The Awkward Honesty of Girls

Last month at SXSW, HBO screened the first three episodes of Lena Dunham’s new show, Girls, to a packed house. For SXSW, it was an opportunity to showcase more television writing, but it also marked the return of festival progeny, as Dunham had premiered her first two features there, winning the narrative jury prize in 2010 for her film, Tiny Furniture.

The buzz around Tiny Furniture attracted HBO and the attention of one Judd Apatow, who signed on to executive produce Dunham’s premium cable series. Fast forward two years and Dunham is standing on Austin’s Paramount Theater stage, doing some combination of glowing and blushing after the warm, excited audience response to the show. Girls is, at heart, a character-driven comedy about four college friends making a go at adulthood in Brooklyn. The set up may sound like an updated Sex and the City, but it ends there. The girls in Girls are far less glamorous and significantly more realistic than Carrie and co., and their story is told with a dexterity and precision that makes it wholly specific and yet infinitely relatable.

Girls may be an ensemble show, but Hannah Horvath (Dunham) is truly its center. Hannah interns for free at a publishing house while writing her memoir (she’s 24, mind you, and in her words, “I have to live it first.”). In the pilot, her parents cut off her financial feeding tube, having already paid her bills for two years and her response is not graceful. “I could be a drug addict. Do you know how lucky you are?” They’re unimpressed, and Hannah needs a job, stat. Hannah lives with her best friend, Marni (Allison Williams), who sleeps in Hannah’s bed to avoid her sweetly bland boyfriend, Charlie. The wild and worldly Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and her sheltered, virginal cousin, Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet — yes, that Mamet), round out the group.

Before I go further, let me sacrifice my faux-jectivity and admit that I’m an unrepentant Dunham fan. I watched a screener of Tiny Furniture two years ago, fully anticipating that I might hate it. I had enough in common with Dunham and her character, Aura, to find it relatable (a hellish post-college year spent in New York with nary a job prospect) and enough diverging traits (the opposite of Manhattan pedigree: lower middle class from West Virginia) to make me ripe for snarky resentment. But three minutes into Tiny Furniture, I was in love with it. No matter how envious I was, I couldn’t deny that the movie was really damn good. Dunham’s voice was honest, self-deprecating, and unfailingly funny without telegraphing jokes. More than that, she was self-aware. When Aura was insufferable, it was on purpose; Dunham was making fun of her worst self. Moreover, she showcased experiences I’d either been through or witnessed through friends, none of which I’d seen represented on a screen before and much of which was brutally observed. Early in the film, a friend asks Aura about her recent breakup and just as Aura is mid-sentence, the friend walks away. Who hasn’t been the victim of such drive-by concern, or worse, done it to someone else? In another moment, a guy she’s just slept with shoves her behind a car so as to go undetected by a friend of his.

I just couldn’t help rooting for Aura. Despite our many differences, her experiences felt eerily similar to my own.

Though it received critical praise, Tiny Furniture also got a fair amount of online vitriol, and I’m sure Girls will incur similar wrath. The take on Aura (and surely soon, Hannah) was that she was whiney and entitled, which was true, but most of the film’s naysayers missed that Aura’s laughably absurd level of self-absorption wasn’t asking for sympathy, and the film’s framing as a comedy signaled as much. Many detractors further discounted Tiny Furniture as pure navel-gazing, a criticism I wonder would exist if Dunham were writing about male experiences or desires. How many shows and movies have we seen about quirkily droll, emotionally neutral men? Yeah. That’s what I thought.

In Girls, Dunham holds true to the voice that made Tiny Furniture stand out and improves upon it with a faster pace, every scene rife with characters hysterically lacking in self-awareness. Working with a larger team now — including producers Apatow and Jenni Konner (who worked with Apatow on Undeclared) — has pushed Dunham to step up her game, and it’s helped further by Jody Lee Lipes’ beautiful and crisp cinematography, as well as editing that moves at a quick clip without ever rushing.

