From the moment we met her two years ago, Lena Dunham has been as much character as creator.

Her story — a 23-year-old with one small film to her credit handed the reins of a high-profile, frantically marketed HBO series — bled through the show's narrative even before it aired. That she also starred in "Girls," which follows the exploits of four young post-collegiate women living in New York, only solidified the narrative blur.

As with Woody Allen in his mid-career heyday, where the written narrative ends and the creator's reality begins is sometimes difficult to distinguish. Not even Aaron Sorkin has the kind of personal relationship with his audience that Dunham has.

She is "Girls" and "Girls" is her. We are watching her grow up, as a woman, as a writer and as an actor, along with her characters, and in real time.

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If you take a meta-critical view of it, this makes "Girls" the best reality show on television.

Time and presumably success (multiple Emmy nominations) appear to have mellowed "Girls" and its creator. Season 3 begins Sunday with a scrubbed-up, calmed-down tone that immediately indicates the main characters, or most of them anyway, are finally willing to pick up at least a few tools of adulthood.

Hannah (Dunham) has gotten a cute new haircut and is happily ensconced in a committed relationship with the enigmatic Adam (Adam Driver). She is writing her book, medicating her OCD and wearing underpants. In most every scene.

More important, as the episodes move on, Hannah begins to recognize and question her narcissism in a way that seems both a reaction to the show's critics and the organic maturation of this particular character. Hannah will never be mistaken for one of Louisa May Alcott's March girls, but she is beginning to perceive that her self-centeredness is neither a desirable nor a universal characteristic.

Her friends appear to be on similar journeys. Marnie (Allison Williams) wallows in her breakup with Charlie (Christopher Abbott left the show last year), radiating the outrage of an early incarnate golden girl who realizes that real life will not be bending to her every desire, and that no one shares that outrage. We quickly learn where Jessa (Jemima Kirke) has been hiding since she left Hannah stranded at the country home of her crazy father. It's bit of a narrative cheat, but as it involves a terrific guest appearance by Richard E. Grant, easy to let slide.

Jessa's return to the fold highlights the changes that have taken place while she, and we, have been away. Hannah is no longer enchanted by her friend's smoldering wild ways and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), well, Shoshanna is the slow grow miracle of Season 3.

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Having ditched Ray (Alex Karpovsky) and settled firmly into a 15-year plan that involves deep study, hard partying and avoiding the mistakes of her friends, Shoshanna becomes the mouthpiece for those exasperated by the oblivious and perpetual adolescence of Hannah and Co. Which, delivered in up-ticked, emoticon-heavy Shoshanna-speak, is often quite hilarious.

Dunham has directly answered criticism before; last season Hannah dated a black man allowing her to rant about the unimportance of color in a way that spoofed and supported charges that for a New York-based show, "Girls" is pretty white.

There are times during these early episodes when what the characters say to one another appears to echo what recappers and critics have said about them. But then, "Girls" has always been a show about the constant mood-monitoring that often passes for self-awareness during young adulthood; as the publisher of any women's (and some men's) magazine knows, nothing sells better than aspirational self-evaluation.

Along with the story line insights, there is a feeling of control overarching the early episodes, a narrative fluidity replacing the spikier, and quickly tiresome, need to shock. Oh, Hannah's still naked and body fluids anchor several conversations, but "Girls" seems to be maturing as a creative enterprise just as its characters are maturing as people.

Which makes sense, since the main character in the story of "Girls" has always been ... "Girls."

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Girls'

Where: HBO

When: 10 and 10:30 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)