'Girls': Getting It Right While Doing It Wrong

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I must first admit to some bias. I approached Girls, HBO's new series about the aimless youngs of Brooklyn, with more than a little snide skepticism. Here is a show that purports to be a very realistic depiction of a particular experience — young broke post-collegers trying to do something creative in an exciting yet daunting city — that I myself lived very recently. And here was Lena Dunham, the show's creator/star/writer/director, a girl with a sense of humor not unlike my own, and ambitions — blogs! TV scripts! alt comedy! — that are (were?) basically my ambitions. For me, this show comes jam-packed with things to dislike, to take personal affront to, to stir the battery acid curdle of dark jealousy within me, only to have it manifested externally as a kind of haughty eye-rolling.

Meaning, it's easy to outwardly harsh on Girls for one glaring reason: Though the show is about young women struggling in New York, those young women are all played by scions of veritable New York creative royalty. Dunham is the daughter of the well-known artist Laurie Simmons, who let her daughter shoot her breakthrough film Tiny Furniture in the family's stylish TriBeCa apartment and who sent that daughter to the $33,000/year Saint Ann's School in Brooklyn Heights. Dunham knows from broke-assery how, exactly? And her costars! There's Allison Williams, daughter of dashing but funny anchorman Brian Williams. There's Zosia Mamet, whose dad David is, y'know, only one of the most important playwrights (and, arguably, filmmakers) of the past century. And finally there's Dunham's old Saint Ann's chum Jemima Kirke, a queen bee of downtown Manhattan and the daughter of a member of the band Bad Company. She's friends with Paz de la Huerta! So, you get the picture. What business do any of these people have talking to us, regular non-royalty folk, about the poor young experience in the big bad city?

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That was the righteous anger I could muster about this show in order to mask the seething "Why did HBO just hand her a show and not me???" envy and rage that roiled beneath my faux-principled exterior. And I do still think there's some merit in that argument. Though, to be fair, this may ultimately not be the fault of Dunham and co. The whole "this is very realistic" trope could have come from HBO marketing. Maybe Dunham just wanted to make a funny show that was personal to her, regardless of whether it rang with precise truth for anyone else. And you know what? Goddammit, if she hasn't done just that.

Yes, I admit it. I've now seen three episodes of Girls and I've liked each one more than the last. I'd seen the pilot months ago while still in my haze of self-loathing anguish over the mere existence of the series and, going in with all that preloaded disdain and everything, promptly hated it. Just dismissed it, was determined to stand obstinate in the face of the huge raft of praise carrying the show to its premiere (this Sunday at 10:30). But then I rewatched the episode and the subsequent two this week and, to my great surprise and strange dismay, I found myself laughing at the show's specific humor, warmed by its easy rhythms and, yes, eerie sense of familiarity. Dammit, Dunham!

The show's setup is relatively lo-fi: Dunham plays Hannah, a moony 24-year-old with a moldering English degree who, in the pilot, is finally cut off from her family's modest bankroll. This triggers a mild tailspin into panic and a "what am I doing with my life" desperation that many of us felt at that age and, sigh, have felt since. There's little cliched or stagey about Hannah's charmingly selfish, indulgent reaction to her defunding — sure she goes to her visiting parents' hotel room high on opium tea, which we would never do, but c'mon, this is a TV comedy, silly things need to happen. Dunham is pretty adept at gently making fun of her character, and by extension her actual self, and by bigger extension an entire generation of kids who assume themselves, each and every one, destined for and, more importantly, deserving of great, fun, cool, respectable careers and lives. There's a frustrating narcissism running through Hannah — her reaction to people getting upset is to usually ask "Are you mad at me?" — but it's probably frustrating mostly because it speaks to so many embarrassing truths about our own selves. We all, not just millennial coastal kids, see the rest of the world as the supporting dramatis personae to our own protagonist. Hannah is just a little worse at hiding that fact. It's a character flaw that's relatable and almost sweet, rather than grating and alienating, the way I assumed it would be.

Besides money woes, there are of course romantic entanglements to be dealt with. Girls has a frank but not explicit approach to sex, and while Katie Roiphe might, gulp, have a point about the sex being perhaps a little too awkward and unpleasant, there's a grainy realism to it that keeps it firmly within believable bounds. I like that this show doesn't go all New Girl and desexualize its characters, nor does it fall prey to executive producer Judd Apatow's baser instincts and overplay the filthy talk. The sex conversation actually feels just about pitch-perfect, just bawdy enough to elicit a laugh, but not so over-the-top as to enter into groany Stiffler territory. Hey, those girls talk like people do, like people do about sex! It feels way more revolutionary than it should.

Hannah is having odd, borderline debasing sex with a rat-faced lout named Adam (Adam Driver), who is, regrettably, pretty attractive in his loutishness. It makes sense why Hannah's friends would be repulsed by him and why Hannah would keep going back. He's an asshole, but he can be a kind asshole, an almost caring asshole, and so his asshole-ishness is endured. It's a stilted kind of relationship that most certainly exists in the real world — either we've seen our friends do it, or we've been the sadsack ourselves, quietly but desperately wishing for the person across the couch to pull us in closer. Meanwhile, Williams' Marnie, an art gallery assistant who's mostly got her shit together, is dating a sweet boy named Charlie (Christopher Abbot) whose sweetness and gentleness perpetually infuriate her. "He's so busy, like, respecting me, you know, that he looks right past me," Marnie says in one spot-on exchange. Hannah is mostly ignored by her prototypical jerky guy, while Marnie is overly doted upon by her enlightented beta male beau. They can't win! But really, how many people can at that age?

Kirke and Mamet play the two more comical characters, Kirke a stylish yet blowsy prodigal friend, Mamet her uptight Sex and the City-obsessed college student cousin who lives in Nolita (everyone else is in Greenpoint) on her parents' dime. Though initally a bit roughly drawn, both characters become more shaded and less strained over the course of the first three episodes. Mamet in particular, especially in one lovely scene in which she and Hannah discuss trashy reality shows and HPV, exhibits such pleasingly natural smarts that we hope they soon completely abandon the mean mocking tone she's addressed with and just let her be her, as repressed and dorky, but naturally so, as that might be.

I feel forced into mentioning Sex and the City now (the show self-consciously throws it right out there in the first episode), which is a little annoying. Because while, yes, Girls is a show about four women in New York City same as Sex and the City was, that earlier show is an insane cartoon compared to what Dunham has made. Which isn't to say that Girls is necessarily better — Sex and the City was then and remains still a fine television show — just that its aims and approach are entirely different. SATC was fantasy and fable, with a few bits of relatable relationship stuff thrown to the commoners like chum. Girls is something else; it's a very particular, very of the moment dissection of mundanely funny minutiae, of boredom and anxiety in these brownly grim times. Though I guess it's possible the difference really is merely generational — the rich late '90s gave us Sex, while the wobbly '10s give us Girls, a witty and occasionally touching glimpse into our immediate neighbors' lives. They've got something here, it just remains to be seen how big a thing it is.

Who knows, it could be that soon enough young women the nation over will be saying they're "such a Hannah" or "totally a Marnie." Maybe fabulous is officially out. Maybe the new aspiration in these punishing times is, simply, to aspire.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.