Then again, that’s a lot of significance to lay on a half-hour HBO comedy. Besides, I could see that there was another thing to notice about Girls: Lena Dunham’s body, which she had placed, quite deliberately, in the spotlight. Unlike many women on TV, Dunham is short and pear-shaped. She has a tattoo of Eloise on her back, plus ink done by her friend and co-star Jemima Kirke, whom she knew in high school at St. Ann’s. The filmmaker can look beautiful in the manner of twenties movie star Clara Bow: She has a small chin, a bow mouth, and very large brown eyes flecked with gold. But just as often, she lets herself look like hell. Dunham films herself nude, with her skin breaking out, her belly in folds, chin doubled, or flat on her back with her feet in a gynecologist’s stirrups. These scenes shouldn’t shock, but they do, if only because in a culture soaked in Photoshop and Botox, few powerful women open themselves up so aggressively to the judgment of voyeurs.
There is no shortage of nudity on cable television, of course, where strip-downs are your prize for watching an “adult” series—porn with purchase, like a trip to the Champagne Room. But the sex on Girls isn’t a reward, it’s a revelation. This begins in the pilot, when the show introduces four characters: Dunham’s Hannah, whose professor parents have cut her off from the financial teat; her responsible friend Marnie (Allison Williams, Brian Williams’s daughter); and her irresponsible buddy Jessa (Kirke, the daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke); plus Jessa’s innocent, Sex and the City–addled cousin Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet, David’s daughter). Soon enough, there’s a graphic hookup between Hannah and her monkeyish sex buddy, Adam (the amazing Adam Driver), an artsy Prospect Heights carpenter who ignores her texts until she’s standing outside his window. But it’s the second episode that really goes raw, and while I want to avoid spoilers, basically a moment of verbal role play flies right off the rails, leaving Hannah to wriggle her way through an epically bad lay, a scene that is filmed close-up, with covers off, and lacking any of the coy cutaway that usually transforms TV sex into a kind of sleek digital candy. The sequence made me laugh out loud, and cringe, and cover my eyes, but it was also remarkably poignant. It was a scene that presented sex as a rough draft, a failed negotiation, at once hilarious and real.
All of Girls is a little like that. It’s a show about life lived as a rough draft—something well intentioned, possibly promising, but definitely begging for cruel critiques. And yet, at least so far, the show has attracted glowing notices, with The Hollywood Reporter calling it a “brilliant gem.” By giving Dunham many months to edit her ten episodes, HBO’s timing has proved strategic: When production began, there were few female-led sitcoms, but by spring, network television was hosting a half-dozen new hits, several with “girl” in the title. Bawdy and flawed, these series helped Girls in several ways. They gave the show something to be better than, they acclimatized the audience to vagina jokes—and just as usefully, they made it possible for Girls to debut without the pressure of representing Everygirl.
Still, it’s not difficult to imagine criticisms of Girls, many of them the type that greet “girl culture” in general, from chick-lit novels to Tori Amos albums—that it’s navel-gazing, that it’s juvenile, that it’s TMI. In addition, there’s what Dunham calls “the rarefied white hipster thing.” Despite the denials at HBO and by the show’s creators (it was practically a mantra on set that Girls is not the new Sex and the City), Girls is a post–Sex and the City show, albeit one with an aesthetic that’s raw and bruised, not aspirational. Sex and the City first achieved notoriety when its characters debated the power dynamics of anal sex during a cab ride, during the “up-the-butt girl” episode. In Girls, that discussion is not abstract: It’s Hannah, naked, on her knees, chattering anxiously as Adam pulls on (she hopes) a condom, trying to get some reassurance that he’s not heading in the wrong direction. Still, like SATC, Dunham’s show takes as its subject women who are quite demographically specific—cosseted white New Yorkers from educated backgrounds—then mines their lives for the universal. While the two shows dramatize very different stages of life, Girls might as well swing an arm around its Manolo’d aunt, who (even before she wrecked her brand with that awful trip to Abu Dhabi) took her own share of abuse.
Girls will also surely be compared to Bridesmaids, that other female ensemble comedy produced by Judd Apatow. Dunham is the cable analogue to network’s boom in female creators, among them Whitney Cummings, Suburgatory’s Emily Kapnek, Up All Night’s Emily Spivey, New Girl’s Liz Meriwether, and the reigning sitcom queen bees Fey and Poehler. Her spoiled, self-destructive Hannah also fits nicely among the sorority of flawed anti-heroines on shows like HBO’s Enlightened and Showtime’s Homeland.