Never has sex looked more unsexy than in the much buzzed about new HBO series “Girls.”
Lena Dunham – who also writes and directs the series - stars as Hannah, who is two years out of college and already has a plethora of job, money and boyfriend woes. In the opening scene of the second episode, Dunham’s character, 24 year-old Hannah, is having sex with sort-of-boyfriend, Adam (an excellent Adam Driver), an unemployed actor who lets her come to his apartment for his sexual needs. (He could care less about hers.)
Adam, who has watched way too much porn, gets off on fantasy role playing and debases her, calling her “a dirty little whore.” Hannah plays along. She asks him incessantly how she should move or position her body to please him until he finally tells her, “Let’s play the quiet game.” When it’s over, she says listlessly, “That was really good. I almost came.” Any less energy and passion and she’d be comatose.
To drive in the point that sex is not so great, her best friend and roommate, Marnie (Allison Williams), is in a long term relationship with wimpy boyfriend Charlie (Christopher Abbott), who is so doting she finds him repellent. “His touch feels like a weird uncle,” she says, adding, “Sex is really overrated.”
“Girls” will inevitably draw comparisons to another HBO series, “Sex in the City,” but the lives of the women in the later were mainly glamorous and hopeful, if occasionally problematic, on the sex, jobs and money front. “Girls” is the antidote to that philosophy. “Girls” plays up the differences but makes it clear it pays tribute to SATC; in one scene, another of the “Girls,” Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), has a poster from “Sex in the City” on her apartment wall and describes herself as Carrie Bradshaw with a touch of Samantha although when it comes to work she is all Miranda.
Ms. Dunham told us a year ago at a screening of “Tiny Furniture,” an independent film that was somewhat autobiographical and brought her to the attention of Judd Apatow, who is executive producer of “Girls,” that she was inspired by SATC but her goal was to create something grittier.
“Hopefully for me the thing that makes it different is that this is a real, an honest depiction of female friendship and an honest depiction of the struggles of life in New York as versus the cutest apartment, the cutest street, the cutest boyfriend, the best job. Sort of an understanding of what it actually means in terms of to make it after all in the city at this moment in time, and an honesty about the lack of glamour that can entail.”
Throw in social media as a communicating tool, which has a way of distancing people and making things impersonal, and the differences between the two shows are generational. “Face to face would be the ideal,” someone says of trying to contact someone, “but it’s not of this time.”
The actresses who star in “Girls” are anything but the slackers and underachievers they portray in the show, and they all come from impressive lineage. Ms. Dunham, who graduated from Oberlin where she made short films, is the daughter of artists, Laurie Simmons, whose works are photographic-based and sexually explicit, and Carroll Dunham, who is known for his cartoonish paintings of blockheaded men with penis-shaped noses; Ms. Dunham can probably credit them for her lack of sexual hang ups in her work. Ms. Mamet, who plays the fast-talking, sexually inexperienced Shoshanna, is the daughter of playwright David Mamet. Jemima Kirke who plays Jessa, a glamorous Brit traveler who may be sexually liberated but sexually joyless, is in real life a long-time friend of Ms. Dunham’s, who appeared in “Little Furniture” and whose father is Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke.
The break-out star of “Girls” is gorgeous Allison Williams, who plays Hannah’s best friend and roommate Marnie. Her character has the only real job of the group, as a lowly but snobby receptionist at a trendy art gallery. Ms. Williams is the daughter of NBC anchor Brian Williams. She graduated from Yale only six months before they started casting the show, and Mr. Apatow saw her on a YouTube video, where she wearing long white gloves and a glamorous 1950’s style gown, and she was singing to the theme song of “Mad Men.” Mr. Apatow forwarded the video to Ms. Dunham.
“I didn’t know too much about her,” Ms. Lenham told us, adding,
“she’s an incredibly talented singer.” Ms. Dunham hinted future episodes of “Girls” might showcase her talent. “You can’t keep a voice like that secret,” she said. Ms. Dunham said what most grabbed her attention and got her the role of Marnie was how Ms. Williams read her dialogue. “She would say a line that I hadn’t even previously understood was a joke and I was in peals of laughter just because of her kind of insight into what I’ve been doing.”
But there’s no mistaking that “Girls” is all Ms. Dunham’s show. She has the best lines and the plot lines revolve around her. Her fictional character is clueless at times – she makes a joke about date rape during a job interview - but Ms. Dunham’s writing is as self-aware as it is hilarious.
She mocks, gently, her middle-class generation’s sense of entitlement. In the opening scene of the first episode she’s trying to mooch more money out of her parents (Peter Scolari and Becky Ann Baker), who have supported her since she graduated from college. They break the bad news to her over dinner at a fancy restaurant that they are financially cutting her off. “All my friends get helped by their parents,” she whines. “This feels very arbitrary.” No more money her mother chants, while Hannah’s father looks like he might break down. Later Hannah goes to her parent’s hotel room to show them her Brooklyn memoir (only four essays because, well, she hasn’t had any experiences) but mainly to beg her fed-up parents for more cash. “All I need is $1100 a month for the next two years,” she pleads. “I think I might be the voice of my generation.” Looking at their skeptical faces, she adds, “or at least a voice of a generation.”
Ms. Dunham saves the most humiliating sex scenes for her fictional character. Ms. Dunham, whose petulant and confused face can be very plain or very pretty depending on her facial expression and what she’s saying or how she’s lit, is not the typical size 0 we’re used to seeing on screen. She’s described as being “soft and round like a dumpling.” Her crass boyfriend, who’s got zero percent body fat, plays with the rolls of fat around her belly and tells her she could lose a few pounds. But it’s Ms. Dunham’s comfort level with her body that is very winning and liberating and different about the show.
Ms. Dunham anticipated that most people would find her partnership with Mr. Apatow, known for his male centric comedies, surprising, but she told us she’d always been a fan of his films. “In large part because they are so personal,” she said, “which I think is so rare to see in a commercial movie. He hits an incredible c spot between something a lot of people want to watch and something that feels very kind of close to the heart,” she said. “He has a real kind of sensitive understanding of my female characters, and he definitely hasn’t tried to like swing it into any dick joke territory. I mean I like a good dick joke too. I’ve written some myself.” We’re looking forward to those in coming episodes.
The show debuts tonight. HBO is betting audiences will find “Girls” so addictive that they are offering all audiences, including non-subscribers, free access to their first few episodes on multiple platforms, including HBO.com and YouTube, beginning the day after the premiere. Whether you love it or loath it, you’ll be hooked.