“There’s a maternal sense,” agrees Dunham. “A concern for people’s feelings.”
“And sometimes it kills us!” says Konner. “Sometimes I’m like, Fuck. Why are we caring about every single person’s feelings?”
“So what if he’s allergic to wheat?” says Dunham, laughing. “Jenni and I will write these e-mails that are like, ‘Fuck him. He’s annoyed. I’m really worried about him, and I hope he’s not mad at us.’ ”
Dunham and Konner hired “oversharers” as writing staff, then handed them a syllabus, which ranged from books like Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything and Mary McCarthy’s The Group to movies including Party Girl, Me Without You, My Summer of Love, Clueless, and Walking and Talking. Their relationship with HBO has been idyllic, they say, a particular blessing for Konner after her work on network sitcoms, a process she described to me, quoting a former colleague, as “piss pie”—you bake your sitcom, then network notes come in begging you to add just a little pee, not enough to taste it, then more, until finally that’s your main ingredient.
Nonetheless, Dunham is clearly aware of the pitfalls of this high-profile debut, which needs to reach an audience beyond supportive mentors. Dunham’s campy web series Delusional Downtown Divas was aimed at art-world insiders. Tiny Furniture was about Dunham’s life and her family. While Hannah is another version of Dunham, she’s a Midwesterner, the daughter of academics, an only child who is not exceptionally close to her parents—a mild stretch, but perhaps a way of speaking to viewers beyond Tribeca. Dunham’s fascinated by filmmakers who cover privileged enclaves but also manage to reach a mass audience. “I love Whit Stillman,” Dunham tells me. “I love his work so much, but it’s—it’s rarefied in a way I don’t want to be. It’s so specific.” Woody Allen made that leap, she pointed out: The country saw themselves in him. “I love Noah Baumbach. I love Nicole Holofcener. I love James L. Brooks. I’m crazy about Mike Leigh: Career Girls!”
There’s also another set of viewers Dunham is aware of: men, both HBO’s Sopranos-and-Entourage demographic and Apatow fans. Many months later, when we’re at SXSW, I’ll watch as one of these guys approaches Dunham, who is signing DVDs, to offer her some notes: The show’s explicit sexuality “cheapened” her character, he says, making her less attractive to him. He assumes that must be the Apatow influence (it’s not). It reminds Dunham of a surreal interaction at that Halloween party, the one she went to as Louis CK. A “successful comedy writer” asked if she wanted directing notes on the Girls pilot. Dunham said okay, expecting some tips on better lighting. “First of all, Allison Williams is a ten, yet in this pilot, she looks like a five,” the writer announced. “Also, I don’t want to see girls going to the fuckin’ bathroom together. I wanna see girls making out!” (Panicking, a friend of Dunham’s tried to create a distraction by shouting out, “Hey, look, that guy is dressed like a midget!”—only to realize she was pointing at an actual little person.)
Dunham seems fully capable of holding her own against this pat-on-the-head misogyny. Her characters reflect that contradiction: For all their people-pleasing girlishness, they have spiny ambitions, dreams at once mocked and validated by the show. As Girls begins, Hannah is a few chapters into a book of personal essays, which she delivers to her parents with the words “I think I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice. Of a generation.” Dunham’s characters are clearly entitled—that sneering label pasted on her peers. They can be alienating in a way that’s more akin to Larry David than, say, Seinfeld: In the pilot episode, her rejection of her visiting parents (“I have work, and then I have a dinner thing, and then I am busy—trying to become who I am”) verges on the repellent. But Girls also suggests that entitlement can be a superpower: It’s the strength to believe, even when no one is listening, that you do have something to say. Hannah’s desire to write a memoir may seem ridiculous, given that nothing much has happened to her; yet the very show she’s in suggests that this crazy scheme just might work.
Tiny Furniture is best known for a sex scene between Aura and a co-worker she barely knows, as well as the beautifully framed shot that follows it, in which Aura crouches naked in her shower, murmuring the words “Boss me around a little.” But the true climax comes afterward, when Aura goes to her mother and tells her about the experience. She’s had a breakthrough, she says, but it’s not about her sex life. “No, I don’t want to be a makeup artist, and I don’t want to be a massage therapist. And I don’t want to be a day hostess,” she tells her mother. “I want to be as successful as you are.”