A few weeks ago a friend of a friend posted on Facebook that she heard Lena Dunham’s runaway HBO hit Girls was “the new Sex and the City.” I cannot overstate how wrong that oft-parroted assessment is.
Both shows feature four women friends living in New York, but there the similarities end. Sex and the City was a show about glamorous, high-status women living and loving themselves around the shiniest streets of Manhattan, cosmos in hand. Girls is a show about vulnerable, post-adolescent, unemployed women making mostly bad life decisions through the hipsteriest blocks of Brooklyn, downing Cheap White Wine™. If you’re under 40, make less than six figures and aspired to be a character in SATC, you secretly were or are a character in Girls.
Girls is a messy show, a show that makes you cringe, that makes you roll your eyes, and that ultimately makes your heart hurt, if you let it. While SATC celebrates the fantasy of sexy, sophisticated thirty-somethings who had it all and found love too, Girls celebrates the turmoil that turns broke, aimless twenty-somethings into fully formed adults. (The tagline for season two is “Almost kind of getting it together.”)
Sex on Girls seems terrible. Drugs appear, but never look like much fun. People say and do awful, stupid, selfish things. Mistakes are generally made – and that’s where the comedy magic happens.
Awkward moments abound, and many of them involve nudity. Not hot, fuzzily lit, sexy nudity; Tuesday night, slightly buzzed, rumpled, horny nudity. Much is written of Dunham’s “exhibitionism” while playing Hannah, but I think the skin is just one way to telegraph that the protagonist is an external thinker. Hannah’s thoughts, actions and words work simultaneously and in complete unison. She has no filter. She has no armor. This exposure, mentally, emotionally and physically, is what brings our attention back to her time and again.
At the start of season two, Hannah finds herself suddenly overrun with male attention, and eager to turn over a new leaf after spending most of season one pining away for complicated bad-boy heartthrob Adam (Adam Driver). Her roommate, the beautiful, impeccably “together” Marnie (Allison Williams) is suddenly bereft of men and her job in an art gallery, both of which she only half-inadvertently lorded over Hannah last season. Free-spirit Jessa (Jemima Kirke) returns from her whirlwind wedding to a douchey, if earnest finance guy. Former innocent Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) has both lost her virginity and is swearing off her ex.
These swings in balance happen at a pace that is initially difficult to swallow. The first episodes feel a bit frantic as all the characters return to the fore and try to find their emotional marks. Jokes whiz by and storylines swirl, but eventually Dunham’s flub four sink back into the stuff that really makes the show tick.
From each of the girls’ inevitable tragedies – losing a job, turning lovers out, fighting with friends – arise moments of great tenderness, and this is where Dunham, and undoubtedly executive producer Judd Apatow, shine. We see the strain in their goodbyes, we feel their failure, we know their embarrassment.
As all four women struggle to stay afloat, we inevitably see the true ballast among them, friendships that bend but don’t break.
Girls is understandably criticized for being self-indulgent, but the truth is that navel gazing is critical to the subject matter, and Dunham presses the point. No one in their early twenties these days is a wholly formed, well-behaved adult, especially not when sex is so fraught, jobs are so scarce and social media level narcissism is a generational mandate. (She’s also done some truly funny things with the apt critique that the show lacked diversity in season one, but I won’t spoil.)
At a dinner party in Hannah’s apartment a few episodes into season two, things predictably fall apart among the group. As an awkward silence descends, Hannah looks into a plate of pad thai to say, “I like what I made.” I imagine that is Dunham’s nod to the initial fawning, the subsequent backlash and all future discussion over Girls, and I can’t help but agree. I like what she made.