There’s a reason why everyone can’t stop talking about, damning, praising and debating Lena Dunham.
You might think the emotional woes, career misgivings, relationship issues and friendship ups and downs of a pretty but not beautiful, pear-shaped but not overweight, smart but not brilliant 24-year-old New Yorker would be anything but universal and compelling but Dunham’s new series Girls has a fully formed point of view, sweetly melancholic tone and replaces broad, easy jokes with ripped-from-your-texts truisms and situations that feel like real life.
Dunham stars as Hannah, the show’s protagonist who’s been financially cut off from her professor parents, no longer willing to foot the bill for her “groovy lifestyle” (in a nice casting turn, her mom is played by Freaks and Geeks matriarch Becky Ann Baker) and struggles to find her place while mired in post-grad decision-quicksand. She alternately leans on her level-headed roommate Marnie (Allison Williams) for advice, sleazy-but-familiar anti-boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver) for something resembling sexual healing and worldly Jessa (Jemima Kirke) for a bohemian, que cera perspective.
The show, which premiered April 15 on HBO, immediately emanated a zeitgeist-y vibe as it aims to speak to, for and with a certain generation and social strata of not-quite-ladies without condescension or need for approval, exposing the mistakes girls make, both the obvious, naive and not-so-forgivable kind, and It’s. About. Time.
Credit goes to Dunham, the show’s creator, writer, director and co-executive producer (with Judd Apatow) who should be rightly praised for having the vision, talent, stomach and stamina to helm her own show at 25 years old but also for even attempting the herculean task of making something everyone immediately has an opinion about, criticism against and feels ownership over.
Girls is a rare series that came out of the gates with an unprecedented amount of advance buzz in the form of lengthy features in the New York Times and New York Magazine, a Vogue spread, a glowing Hollywood Reporter review and a hot-ticket premiere at March’s SXSW festival in Austin, Texas where she first made a name for herself with her excellent 2010 indie Tiny Furniture. And that doesn’t take into account all of the smaller blogs, tumblrs and tweets dedicated to dissecting or praising the show’s every minute and quotable line, of which there are many.
That kind of vocal admiration can only mean a backlash is inevitable and the show’s detractors instantly targeted its white, privileged characters as hardly being representative of a generation they aren’t reflected in and have accused the show of missing an opportunity to open the discussion. It’s of course unfair to assume Girls can be all things to all people, and still seems to be an issue that female-led shows grapple with that their male counterparts don’t get called on, but I’m interested in what Girls does right and there’s enough honesty and confronting storylines (abortion, STDs, virginity, infidelity) that it feels important to some, without apology.
The appearance of Dunham’s curvy, relatable body, for example, has become a beacon for discussion, often shown partially, if not fully, naked, and in extremely unflattering positions that often involve her character being disrespected, submissive and hardly ever satisfied. The fact that her body isn’t the result of market testing and has the soft contours common to females in their mid-20s doesn’t seem to concern Dunham or Hannah, who tells Adam during the third episode that she doesn’t care to lose weight because she decided to have other concerns in her life. Let that one sink in.
A woman who isn’t apologetic about or ashamed of her body and doesn’t care about losing the three or four pounds her not-boyfriend said is all she’d need to drop is the stuff of television revolution. And while her clothing-optional choice is no more heroic than public swimming, because of the complete lack of alternatives typically available and just by virtue of having her body, that body, on display, the gesture takes on the importance and heft of an all-caps STATEMENT. With her shirt off, she becomes one of us.
Encouragingly, this is a bruises-and-all show where actual girls have sex, in the city, awkward, unrewarding, boring, sex, or – GASP – none at all, are mistreated by selfish dudes or smothered by well-meaning, toothless ones and are knee-deep in the quarterlife crisis that will be familiar to anyone who had to move back to their parents’ house post-graduation and dreaded being asked by a well-meaning aunt, “So, what are you doing?” And as a girl who openly cringed at Sex and the City’s screeching pseudo-honesty, fixation on getting a man — sorry, husband — and cutesy puns, Girls doesn’t feel so much refreshing as desperately needed. Yes, the fairytale is over and as New York Magazine put it, this is a “post-Sex and the City show.”
So, while the SATC comparison is unavoidable – they’re both HBO shows about a quartet of besties navigating life’s ebbs and flows – Girls wastes no time slyly addressing the looming spectre in the pilot episode via their most unlikeable character. The shrill and insecure Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) has the SATC movie poster in her bedroom and casually describes herself to an indifferent Jessa (Kirke) as a Carrie who sometimes lets her Samantha out. Right. But it’s fitting that the most naive of the group is still using that show as a way to express her embryonic personality, which feels tacky, dated and more than a little pathetic, as it should.
Dunham has been asked on several occasions to make the comparison herself and what she told The New York Times was especially revealing: “Sex and the City, which I grew up on and completely respect, was about women who had figured out the career, figured out their friendships and were really trying to lock the love thing down. To me there’s this time of life where you don’t even know what you want, and you don’t know how to want it. It’s much more abstract and wandering.”
It’s encouraging to hear Dunham use words like abstract and wandering; not typically adjectives associated with hit TV. But even if Girls never becomes a big show – although all signs point to a winner – the dialogue Dunham is opening about being that age, feeling that way, being a girl-on-the-cusp provides an alternative to grating, unfunny shows that have impressionable ladies in their sights but never manage to do much of anything once they have them there.
Like the beloved My So-Called Life before it, Girls is rightly being praised for its ability to mirror reality, to get into the back of our minds and burrow the recesses of our sometimes-fragile hearts so that even those of us who aren’t 25 anymore but are still answering those same identity-relationship-job questions, will be able to nod our heads yes, yes, yes.
So get ready to hear more about, and from, Lena Dunham. She’s just getting started.