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John Doyle: It’s different for Girls – funny and sweet again

In life, as in art and love, things can go awry.

It only seems like yesterday that Girls arrived on HBO and took the collective breath away. The directness of it, the assuredness of Lena Dunham's comic portrait of twentysomething women in New York. The flashes of poignancy, the depth of feeling erupting often through the brittle surface.

Then all went awry. In the second and third seasons, the emotional complexity of Dunham's characters seemed to be revealed as an illusion. Not complex at all, but repetitive, narcissistic and so privileged that their perceptions of the world, friendship and growing up seemed fatally flawed. And, of course, Dunham herself went quickly from being the fresh-voiced newcomer to overexposed establishment figure.

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People continued to argue about Girls and Dunham's role as the voice of a generation, but with less frequency and much less passion. The show seemed much less a loving critique of the millennial generation than an indulgence of every insufferable blunder and selfish mistake. During the third season, the show seemed to find stability, putting less focus on the core characters and more on the world they inhabited. Other characters had depth, and the perspective seemed to shift.

The series came back, a fourth time, closer to the comedy that many of its followers forgot it was. Dunham appeared to be less interested in the celebrity she'd achieved and more interested in writing and shaping the show. Something she actually does with executive producer Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner, her friend and also an executive producer. But, by then, fewer people were paying attention.

Girls (Sunday, HBO Canada, 10 p.m.) now returns for its fifth and penultimate season. And on the evidence of the first few episodes, Dunham and her co-creators are somewhat chastened. It's a funny and poignant opening. There's a wedding, Marnie's, and any wedding provides rich material for both comedy and empathy. It is a very enjoyable start.

In fact, a few minutes in, there is what might be a coolly aimed jab at what Dunham and her character Hannah became. Hannah has invited her current boyfriend Fran (Jake Lacy) to the wedding. He's put in with the guys, who drink beer and wait to be told what to do. One of the guys asks him if he actually knows Hannah well. This is important because Hannah is then described: "She's painfully narcissistic, shockingly tone deaf and just generally one of the most insufferable people you'll ever meet."

Right, well. That's bracing. And then there's the ultra-awkward – or as any of its characters would say, "super-awkward" – attempt at Adam (Adam Driver) and Fran having a chat. That is described accurately as being something like an E.E. Cummings poem, all halting stabs at expressing something. The first episode has the jaunty air of an episode of Say Yes to the Dress dramatized and written by a gifted comedy team.

There are delicious bits of comedy thrown around, offhand. Marnie's mom declares that she regrets wearing shoulder pads at her first wedding more than she regrets marrying the unfaithful guy who ruined her. She looks at Marnie, who looks like a child in her flowing dress and garland of flowers in her hair, and says: "You look like a Starbucks cup."

Hannah, outside with Fran, describes the situation inside Marnie's house as, "a really bad romcom that's too obvious and isn't funny." But, in truth, it is very funny. There is much less self-importance, resentment and desperation emanating from these women.

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Marnie, spooked by the nearness of the wedding ceremony, decides her friends despise her – "You guys are laughing at me and thinking what stupid mistake is Marnie going to make next!" This isn't entirely outlandish, since Marnie's instruction to her wedding consultant is this: "Let's do like a Ralph Lauren and Joni Mitchell, artistic, but also with a nod to my cultural heritage, which is white Christian woman."

That sort of sharp satire, aimed at puncturing the narcissism and pretensions of her characters, is what Dunham used to do with aplomb. It's back, thank heavens. There is a glorious scene in which Marnie's makeup artist loses it with the gaggle of complaining young women. "You know what, you are just a buncha bitches," she hisses. With some justification.

But the key segment is Hannah and her friends doing each other's hair and makeup, trying to rescue themselves from Marnie's mad instructions. It's a sweet, sentimental mash-up of the women helping each other. And it's set to the music of Lord Huron's Fool for Love. "I stare into the endless sky/And the sordid tale of my life goes by/I drift into the great unknown/I really don't know where I'm going."

There is, at last and again, some poignancy, stoicism and a sense of gratitude between these maddening, sometimes painfully annoying people.

Also airing Sunday

Winnipeg Comedy Festival (Sunday, CBC, 9 p.m.) features stand-up comics discussing growing old in the 21st century. Jessica Holmes is the host. The theme is middle age and the special "explores the fun and not-so-fun side of mid-life in today's society – physical breakdown, hormone changes, the appeal and terror of imminent retirement, changing technology, and how you're viewed by the media, your family, and partner." Which doesn't sound that funny, actually. But you never know.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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