As Lena Dunham’s aspiring writer in “Girls” says, “I want to be the voice of my generation. ... Or a voice ... of a generation.” Dunham, who made her debut as the self-depricating 23-year-old writer-director-star of the indie dramedy Tiny Furniture, is certainly shaping up to be just that. Remarkably, she’s been able to parlay her award-winning feature into a gig writing, directing, producing and starring in a series for envelope-pushing HBO.
“Girls” follows in much the same vein as Tiny Furniture. Dunham’s dry-witted, soul-searching twentysomething angst brands her as something of a slacker Woody Allen. In “Girls,” Dunham is the pivot point of an ensemble cast. She plays Hannah, a 24-year-old trying to make it in New York City. When her loving but fed-up parents (Peter Scolari from “Bosom Buddies” and Becky Ann Baker from “Freaks and Geeks”) decide it’s time to cut off the flow of monetary support, Hannah faces a crisis. She tries—to no avail—to turn her unpaid internship in the publishing industry into a salary. A proposal to “scrape by” on a mere $1,100 a month from ma and pa is similarly dismissed. Now, Hannah’s just got to rely on the questionably wise council of her three best gal-pals: free-spirited Brit Jessa (Jemima Kirke); tough, wannabe lawyer Marnie (Allison Williams); and perky, virginal Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet).
If this sounds like the setup for “Sex and the City,” you’re spot-on. “Girls” is the self-conscious flip-side of that former HBO hit. This quartet of Brooklynites is younger, poorer and deals with far more body issues than Carrie and company ever did. (And just to drive home the connection, motormouthed young Shoshanna naively worships the show.) So, we’ve got the city and we’ve got plenty of sex—only here, it’s awkward, not particularly sexy, committed by people with large butts and skin problems, and it occasionally ends in an STD test. Dunham clearly isn’t afraid of reality and much of her show’s sly humor is based on bald-faced acknowledgment of life’s absurdities.
The realistically flawed characters and modest aesthetics of the show are likely to turn off those looking for easy sympathy and pretty fashions. So far, “Girls” is a decidedly voyeuristic pleasure—like listening to a neighbor’s argument through a too-thin apartment wall. Dunham is taking her time here, slowly letting audiences work their way into her characters. As a result, we know comparatively little about the four twentysomethings at the center of this show. With time and a bit more information, we might develop some actual sympathies to these unglamorous, post-collegiate screw-ups. Or—depending on your generation—maybe not.
It still stands that Dunham has captured something singular with “Girls.” It’s an intriguing snapshot of over-coddled, hyper-worldly, technologically raised, still-directionless youth who—unlike slackers of 20 years ago—don’t want to sit around and do nothing in life. They want to do it all—and are equally paralyzed by the prospect.