An HBO series about four twentysomething women in New York, one of whom is a struggling writer played by a Jewish actress, all of whom are blessed with excellent comic timing and a slew of relationship dilemmas and emotional baggage. It might sound like the first series of Sex and The City, but in reality it could not be further from the coiffed and coutured adventures of Carrie Bradshaw and co.
In fact Girls, which starts on Sky Atlantic this week, is not like other recent sitcoms. For starters, its creator is a tattooed, half-Jewish 26-year-old who struggles when walking in high heels. Then there is the subject — the plight of the Millennials — young people who are university-educated but broke, unsuccessful and generally lacking direction — with their problems treated seriously, rather than being neatly resolved by the end of every episode. And the actresses themselves resemble ordinary woman rather than the kind at home on a red carpet.
Girls’ creator, Lena Dunham, who describes herself as culturally Jewish and has visited Israel, has a story that does not happen in showbusiness, except that it did. A precocious child — as a 12-year-old she wrote a play about her relatives — she made her first semi-autobiographical film two years ago, shortly after graduating and moving back in with her parents.
Tiny Furniture, which starred her mother, artist Laurie Simmons, and sister, was filmed on shoestring budget but won Dunham the best feature award the at South By Southwest arts festival in Texas and caught the attention of producer/director Judd Apatow.
Girls, which she stars in, co-produces, co-writes and even at times directs, is the logical next step. She plays Hannah, “the voice of my generation”, or, as she later acknowledges, “a voice of a generation”.
In the pilot, after the revelation that her parents have grown tired of bankrolling her, she proceeds to be fired from her unpaid internship. Her only romantic relationship is a casual arrangement with a man who comments on her rolls of fat while in bed. “No I have not decided to lose weight,” she responds, in a typically sardonic tone. “I decided to have some other concerns in my life.”
If this was a traditional female-centric programme, such as last year’s new US sitcom New Girl, the rest of the series would focus on how Hannah turns her life around; finds the man of her dreams after a meet-cute at a coffee shop, secures a book deal off the back of a witty blog post, and reunites with her parents. But no — Girls wants to talk honestly about Hannah and her Generation Y peers; emotionally confused but prone to over-sharing on Facebook; overeducated but underemployed in a disastrous economy.
Hannah’s support network — for all its eccentricities, Girls still follows the unwritten TV rule of a character only ever seeing three friends — includes Marnie, who is sweet and responsible but has a boyfriend she is with more out of habit than intention; Jessa, whose free spirit shtick makes her the most grating of the quartet, and college student Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet, daughter of playwright David), a naïve Jewish princess whose understanding of the wider world comes entirely from saccharine television.
“I think her batmitzvah was like the best day of her entire life and she’s still pretty focused on the glory of that time,” Dunham has commented, adding that she wrote the show as “two Jews, two Wasps” to reflect her own mixed family.
Since its April US premiere, Girls has earned Dunham comparisons with other neurotic Jewish auteurs — namely Woody Allen and Seinfeld creator Larry David. It has also prompted critical acclaim; the Washington Post said it had the potential “to become a once-in-a-generation work”. Time magazine’s critic James Poniewozik gushed that it was “raw, audacious, nuanced and richly, often excruciatingly funny”.
But then the backlash — why were all these girls university-educated, why were they all white, why did all the actresses have famous parents? Most of all, critics attacked with venom Dunham’s no-holds-barred tackling of subjects such as abortion, casual sex and sexually transmitted diseases. In an America where seemingly everything is divided along liberal and conservative lines, it is no surprise that a show featuring young women, who drink, swear, are financially irresponsible and talk unrepentantly about their sexuality, would be so controversial.
“I’ve been in therapy since I was seven so I figured I’d cornered the market on self-criticism,” Dunham has explained in response.
Of course, Sex and the City’s characters did all those things, the difference is that whereas Carrie wrote about her exploits in a newspaper, Hannah posts them on Facebook.
What is interesting about Girls is not that it covers the scandalous, but that it gets to grips with the mundane. Its characters are the polar opposite of the photoshopped glamazons of Aaron Spelling’s Beverley Hills 90210, or Josh Schwartz’s The OC and Gossip Girl.
Much has been made of the fact that Dunham — by no means an emaciated Hollywood stereotype, although hardly someone with a weight problem — doesn’t always cover up. In general, it is refreshing to see normal women on screen, women with messy hair in occasion-appropriate clothing, who live in apartments consistent with their pitiful salaries. It is gratifying to watch characters grappling with the challenges of a poor job market and a real world that does not live up to what was promised.
“It’s unpaid but it could very well lead to something,” offers one character about a job offer, a line that a good many twentysomethings will identify with.
With series two on the way and a $3.5 million book deal just signed, Dunham’s star is rising fast. Is her work, as one critic suggested, what “a young Woody Allen might have come up with, if he had ovaries and a Twitter account”?
Certainly there are similarities. “Both make movies about the comic tribulations of brainy, plain-looking people who are smarter and more humiliated than those around them,” commented Vogue, adding, however, that Dunham already seemed to be the more grown-up of the two.
Like Allen, Dunham’s screen persona is to a degree an extension of her personality. She is certainly drawing on her own neuroses; as Dunham herself says, Hannah “feels like she deserves praise she’s not getting while thinking she doesn’t deserve anything… it’s the trademark of many Jewish comedians, but it is sort of a new thing to see in a girl that age.”