There’s been a lot (a LOT) of buzz about HBO’s new series Girls—a half-hour comedy created, written, directed by and starring Lena Dunham—and, for once, a pilot lived up to expectations. Produced by Judd Apatow, HBO’s other ‘girls taking on New York City’ comedy, Sex and the City, and FX’s Louie have been bandied about as critics have written about what Girls isn’t (SATC) and how Dunham’s authorial voice and artistic control is similar to that of Louis C.K’s. Despite the four young females at its centre, Girls is—pleasingly—less concerned with navigating traffic in Blahnik’s than it is the perils of post-arts degree employment, amusingly unerotic fuck-buddy encounters (on filthy couches) and paying rent.
Dunham’s breakout indie film Tiny Furniture (2010), which made a splash at South by Southwest before touring the International Film Festival circuit, is by no means flawless, yet what I appreciated most at the time, and again while watching Girls, is the clarity and confidence of Dunham’s voice. As Hannah Horvath she attempts to convince her parents—while high on opium tea—that she just might be the “voice of my generation,” and while her parents (played by Freaks and Geeks alum Becky Ann Baker and Peter Scolari of Bosom Buddies) scoff and refuse to continue to financially support her “groovy lifestyle,” referring to Dunham as a voice of my generation isn’t absurd.
I’ve heard, and taken part in, some variation of the discussions had by Hannah with friends Marnie (Allison Williams), Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), Marnie’s partner Charlie (Christopher Abbott), Hannah’s sort-of boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver, who somehow manages to make lines like “you modern career women…you think you can come in here and talk all that noise” not entirely repulsive), and their obnoxious, thoughtful friend-acquaintance Ray (Alex Karpovsky, so memorable as Dunham’s asshole romantic interest in Tiny Furniture).
It’s as surprising as it is amusing how spot on Hannah’s conversations with her parents—particularly those about the state of the economy, living expenses, and how well-behaved a child she is (“I could be a drug addict, do you realise how lucky you are?…my friend Sophie, her parents don’t support her, she had two abortions. Right in a row, and know one came with her”)—are.
The attributes and behaviours that make these characters so relatable (not a word I often use when describing interesting characters, at least those that occupy the worlds of Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and so on) in this pilot is exactly what could turn away droves of potential fans: these twenty-somethings are confident and directionless, self-conscious but haunted by moments of courage, prone to indulging in maybe-unsafe sex and drug use but grounded by ambition and the pressure of determining a career in a media saturated, competitive marketplace.
Yet—and this is where the comparisons to Louie and Louis C.K. gather credibility—Dunham is self-deprecating, honest and willing to expose herself in an attempt to dig at something deeper; Dunham knows exactly what it is she’s trying to say and as a result the “auteur” mumblings among viewers and critics come across—as you’re watching Dunham fumble with her stockings, moan on a hotel floor, or tell her parents she’s “trying to become who I am”—as plausible, with time.
Hannah risks becoming too apathetic, whiney, vaguely ambitious and willing to be a victim to her self-esteem, but here, thanks to Dunham’s charms, she is fresh and down to earth. She seems both comfortable with and resentful of her situation, a dualism that plays out in fascinating ways as Hannah complains (and doesn’t) about her financial problems and body image issues: an interesting angle considering Dunham first drew attention for posting a clip on YouTube in which she bathed in a public fountain, which spurred thousands of comments debating her weight. I love how Girls manages to subtly establish the double-edged sword of this tumultuous Girls-to-women (?) stage, shifting between admiring the optimism and occasional blind bravery of youth, while leaving room for comedy in failures, disappointments and naivety; Jessa, for example, is wordly and adventurous but is unwilling or unable to establish proper roots, while Marnie is in a comfortable but increasingly unappealing relationship with a devoted boyfriend (a dynamic I eagerly await to watch play out). Hannah’s not sure exactly what she wants, but it’s not this; her lack of structure and glamour appears to be currently defining what she isn’t rather than what Hannah is.
Hannah is aware that her parents have been indulgent and supportive in her first post-college years, but is thrown and indignant when suddenly she can’t rely on their (much needed) assistance while living in The City, just as she is confident about (or, oblivious to, depending who you ask) her body and conscious of the fact that eating cupcakes in the bath and having her lover tug on rolls of fat post-coitus (Hannah is apparently unperturbed by sexual humiliation) is hardly glamorous. Dunham’s Hannah is the big draw—although the supporting cast, particularly Williams, Kirke and Mamet, are fantastic—and this pilot seamlessly and clearly establishes Dunham’s voice, but I can easily see our protagonist and her friends becoming insufferable if this careful balancing act fails (judging by this outstanding pilot, I doubt it will).
Girls is a little melancholic, very assured, revealing, tightly structured and funny, it’s just meta enough to point out the SATC shaped elephant in the room (as well as a sly comment about hearing privileged white girls complain being akin to “watching Clueless”), and supporting the occasional Noah Baumbach-like sting is Dunham’s raw, low-key performance.
Some inspired witticisms:
The Mary Tyler Moore Show: according to Charlie, is a “very odd show to hear through a wall.”
Hannah: Are you going to leave your towel on?
Hannah: But I never see you naked when you always see me naked, when it should actually be the other way around.
Marnie: You are beautiful, shut up.
Hannah: I don’t need that, I need to see your boobs.
Hannah: What does it even feel like to be loved that much?
Marnie: I don’t know, I can’t feel it anymore…it makes me feel like such a bitch because I can feel him being so nice to me and yet it makes me so angry.
Shoshanna: Your skin is like, hauntingly beautiful.
Facebook: the lowest form of communication on the “Totem of Chat”, according to Marnie. “Face-to-face is of course ideal but it’s not of this time.” And according to Shoshanna, not being on Facebook makes you “so fucking classy.”
Adam: Hey, doll.
Hannah: Doll, that’s what my dad calls me.
Adam: Yeah I know, we’re in the same circle-jerk.
Adam: I’m into this woodworking stuff. It’s just more honest.
Hannah: Will you get a condom?
Adam: I’lllll…consider it!
Charlie: Ray’s just being, like, you know…motivational.
Ray: What’s wrong with McDonald’s? You should work at McDonald’s. It’s incredible. Do you know how many people it feeds everyday? How many people it employs around the world? Plus, they make incredible product. It’s fucking affordable, it’s consistent. I could walk into a McDonald’s in Nigeria, order a Chicken McNugget and you know what it’s going to taste like? It’s going to taste like home.
Hannah: That doesn’t mean I have to work there, I went to college.
Ray: I went to college too. You know where it left me? I have $50,000 in student loans, that’s how deep in debt I am.
Hannah: My skirt is so tight, maybe you could cut it open with the scissors…I’m gonna die like Flaubert in a garret, don’t look at me.