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GIRLS episode 38 (season 4, episode 6): Jemina Kirke, Zosia Mamet, Allison Williams and Lena Dunham.Jessica Miglio

When the tweets and think pieces and blog rants overwhelm, I remind myself that Girls is not a manifesto, or an autobiography or a Pinterest board. It's a half-hour comedy. As it should be: Television is the perfect medium for a project that – despite many desperate pleas – insists on letting its characters take their time to become who they are. The show's detractors want these girls to get it together already, but that's not how becoming an adult works and it doesn't sound like any comedy I'd want to watch.

In Girls' fourth season (it premieres 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO), Hannah, Jessa, Marnie and Shoshanna continue along their rambling path to maturity. Hannah (series creator Lena Dunham) leaves New York to attend the Iowa Writers' Workshop, a graduate creative writing program, and finds that academia and dirt-cheap rent aren't everything she's imagined; Marnie (Allison Williams) is committed to her burgeoning music career, no matter how often she embarrasses herself onstage; Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) has graduated from New York University and is in job-interview hell; and Jessa (Jemima Kirke) is still sober, if struggling.

Girls remains a cringe-inducing and hilarious exercise in that vaunted genre of the Internet age: the confession. In a coming episode, Hannah brings to class a fictional story about domestic abuse that she reads aloud. Each student resolutely tears it down, and at a bar after class, she tells one of them the inspiration for the story.

"TMI, Hannah," the student replies. "There's no such thing as too much information," Hannah shoots back. "This is the information age! We're all just here to express ourselves, so it's like, to censor each other? We're no better than George W. Bush!"

Girls' candour – its eagerness to show the ugliest sides of its characters, to showcase them at their most selfish and self-destructive – partly accounts for the hailstorm of media attention and scorn that has followed the show since its launch in 2012.

"You're confronted with something that isn't easy to face," Williams says at a round-table interview in New York. "It's like looking in a really well-lit mirror."

There's something contagious about that kind of openness – it makes it easy to projectile-vomit your own anxieties and fears all over the show, and the actors who represent them.

Mamet bears the brunt of Girls fans who just can't keep it to themselves.

"I think given the confessional nature of our show, people often feel like they can tell us everything," she says. She often disappoints fans who expect Mamet to share her character's manic angst – especially those who identify with Shoshanna's "zombie-eating anxiety." (She clarifies: "I meant like it eats away at you, like a zombie would.")

"She gets it so bad," Williams says of Mamet's run-ins with oversharing fans. "I think people are like, 'Oh my god, Shosh would want to know everything.'"

It's probably not a coincidence that a show which draws so heavily on its creator's experiences inspires viewers to conflate character with actor. I flagged the scene where Hannah reads her story to her writer's group as a direct response to critics of Dunham's recently published book of essays, Not That Kind of Girl. One student dismisses Hannah's piece, complaining, "It's about a really privileged girl deciding she's just gonna let someone abuse her."

And yet it was showrunner Jenni Konner who wrote the scene – and months before Dunham's book was published. "I was like, Are we psychic?" Konner says. "Should we write an episode about winning the lottery next?"

She adds that the show's writers often debate whether audiences will believe a particular story – even one that actually happened, such as the scene in season two when Hannah's aggressive Q-Tip regimen sends her to the hospital (yup, it happened to Dunham).

The show has been harangued for depicting the lives of privileged young New Yorkers as if they're the norm and not the result of extremely good fortune. But I've always found Girls, at its best, to be painfully relatable. Like when your friends kid themselves, over and over again, that they're making the right choices. What, you never believed in your own drivel?

Four seasons in, Girls is still not for everyone. But then, a lot of the best, most groundbreaking and strangest shows on TV aren't.

And no, the girls still haven't got it together yet, but they've done something far more fun to watch: They've evolved in the kind of erratic, one-step-forward, two-steps-back approach that I'm guessing many people in their 20s (and 30s and 40s) can relate to.

Characters on Girls develop in ways that make sense for them, not because a writer decided to push them through a series of milestones.

As Dunham says of Hannah's writing career: "I have many days where I cleaned the whole house and reorganized my dog's sweaters, but I didn't manage to write a single word. That's sort of where Hannah's at. She's going to write when it becomes totally necessary for her to write."