For once, the buzz got it right.
HBO’s much-discussed new series Girls is just concluding its first season, and it’s extraordinary. Girls offers the most interesting and original televised portrait of upper-middle-class American angst since thirty-
something went off the air in 1991.
Like thirtysomething, it is simultaneously an infuriatingly self-referential thumbsucker and an extraordinarily intelligent dissection of infuriatingly self-referential thumbsucking. But it is, thankfully, far more the latter than the former. And it is one of the most prodigious media stunts since the heyday of the very young Orson Welles, given that it is largely the work of a 26-year-old who created it, wrote most of the episodes, directed a few of them, and stars in it to boot.
Her name is Lena Dunham, and two years ago she did the same triple duty on a do-it-yourself movie called Tiny Furniture that I actively disliked because it was purely a self-referential thumbsuck. Something good happened to Dunham in the interim between the movie and the TV series, because Girls takes the world of Tiny Furniture—post-collegiate types with no marketable skills wandering aimlessly around New York City—and gives it heft and shape and dimension.
It’s often very funny, and given that each episode runs a half-hour, I guess you’d call Girls a sitcom. But it really comes across more like a loosely linked collection of Ann Beattie stories updated from the post-1960s anomie of Beattie’s characters to the media-soaked seen-it-all
world-weariness of Generation Zynga.
The girls of the title are Dunham’s Hannah, her roommate Marnie (Allison Williams), her high-school friend Jessa (Jemima Kirke), and Jessa’s cousin Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet). Shoshanna, a fast-talking naïf obsessed with the fact that she can’t seem to lose her virginity no matter how hard she tries, is still in college. The others are just out. The promiscuous Jessa takes a job as a nanny. When she isn’t making out with the dad, she is somehow losing the children in a city park.
Marnie, the “good girl” in the bunch, works in an art gallery. She pays all the bills for the apartment she shares with Hannah, who wants to be a writer but has no idea how to do it for a living. (She is consumed with envy for a college classmate whose boyfriend committed suicide, thereby providing an exciting topic for a publishable memoir.)
It’s hard to know where Lena Dunham ends and Hannah Horvath begins, save for the fact that Hannah is going nowhere while her creator may be the most successful and accomplished 26-year-old in America. That suggests the degree of art that has gone into the creation of Hannah, a genuinely great character who is by turns winsome and hateful, smart and stupid, loving and selfish.
Hannah is somewhat addicted to her own powerlessness, and is constantly walking into situations in which she knows she is going to be humiliated—and yet she possesses an admirable quality, a willingness to dust herself off and go forward no matter what happens. That’s true even though a lot of what happens to her is cringe-inducingly funny, as when she finds herself under withering assault from an old boyfriend who comes out of the closet during an evening she thinks is a date and decides to train his newly unleashed bitchiness on her.
Marnie is the only one who seems to have a solid head on her shoulders, but, just like the others, proves skilled primarily in making a hash of her life. She has a smart and funny long-term boyfriend who is perfect for her in every way except that she’s bored stiff by him. He gets the message and dumps her; she panics and gets him back, only to dump him immediately. When he partners up with a new love she tells him he’s a sociopath and spends her evenings morosely looking at photos of the new couple on Facebook.
The show is foulmouthed and, on occasion, startlingly dirty. And it plays quite brilliantly with one’s prurient HBO expectations. The show’s pinup girl, the surreally beautiful Allison Williams, remains discreetly clothed throughout; rather, it’s the very ordinary Dunham (“I’m 13 pounds overweight and it has been awful for me my whole life!” she shouts) who provides the lion’s share of the nudity. Those scenes are shared with Adam (Adam Driver), an uncompromisingly intelligent writer-actor who is, unfortunately, so lacking in the most elementary social graces that at times he barely seems human.
Whatever it is these girls and boys want with each other, they don’t have the foggiest idea how to get it. The bitter honesty about the failings of these articulate, interesting, amusing people is just one of the tough-minded qualities that sets Girls apart from the more winning but profoundly false we-are-women-hear-us-roar gender-solidarity fantasy that was Sex and the City. That show was largely the work of men writing for women: Maybe Dunham seems able to dispense with the fairy tale and show the rivalries and tensions among the four girls precisely because she is a woman.
There is no question that in the heralding of this spectacular young talent, Girls is a real sign of life for American culture—even if what Girls says about the condition of young Americans offers some cause for deep despair.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.