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Maureen Ryan

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'Girls' Review: Lena Dunham's Frank And Fearless Debut

Posted: 04/12/2012 8:35 am

In the first few minutes of your acquaintance with Hannah Horvath, the lead character of "Girls" (premieres on Sunday, April 15 at 10:30 p.m. ET on HBO), you might find her alternately entitled, amusing, vulnerable and frustrating.

If what creator Lena Dunham is doing with this terrific new series appeals to you, you might have halfway fallen for Hannah by the end of the third episode. It's certainly been a long time since I was this beguiled by a set a characters, but "Girls" is one of those rare birds: It's a show that comes to us with its voice, characters and ideas fully formed.

It could be described in a lot of familiar ways: it's a coming-of-age story; it's a half-hour show about young people trying to make it in New York; it's an HBO show about women exploring their sexuality and relationships in a confusing world.

"Girls" is all of those things, and yet it feels new. It's not a mashup of various concepts we've seen a hundred times, nor is it an updated "Sex and the City" (an inevitable comparison, which "Girls" addresses head-on). It's the distillation of a distinctive, incisive and brutally funny point of view and most importantly, it's its own thing. "Girls" is a fresh and wonderfully realized show that feels like nothing else on TV.

Actually, if there are any comparisons to be made, "Girls" is a bit like "Louie" or "Men of a Certain Age"; it has the FX show's sense of honest but rigorously edited curiosity and self-examination, and it has the late, great TNT show's quiet and precise observational skills. (And if I'm being honest, like those shows, "Girls" is not going to be for everyone -- if you can't stand Hannah in the first 10 minutes, this may not be the show for you). As is the case with those shows, no insecurity is left off the table: In the first three episodes of "Girls," bad decisions are made, awkward statements are uttered and really terrible sex is had. And there's no gloss put on any of it.

But that's actually the genius of "Girls": When a gifted person examines their life with real honesty and clarity, and demonstrates a willingness to find their own weaknesses both funny and worthy of compassion, the story can transcends the individual. I've never wanted to be a standup comic or a golf pro or a young woman trying to make it in New York, but through the characters on those shows, I see my own frailty, stupidity and courage reflected back at me. You don't have to be living in a cheap apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn to get "Girls"; you just have to have felt like a frustrated loser (or a flailing would-be genius) at some point in your life.

Still, I can't lie: It's unbelievably refreshing to me that these particular observations are coming from a female perspective.

As Amanda Marcotte wrote in a perceptive essay last year, the Golden Age of Television has largely been a male affair; the characters and shows that are celebrated by critics (including myself) have explored the evolution of the masculine identity in changing times. It's an interesting topic, up to a point. But let's face it, that particular field has been tilled to the point of near-exhaustion. In fact, reading a recent interview with new Showtime entertainment president David Nevins made me feel a little deflated about that network's future, given his apparent desire for yet more shows about transgressive middle-class males. Eh, really?

Women aren't usually trusted with the keys to TV's big vehicles; there aren't many women who are the solo showrunners of dramas that they created (there are precious few examples, aside from Michelle Lovretta of Syfy's wonderfully subversive "Lost Girl"). The statistics on the number of women writers and directors in TV have gotten increasingly dire in recent years, and as I've always said, I want more women and people of color as creators not just because the industry's sexism and racism are wrong, but because a better mix of voices would lead to a greater variety of premises, stories and themes. None of us want to be bored by the same-old, same-old.

I hope the boldness of "Girls" changes things, and perhaps things are already changing (though I could be naive about this). Television is nowhere near over-vaginated, despite the claims of at least one industry blowhard, but I'm increasingly enamored of a concept I call the Comedy Workaround. If television executives are going to keep the big one-hour toys for the boys, well, women are going to go off and make funny and perceptive shows that examine issues of gender, family and friendship in the comedy realm. Elizabeth Meriwether (creator of "New Girl"), Emily Kapnek (creator of "Suburgatory"), Laura Dern (a producer, writer and star of "Enlightened"), Amy Poehler (a writer, producer, director and star of "Parks and Recreation"), Lauren Iungerich (creator of "Awkward.") and Dunham are just a few of the Workarounders behind compelling shows that are digging into the funny, complicated, interesting lady stuff that the Serious Dramas are usually far too happy to ignore.

It's a smart move, because, as "Bridesmaids" proved, the particular ways in which women let self-esteem issues sabotage their lives -- and the ways in which loyal friends can help a woman rise above all that -- is an incredibly fertile area for truly universal comedy. Hannah and her friends -- her beautiful but sharp-edged roommate Marnie (Allison Williams), the hippie-ish Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and the insecure Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) -- are incredibly self-absorbed at times, but their neuroses are wisely depicted, and the cast makes it easy to put yourself in the mindset of twentysomethings who are trying to figure out how to be adults and not reek of flop sweat while doing so. Not every character is as nuanced as Hannah, but each one stands out as an individual. They're not the kind of interchangeable supporting characters that you typically find on a brand-new show.

I love that their non-aspirational lives and believable friendships -- which Dunham renders with an uncanny ear for dialogue -- are unashamedly the center of this show. These aren't female characters whose concerns are squeezed in around those of the guys, or characters who have to navigate the restrictive parameters of broadcast networks or cable networks that want to attract certain demographics. None of the people on this show (male or female) are tweaked and focus-grouped to make them endearing or quirkily non-threatening. "Girls" is unabashedly a story about women, or girls, or ladies, or whatever you want to call them; their STDs, their fights, their dreams, their bruised complexity and their occasionally hilarious self-awareness.

What makes them worth your time and attention, whatever your gender? I should stop telling you about the show and present some specific examples of what makes it so good, but "Girls" is one of those shows that is incredibly difficult to pick apart. Dunham has such an instinctive grasp of tone that "Girls" just all hangs together. Once you've spent more than half an hour with Hannah, I'm pretty sure you'll want to hang with her too.

Note: Ryan McGee and I discussed "Girls," among other shows, in one of this week's Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcasts (we also discussed "Mad Men" and "Game of Thrones" with special guest Tom Fitzgerald from TomandLorenzo.com, as well as "Scandal" and "Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23"). The podcasts are posted here and on iTunes.

Check out my colleague Christopher Rosen's interviews with Dunham and with "Girls" executive producer Judd Apatow.

 

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