The Judd Apatow-produced, Lena Dunham-directed HBO series lovingly pokes fun at its flawed characters.
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.
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.
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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."
That honest sense of physical unease is an integral part of what makes Girls so appealing, even in its least comfortable moments. Hannah is sleeping with Adam (Adam Driver), a shirtless layabout who claims to be pursuing woodworking because "it's just more honest," and lives mainly on money from his indulgent grandmother. They have sex that's awkward—in one scene, Hannah attempts to take off her tights and panties while lying face-down on Adam's couch because he told her to—and realistically explicit. Hannah fact-checks Adam's dirty talk about having met her in the street as a child. And when Adam pulls out and asks Hannah where she wants him to come on her, she asks, rather shyly, "What are the choices?" Their sex banter is ludicrous, which is entirely the point. This may not be the sex Hannah wants—"That was so good. I almost came," she tells Adam after one hookup. But it's what she's got, and she's hanging on to it with a barrage of text messages and outfits that make her look, as Marnie's boyfriend Charlie tells her, like "like you're going to put a hex on some popular girls."
Dunham's willingess to expose herself in scenes like these has won her both praise for defying standards for women's bodies and some rather prudish censure. But these are are as much about Adam's reaction to Hannah's body as Dunham's supposed lack of shame. Adam alternates between calling Hannah pretty and complaining about having to use condoms when he sleeps with her. In one fabulously uncomfortable scene insists on playing with Hannah's belly fat even though he earlier told her of her tattoos, "You know, I was fat in high school. But I didn't draw all over myself."
In a sense, Adam's the personal equivalent of Alistair, the publisher Hannah is interning when the show begins but who declines to hire her in the most condescending terms possible. Both are eager to benefit from her availability but almost wholly disinclined to commit to her, and both disparage her under the cover of offering helpful advice or insight. That Hannah hopes to work for Alistair, and to keep sleeping with Adam, says as much about the professional and personal alternatives available to Hannah as her own expectations for herself. Dunham says scenes like the belly fat conversation are meant to convey as much about contemporary men's attitudes as her own willingness to offer her body up for an audience's consumption. "I have literally had to explain," Dunham says, "'There's no part of me that wants to be having sex and have you grab my stomach like it's a thing you can steady yourself on.' ... Twenty-something guys, I've noticed, will affectionately sort of treat your body like a cow they bought at auction. In a sweet way, be like 'I'm rape-educated, so it's fine for me to poke you and do all these weird things.'"
Whether it's Hannah's eagerness to please Adam even at the expense of her own comfort and standards, or the consequences of her friends' similar ardent carelessnesses, Girls is discussing subjects and situations that many shows treat as verboten, and doing so in ways that transcend the way those conversations are typically conducted. When Jessa announces that she's pregnant, her friends scramble for appointments of their own and ways to appropriate the event for themselves, rather than treating her as if she's a tender flower making a difficult decision. "I feel like people say it's a huge deal," Hannah tells Adam, who reacts with uncharacteristic sensitivity to the news that Jessa plans to have an abortion. "What was she going to do? Have a baby and take it to her babysitting job? That's not realistic." Marnie moans, "What if I'm barren," and when Jessa is late for her appointment, huffs, "She does not respect my time, my efforts, my friendship, my kindness. None of it. Would you do this? Would you get pregnant after having sex with some weird foreigner and then not show up for the abortion?" Shoshanna brings cupcakes because "I don't know how long these things take, but when my sister had a baby it took hours, and I was starving." And Hannah takes to Googling terms like, "Stuff that gets up around the sides of condoms" and peeking at her naked body under a bath towel.
Girls could have stopped at the abortion sub-plot and still been one of the braver shows in a pop-culture atmosphere where discussion of abortion is near-verboten (in Knocked Up, Girls producer Judd Apatow's breakout feature, one of the characters refers to a "shmashmortion" rather than say the word). But the show ventures even further out into the frontier with the single bravest plot development of the lady comedy boom: Hannah tests positive for HPV. It's news she's hard-put to take as proof of anything positive, even though Shoshanna informs her that Jessa has several strains of the virus and claims that "all adventurous women do." On a less-deft show, inflicting a sexually transmitted disease on a careless character could end up stigmatizing her. On Girls, it ends up being the occasion for a lovely moment of self-realization, and for Marnie and Hannah bouncing around Hannah's bedroom to Robyn's "Dancing On My Own."
Having done everything possible to render Hannah unlike a typical sitcom heroine—she is not thin, she is not successful, and she, rather than fate, is the biggest obstacle to her own happiness and likability—Girls isn't so sour as to linger in schadenfreude. "My thing has never been, 'Let's make fun of this girl who's probably a horrible writer,'" Dunham says. It's clear that Hannah's friends have faith in her. Even as Jessa and Marnie bicker over whether Hannah should tell her parents she's an artist or that she'll get a job, Marnie insists that above all, Hannah should "tell them that you take your future seriously, because you do. You're Hannah." However lost she may be, a measure of seriousness is wired into their understanding of who Hannah is. Hannah's joblessness is not much further down the ladder than Jessa's babysitting gigs or Marnie's position at the front desk of an art gallery.
Because the show is so frank, the characters so preemptively and uproariously blunt in their assessments of where they are today, Girls has a lot of credibility when it suggests that Hannah's problems aren't simply self-created, and that figuring out how to make money as a writer is a daunting prospect for even a more socially gifted aspirant. When he declines to hire her, the publisher Hannah works for tells her he won't even consider her book after she leaves "because you won't be here to read it." The promise to help her was just a balm to encourage Hannah to keep providing free labor in hopes of an ephemeral big break. She turns next to a trade journal, where she establishes a promising rapport with the interviewer, only to flub it with a disastrous bit of banter. Hannah's errors feel poignant not just because she's self-sabotaging, but because there are so few available chances. And it's evidence of how early she is in her journey that Hannah tells her parents, in an attempt to reassure them that she's making progress on her book, "I've finished four essays, I'm just polishing them up. My hope is that it's going to be nine, but it's a memoir, so I have to live them first."
But her creator's experience is evidence that Hannah may have more resources at her disposal than she knows. "I had a real drinking-opium-tea-and-thinking-I-was-going-to-die moment ... I was lying on the floor screaming, 'I'm dying, I'm dying,'" Dunham remembers. "It was the dumbest thing ... If you had told me at the time that it would serve as comic fodder for my work, I would have been like, 'You're fucking kidding me, because that's awful, and I'm embarrassed, and I don't want to think about it.' And suddenly there it is, and it's enriching everything."
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