is, well, getting married. But just because some things have changed doesn’t mean everything has: Shoshanna is still doting and excitable, Hannah complains about her bridesmaid dress, and Jessa informs the wedding party, "I just bathed in the stream and then ran through the field to dry myself." This is Girls, present tense: the scene might look more adult, but the pieces are still the same.
At this point, Girls has already explored alcoholism, cheating, obsessive-compulsive disorder, a failed marriage, parental sexuality, a tryst with cocaine, a tryst with an MFA, and several panic attacks. Over the course of four seasons, Girls has proudly earned itself a reputation for being a dedicated portrayal of entitled, lazy, confused, horny, clumsy not-quite adulthood. Its characters make bad decisions and blame other people for the consequences; its adult figures are either just as confused about life (Hannah’s mother; Marnie’s mother) or killed off (Hannah’s book editor). But Girls is not sentimental about its past, and season five feels like it’s starting with a relatively clean slate. Every romantic relationship from the first, second, even third season has seen its end. Even Hannah’s parents’ relationship has ended (her father came out as gay in the fourth season), though they are technically still married. New relationships are blossoming, like the first tulips of spring: Elijah (Andrew Rannells) has linked up with a C-list celebrity while Jessa is testing the sexual waters with Hannah’s ex-boyfriend Adam (more on that later). It’s even raining in the first episode, if you want to look for a cleansing metaphor. Girls might be a little narcissistic, but it’s not in love with its own past.
This approach works for Girls. Criticisms leveled against the show in the past — particularly, its almost completely white cast — still stand this season, but it’s almost as if Girls writers have gotten the chance to start from nothing, without the added weight of having to introduce new characters. In some ways, season five feels like the alternate endings in a choose-your-own-adventure story. Marnie and her singing-songwriting partner Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) do get married, however unlikely that seemed last year. Hannah is not a successful essay writer, but an elementary school teacher. Ray runs his own eponymous coffee shop. This isn’t to say the cast of Girls is all grown up. They’re still, at times, petulant and irresponsible and unpredictable, but they’re making real efforts toward maturity, like a group of kids stumbling around in shoes two sizes too big.
Even if the girls of Girls are still playing house, they’ve come a long way since the show’s first season. In the show’s pilot, Hannah is fired from her unpaid internship and financially cut off from her parents for the first time in her life. Shoshanna is a college student, Jessa is unemployed, and Marnie works as a receptionist at an art gallery. As the characters have matured, the show’s sense of purpose has solidified, its jokes are smoother, because the people delivering those jokes are more complete characters. So when Hannah says to Marnie "I just fully saw your husband’s penis," and Marnie’s response is, "Oh my God, I love hearing the word husband," we laugh, because Marnie’s selective hearing hasn’t dissipated with her major life decisions.
As it has become more sure of itself over the years, Girls has enjoyed a kind of parallel-universe existence next to the shows to which it’s most often compared. New Girl premiered on Fox in 2011, about six months before Girls, pitched as a less absurd, female-forward alternative to HBO shows like Flight of the Concords or the Britcom Peep Show, both of which got by without much of a hard premise beyond two men living together as roommates. New Girl’s entire plot was predicated on the idea of a young woman starting over. Zooey Deschanel’s Jessica Day breaks up with her cheating live-in boyfriend and moves in with three men in a Los Angeles loft. This foursome is older than Hannah, Jessa, Marnie, and Shoshanna, but they share many of the same characteristics. The men are single or casually dating; they work jobs as bartenders or low-level positions at marketing companies where they’re not taken seriously. Both Girls and New Girl are currently in their fifth seasons, and both are still working out the puzzle of growing up.
As it happens, New Girl’s fifth season also begins with a wedding: Cece and Schmidt’s (Hannah Simone and Max Greenfield). Unlike Marnie and Desi’s nuptials, it’s an event that’s been built up for a while now. Cece and Schmidt definitely did the whole "will they / won’t they" thing, but there was never really a serious question that they eventually would. But while Marnie and Desi’s wedding is a reunion of sorts for its far-flung core group, the cast of New Girl still lives in the same loft (excepting Jess, who is absent for several episodes this season while Zooey Deschanel is on maternity leave). New Girl finds someone to take the place of Jess almost immediately (Megan Fox’s Regan), though there is no mistaking she is missed. But the fact that such a leave of absence is even possible is a testament to how much the show has changed. The first season of New Girl revolved almost entirely around Jess and her broken heart; we didn’t get a plotline that excluded her until "Bells," the seventh episode of the show’s first season. The secondary plotline? Nick and Schmidt fighting over the right way to fix a toilet.
Part of New Girls' evolution has been the process of its democratization: Nick, Schmidt, and Winston have been given their own full-fledged stories, and Jess doesn’t always need a part in them. Jess’ absence gives her roommates the chance to fulfill different roles in the group. Winston and Cece form an unexpected friendship, as each performs their own mimicry of Jess-tasks: Winston goes wedding dress-shopping with Cece and Cece helps Winston get over a girl. Schmidt and Cece must abide by a What Would Jess Do blueprint when they try to stop Nick from falling in love with their new roommate. Girls has also seen a balancing of its characters’ screen time this season. Hannah, who began the show as the central character around which all the other characters revolved, has recently found herself in the same orbit as everyone else. Hannah’s ongoing fight with her boyfriend over naked pictures she finds on his phone is given as much weight as Shoshanna’s trip to an underground S&M club in Japan. Marnie’s wedding is the focal point of an entire episode, rather than just an event Hannah attends before she does something more selfish.
Working out the puzzle of growing up
Having the relative carte blanche of HBO means that Girls has a pretty long leash when it wants to, say, drop every single one of its plotlines and start from scratch. New Girl is still bound by the conventions of a network sitcom. So while Girls’ fifth season feels radically neglectful of its past as a whole, blessing its characters with insta-growth, New Girl can get stuck in amnesiac loops, with everything resetting to zero at the end of each episode. But New Girl is more sentimental than Girls, and more nostalgic for its own past, and so the jokes feel slightly more stagnant — Nick leaves a bowl of mashed potatoes under his bed for months; Schmidt melts into a mumbling mannequin when he finds out about Cece’s past relationships. Of course, this is exactly what makes New Girl work, and what makes it the millennial comfort-viewing it’s clearly set out to be. (Girls also finds comfort in repetitive joke structures, but their stagnancy feels like more like a comment on the concerns of entitled young people than a narrative tactic).
One style is not necessarily more effective than another, but Girls’ inclination to build on itself has more in common with the rhythms of real life. New Girl, on the other hand, feels wary of forgetting its origins. Jess’ replacement, Megan Fox’s character, is given a personality so at odds with Jess’ own that the warm homecoming Jess will receive when she returns is already clear on the horizon. The audience is made to miss the status quo as much as the roommates might.
At one point in this season of Girls, Hannah delivers the inimitable Hannah-ism, "What I lack in skill I make up for in extreme curiosity." She’s talking about sex, but it applies to these shows as well. That Girls has neglected its past or New Girl has clung to it won’t stop fans from watching now that we’re this far along. Just because we’re growing up doesn’t mean we’re not curious about what comes next.