AUSTIN, TX: When word started to circulate that Girls, the new HBO comedy series from writer/director/star Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture) concerned a group of young single women living in New York, the lazy Sex and the City comparisons were immediate. We do not know if those musings were already out there when they shot their pilot episode, so it’s impossible to know whether the Sex and the City reference in it was reactive or preemptive. But this much is certain: a character’s obsession with the show (and whether she is “a Carrie” or “a Miranda” or whatever) is used to illustrate how insipid and insufferable she is. Well played, Dunham.
This is all good and well, because Girls is everything Sex and the City wasn’t: smart, honest, grounded, funny, and painful. Yes, it’s about four women in Gotham, and the sexuality is pay-cable graphic. And it is about women who are both sympathetic and kind of awful; the primary difference, of course, is that Girls actually knows that they’re kind of awful.
The first three episodes, which premiered at the South By Southwest Film Festival Monday afternoon, are richly inventive and endlessly quotable; this is the most exciting and promising new comedy series since Community. It would be easy to shrug the show off as a TV continuation of Dunham’s breakthrough film, and to be sure, there are similarities; her character, Hannah, isn’t too far removed from Furniture’s Aura (or, seemingly, from Dunham herself), and her close yet dysfunctional relationships with men and lovers are similarly drawn. But it’s also a crisply executed, professional television comedy, thanks (presumably) to the guidance of executive producer Jenni Konner and her Undeclared colleague, Judd Apatow.
“My first TV job was on Undeclared,” Konner explained at a panel discussion of the show Tuesday, “and once you started working for or with Judd, you never stop — in some capacity. So we’d been in touch all these years, and when he came on, we went from this kind of weird, fringe-y project that could have taken like three years to make to, like, ‘a Judd Apatow Show’ and it changed everything.”
Dunham says that TV wasn’t originally on her radar. “I didn’t have a clear sort of career game plan. My thought about what my life would be, up to that point, was Maybe I could be, like, a video teacher at a all-women’s college, and make movies every five years with my savings from having foster children that the government pays me to take in.” But after Tiny Furniture hit, she took some general meetings in Los Angeles and “realized pretty quickly that the kind of stories I’m interested in telling are not being really funded in the feature film world right now. Cable, and specifically HBO, was a place where the issues I wanted to explore could be explored. And I feel like the movie version of this that actually gets paid for is, like, me running through New York, thirty pounds heavier, and somebody’s best friend, and tripping over a chair.”
For Apatow, the show gave him an opportunity to return to HBO, where he started out (in his teens) promoting Comic Relief concerts, and later was an integral part of The Larry Sanders Show. “And then I had all of these terrible network experiences,” he says, of the short-lived Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, “where I tried to make Seth Rogen and Jason Segel the leads on Undeclared and they just laughed at me, like it was just the dumbest thought ever that people would want to watch a Seth Rogen television show.” When he thought of going back to television via HBO, Apatow says, he thought, “Oh, this could heal me.”
In the pilot episode, Dunham’s character proclaims, “I think I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice of a generation.” When she pitched the show to HBO, her goals were similarly lofty yet modest. “I sort of just described what I felt like were some salient features of girls of my generation, or even just my specific, close-knit group of girlfriends in New York.” And she had very clear ideas about the young woman she wanted to play: “I felt like there was a space for a character like this who wasn’t fat and wasn’t thin, and wasn’t confident and wasn’t not confident, and was just sort of navigating that area of being a woman not on the extremes.”
Some of the show’s sex, however, is a bit on the extreme side — the sex scenes are uncomfortably raw, awkward, and very funny (often all at once). As a result, Dunham spends a fair amount of time on the show (as she did in Tiny Furniture and in some of her shorter work) in various states of undress, which gets a rise out of people, it seems. Dunham is good-natured but reflective about it. “The people who have had the warmest reactions and the most hostile reactions to my work have been women,” she says. “I try not to read a ton of stuff, but the people who have had the most kind of ‘put your pants on’ response have been female, and I haven’t completely broken down why that would be, and it sort of feels like a sad truth, but there’s a lot of girl-on-girl hate that can erupt from things like that…”
At this point, Apatow interrupts. “I know why that is. It’s like, when I see Shame, and I’m like, ‘Get your dick in your pants! You dick looks better than my dick! Don’t rub your dick in my face!’ Right?”
Dunham, who directed half of the show’s ten first season episodes (and wrote most of them), is excited about the possibilities of series television. “It’s a real luxury to be able to follow these characters for a longer period of time. When you make a film, there’s a feeling that you have 90 minutes to spend with these people and then your time with them is over, and it’s a sad goodbye. And I like to imagine following these girls until they can live on Mars.” This viewer, for one, will follow them there as well; as Dunham herself says to her friends in the show’s pilot, “When I look at both of you, a Coldplay song plays in my heart.”
Girls premieres on HBO on April 15th.