'Girls': A Frank, Funny Look at 20-Somethings, Genital Warts and All

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The Judd Apatow-produced, Lena Dunham-directed HBO series lovingly pokes fun at its flawed characters.

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HBO

A few years after graduating from college, I went to New York over a murderously hot weekend in July to visit several friends. After a day of schlepping my backpack around the city, I was overheated and miserable by the time we met for dinner. When we had to stop the cab on the way home so I could throw up in a trash can, it became clear I wasn't just cranky, I was suffering from heatstroke. Rather than enjoy a sophisticated evening out, we curled up on a couch in Cobble Hill, eating tiny, spicy Korean candies and rewatching Clueless. It was one of the happiest nights of my early post-graduate life. The understanding that in humiliation and disappointment lie opportunity is one of the keys to understanding Girls, the daring and wonderfully funny HBO show from Lena Dunham that premieres this Sunday at 10:30 p.m.

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Many of the great television shows of the last 15 years have thrived on incongruity: the high-school cheerleader who is humanity's greatest bulwark against darkness, the mafia don who seeks psychological treatment, the drug lord who takes community-college classes, the high-school teacher who cooks meth. Girls, which chronicles the lives of four friends in their early 20s who have moved to New York, proceeds from decidedly a more modest premise: the struggle of aspiring writer Hannah Hovarth to find employment after her parents cut her off and she discovers that she can "last in New York for three and a half more days. Maybe seven if I don't eat lunch." But it demands that we do something rather more ambitious than enjoy watching a teenage girl slay vampires or feel the thrill of sympathizing with a murderous criminal. Girls offers up a proposition that's still audacious given our calcified ideas about gender, body image, and age: that a girl with stomach fat and an STD, who is "unfit for any and all paying jobs" and has epically disastrous taste in men, could turn out to be the voice of her generation.

The first hint of Hannah's talent comes—fittingly, for a show about winningly self-absorbed characters—from Hannah herself, and in circumstances that immediately render her judgement dubious. In the pilot episode, Hannah, possibly under the influence of opium and definitely under the influence of questionable advice from her bohemian friend Jessa (who has suggested she threaten to die in a garret like Flaubert if her parents don't restore their financial support), storms into her parents' hotel room. "I brought you my book. I need you to read it," she declares. "Because I don't want to freak you out, but I think I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice of a generation." Rather than producing the hoped-for reversal of her parents' decision, Hannah wakes up the next morning in their suite to discover that they have checked out, closed the tab so she can't order room service, and left $20 for her and $20 for housekeeping. She pockets both bills, an unpleasant little act of selfishness that seems framed to answer movie critic Glenn Kenny's charge that Dunham's first feature film, Tiny Furniture, is "the Cinema of Unexamined Privilege."

That series of events establishes something important: Girls' characters may be profoundly un-self-aware, but the show is a wry and loving commentary on their myopic attitudes rather than a pure endorsement of them. And it's also a useful acknowledgement that Dunahm, whom viewers sometimes conflate with her characters, is aware of the voice-of-a-generation hype she herself receives. Hannah's declaration of self-confidence is so funny and sad precisely because it's a daring thing for a woman to utter, and because it's so immediately undercut by the panic attack Hannah has immediately afterwards.

"It's totally acceptable for a man in an interview to go, 'I'm really proud of the work I do. I know I work hard and I'm a great actor,' or some shitty thing that if I were to say, everyone would be like, 'That girl is off her rocker,'" Dunham said over breakfast in Austin during South by Southwest, the same festival where Tiny Furniture became a breakout sensation in 2010. "I think there is a self-deprecation or a humbleness that women are expected to have and it's unseemly otherwise. Philip Roth, to say he's the voice of his generation, everyone would be like, 'Obviously. Carry on, Philip Roth.'"

There is a larger specter than Dunham hanging over Girls: Sex and the City, the earlier HBO series about four female best friends and the men they sleep with. Dunham is quick to praise the show: "I really was connected to it, and was completely taken with the finale, and obsessed with what would happen, and couldn't believe it when they revealed Big's name was John. Every twist, I was there," she says.

But Dunham insists that it is a mistake to elide the two shows, both in tone and in subject matter. For one thing, there's a big difference in the characters' ages. "I feel like everyone's like '20-something and 30-something, that's a pretty subtle distinction,'" she says. "It's actually huge and it means a decade different amount of experience, a decade different amount of ambition." To emphasize the gap, the girls of Girls live in a world that's influenced by Sex and the City, but they lack the emotional and financial resources to approximate the lifestyle that hovers before them as a model.

When Jessa (Jemima Kirke), returns to New York after her latest globetrotting adventure to crash with her cousin Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), who lives in an apartment rented for her by her parents near her college campus, Shoshanna declares: "You're so fucking classy. You know, you're funny, because you're definitely like a Carrie, with like some Samantha aspects, but Charlotte hair. That's a really good combination. I'm definitely a Carrie at heart, but sometimes....Samantha comes out. And when I'm at school, I try hard to put on my Miranda hat." Shoshanna may be comforted by the taxonomy the Sex and the City women offer of sophisticated approaches to adulthood, but she isn't actually following the show's guidance. Far from being a sexual adventuress like Samantha, Shoshnna's actually an anxious virgin.

In ten years, Hannah Hovarth may grow up to be the kind of woman who drops her purse, spills condoms all over the street, and meets the man of her dreams, just as Carrie Bradshaw did all those years ago. But in the interim, the apartment where she lives with her best friend Marnie (Allison Williams) is cramped, something Dunham insisted on even when HBO offered her larger sets to more easily accommodate cameras and crew. And her clothes don't fit—Dunham tried them on while wearing Spanx, but leaves the shapewear off when she films scenes so "it tugs a little bit. You don't tailor your thing from the Urban Outfitters sale rack."

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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