With her 2010 SXSW-darling film Tiny Furniture, Lena Dunham captured the malaise and uncertainty of a generation of postcollege 20-somethings with grit, humor, and painful realism, transforming Manhattan into a depressing playground for overeducated, underqualified youths in an economy that had seemingly forgotten about their existence.
Many of the same themes—and several of the same actors—are transported from Dunham’s accomplished indie film to HBO’s infectious and addictive Girls, the winking black comedy which begins Sunday evening, and which counts Dunham as creator, writer, director, and star (and one of the executive producers, along with Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner.) The show represents a major accomplishment for the woman at its helm, and, in the three episodes provided to press, the voice that Dunham shared in Tiny Furniture has been honed to perfection here, sharp and incisive, witty and brutal.
Dunham stars as Hannah Horvath, a would-be novelist and intern who is supported by her professor parents. She lives in a shabby walk-up with her best friend Marnie (Allison Williams, daughter of news anchor Brian), who works in an art gallery, has terrible sex with her lothario partner Adam (Adam Driver), and is more or less adrift. Hannah is not so much navel gazing, as navel obsessing, whether it is about being the “voice of [her] generation” (or “a voice of a generation”), the “stuff that gets up around the sides of condoms,” whether she has AIDS, or what she will do with her life.
She is, in other words, the archetypical 20-something existing in the increasingly deep chasm between adolescence and adulthood, and Dunham makes Hannah instantly charismatic and hilarious, willing to bare her body and her soul with the same ease.
Girls is, in many ways, the antithesis to HBO’s own ladies-in-Manhattan fantasy, Sex and the City, offering a far more realistic portrayal of sisterhood than that of Carrie Bradshaw and Co., though virginal student Shoshanna (Mad Men’s Zosia Mamet, daughter of playwright David) does have a SATC poster prominently displayed in her “bachelorette pad,” and she categorizes herself and other women by Sex and the City character types. But while Carrie and her kin moved effortlessly through high fashion and fabulous sex, Hannah and her friends live a decidedly less exuberant lifestyle.
Those friends include the uptight and tightly wound Marnie, convinced that her boyfriend Charlie (Christopher Abbott) is too good to her, and naive and sheltered Shoshanna, who brings candy to an abortion clinic, as well as the nomadic Jessa (Tiny Furniture’s Jemima Kirke, the daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon), Shoshanna’s English cousin, who breezes in from Paris, leaving havoc and wounded feelings in her wake. Jessa’s caustic egocentrism hides a mass of vulnerability, as well as a seeming inability to express empathy for anyone around her. Even an unwanted potential pregnancy becomes simply a trifling inconvenience for the thrill-seeking Jessa, as she collides literally and figuratively with everyone and everything around her.
And yet while Jessa simply acts impulsively, Hannah ponders the larger questions, indulging in her own parent-sponsored existential crisis. Who is she? What is the life she wants to lead? Where is she going? For the moment, she bounces between her unfulfilling (and unpaid) internship, her apartment, and to depressingly awkward and painful sexual gymnastics with a boy who plays with her stomach fat after sex and who wants to dominate and control her, even though he won’t return her text messages.
But just when Girls seems to veer into an uncomfortable and pitch-black realm, it zigzags back into a refreshingly honest portrayal of female sexuality, friendships, and dynamics in the Facebook age. It’s also at times joyously exuberant, such as when, in a beautifully shot sequence, Hannah and Marnie dance in their apartment at the end of the third episode. Without dialogue, these two unite in such a subtle and soulful way, their bodies moving to the music in a silent reaffirmation of their friendship.
It’s small moments like those that add up to something powerful and often profound in Girls, which also has the ability to slap you across the face with its bracing honesty. All four of the series’ leads exert a powerful pull on the viewer’s attention in their own way, exploring the limitations and freedom of being a woman in the year 2012.
In the pilot, Hannah and Marnie wake up after falling asleep to episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and there’s something to be said about just how much has changed since Mary first threw her hat up into the air. Hannah and her sisters have far greater freedom to pursue careers, men, marriage, or whatever makes them happy, but they’re often paralyzed by that same freedom, by their own and others’ expectations.
Ultimately, Girls is achingly original, the sort of television show that comes around but once in a decade, embodying a singular vision and pitch-perfectly capturing a voice. Whether it represents, as Hannah suggests of her in-progress novel, the voice of a generation remains to be seen, but it’s a voice that’s not afraid to be unique, to shout at the top of its lungs that it has arrived, and to remind us all of what it means to be young.
Editor’s Note: The character of Marnie was misidentified in an earlier version of the story.