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Lena Dunham, left, with costars Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet and Allison Williams.Jessica Miglio

I found myself muttering instructions at a television character this week, and it isn't the first time that Lena Dunham's Hannah Horvath has left me screening my eyes as I mumble, "No, don't do that. Not that …"

Dunham's Girls, the critically acclaimed HBO series about a gang of New York twentysomethings, returns Sunday for a third season and many more cringe-making moments; imagine it as a ragged love child produced by a hookup of Sex and the City with Curb Your Enthusiasm. But if Girls is sometimes almost unbearable to watch, the repeated humiliations of Horvath, an overeating, fashion-challenged aspiring writer specializing in confessional personal essays and bad boyfriends, are also very touching. The comedy and the character work on Girls are so strong, it is a show that can make even the safely middle-aged feel young and vulnerable.

When the show first appeared in 2012, Dunham's Hannah proved to be a character whose combination of delusion and wisdom, altruism and self-involvement, chutzpah and anxiety led many to rapidly agree with her own estimation that she was the voice of her generation. "Or at least a voice. Of a generation." Both millennials and their boomer parents have eaten it up: This week, news broke that the anti-glam Dunham, an actress whose large, white thighs are an important part of both her comic vocabulary and her cultural critique, will be featured on the February cover of Vogue, as the glossy mainstream magazine makes its bid for the hip young reader.

Certainly the show is a brilliant satire of the trap in which the overentitled, underpaid millennials find themselves. But for all the shocking sex in Girls, it's a classic comedy that knows you produce laughs by taking a home truth and exaggerating it just a bit. Its first season featured several jaw-dropping moments, including a scene in which Hannah's brutish lover Adam (Adam Driver) masturbates in front of her, but also one where she is about to clinch a very chummy interview for a much-needed job when she makes a joke about her interviewer being a date rapist. Both the comic timing and the observation of her social ineptitude are note-perfect.

As Hannah and her gang – her perfectly pretty best friend, Marnie (Allison Williams); transatlantic bohemian Jessa (played by the British-American Jemima Kirke); and prattling, materialistic Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) – cruise Brooklyn and Manhattan in search of steady men and steady jobs, one frequent source of nasty satire is the middle-aged guy. In particular, the powerful ones such as Hannah's phony editor, the nerdy financier whom Jessa impulsively marries, and the puffed-up art star who manipulates Marnie fare badly as Dunham mercilessly skewers the way in which promising young women and rich older men mutually exploit each other. Yes, it's generational revenge, but it's also an enduring critique of human relations.

Carping about Girls, which will now be fuelled by the irony of the Vogue cover, often misses the fundamental honesty that is the source of the show's comedy. Many naysayers simply denounce the characters as whiny and overprivileged (which is rather the point) while some cultural critics have questioned its politics as they cringed at both the whiteness of the cast and Hannah's sexual degradation in her relationship with Adam. But the lily whiteness of a circle of young women who attended Oberlin College together seems more likely than Hannah's brief relationship with a black Republican, a development introduced into Season 2 even after Dunham had told media she did not want to be guilty of tokenism.

The fascinatingly brutal Adam, meanwhile, has proven to have a heart of gold: Dunham ended Season 2 by taking Hannah's once-comic anxiety to the depths of an actual obsessive-compulsive disorder before Adam literally runs to her rescue. Perhaps more troubling than the brutal sex is the notion that, if you kiss him hard enough and long enough, a frog will turn into a prince.

So, it's fairer to complain that by Season 2 the show was already losing touch with its anarchic heart. With Hannah's obsessive behaviour, Adam's transformation and Marnie's gushy reunion with her on-again-off-again college boyfriend, Charlie, the series was already showing some danger of relying on the mindlessly melodramatic plot twists and unlikely romances that are the prop of many a successful show after it has exhausted the novelty of its initial premise. (Don Draper's stupid second marriage and the soap-opera developments in the final seasons of Six Feet Under are typical of the pattern.)

As viewers look forward to a third season, there's good news and bad news ahead. The bad news is that Jessa, the jaded risk-taker, hiding deep pain behind world-weary poses, outlandish impetuosity and a posh British accent, is becoming more annoying than funny as the season opens with a double episode dedicated to her escape from rehab. On the other hand, the newly arrived Gaby Hoffman, who plays Adam's crazy sister Caroline, infuses the show with the dangerous energy that has gone missing since Adam turned mushy.

It's too simple to peg Girls as the next generation's first entry into the golden-age-of-TV sweepstakes or as the female answer to the new male comedy. (Of course, Judd Apatow, the man who exposed the slackers' sad plight in Superbad and Knocked Up, produces the show.) While Dunham is a brilliant satirist of herself, her friends and her times, her writing and her acting are good enough that in its best moments Girls stands out not as millennial but as universal.