Within the first two episodes, Girls confronts abortion and STDs, and Dunham makes both storylines funny with a combination of neuroses and naiveté. At one point, Hannah googles “STDs that comes from no condom for one second.” In another moment, Shoshanna finds it necessary to stop at Dylan’s Candy Bar to bring sweets to her friend’s abortion appointment.

As STD and abortion storylines would suggest, there is a lot of sex in Girls and none of it is titillating. Instead, it’s the best-worst of bad sex — horribly awkward, realistically boring, painful to watch (or, uhm, recall) and so very ridiculous and funny. Both Tiny Furniture and Dunham’s first movie, Creative Nonfiction, featured awkward sex scenes that focused on Dunham’s face in limbo between awkward curiosity and plain discomfort, privileging her perspective over her partner’s. The sex scenes in Girls have the same effect but don’t linger quite as long. When Hannah’s non-boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver) talks ludicrously dirty to her, we see on her face just what a turn off it is, and that focus on realistic, though heightened, interaction is what make Girls resonate.

It functions just as well when highlighting female friendship — something Dunham discussed in the SXSW panel “Girls Revealed,” saying that she particularly wanted to show the intensity of female friendship and the ways it can walk a narrow line between love and frustration. And from the get-go, her portrayals of young women’s friendships have a tenderness that’s far more realistic than the endless Manohlos discussions in SATC. In the pilot, Hannah and Marnie’s bond is established in one simple line from Charlie: “You guys fell asleep watching Mary Tyler Moore again, huh?”

Dunham further elaborated that she had many influences in creating the characters. “I described what I felt like were some salient features of women of my generation. The characters were all composites, but they were also linked to real life counterparts.” Eventually, she began writing specifically for the actors’ individual voices, and it shows. Adam Driver plays the perfect send-up of a drifting, nonchalant Williamsburg failing actor (“I’ll put more into this woodworking stuff. It’s just more honest.”); Jemima Kirke gets fewer laugh lines than in Tiny Furniture, but is wonderful as the little devil on Hannah’s shoulder. The stand out, though, is truly Mamet, who steals nearly every scene she’s in with Shoshanna’s saccharine, irritating innocence and her desire to figure out which of the group is a Carrie.

And then there’s Dunham’s Hannah. Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna are in keeping with certain archetypes — the uptight one, the impulsive, exotic one, and the sweetly innocent positive one — but it’s Hannah that’s most refreshing as a character that busts out of predetermined types while still ringing true. Like Tiny Furniture’s Aura, she has an acute entitlement that’s used for laughs but at turns is equally reasonable and loving. Hannah doesn’t have her shit together, but she’s ambitious. She doesn’t know yet what she wants from life, and her willingness to accept whatever tiny bits of attention Adam is willing to give her is excruciating (and depressingly realistic).

Dunham explained her impulse in creating Hannah was to showcase a more true-to-life woman, one that more typically gets relegated to the best friend role. “I felt there was a space for a character who wasn’t fat and wasn’t thin, and wasn’t confident and wasn’t not confident, and was navigating the area not on the extremes.” Essentially, Dunham added a giant dose of self-absorption to the quirky best friend and made her Girls’ central figure, one that — with her avoidance of easy typing — plays more realistic and more sympathetic than the majority of young fictional heroines.

Some have marveled at Apatow’s involvement in Girls, but at SXSW he pointed out that its coming-of-age elements dovetail with his previous television efforts, which he explained was what captivated him in working on Girls. “I’m interested in underdog stories, and I’d done things about high school and college as well as later in life, but I’d never worked on anything in between before.” It helps, of course, that Dunham has proven herself easy to work with. Apatow also offered insight into how he and Dunham clicked quickly, saying, “Some people feel like every idea needs to be theirs, but Lena gets so pumped when other people have contributions. A lot of people make comedy because of their wounds, and whatever Lena’s wound is, it makes her want to be nicer to everyone else.”

Of course, Apatow and Dunham share more than just a love for the underdog and the bildungsroman. Both excel at weaving genuine emotion into their stories between the jokes. In Dunham’s case, it involves a revelation about the past, twitter, and a solo bedroom dance-a-thon that’s as hopeful as it is oddly funny and dorky. It’s hard not to cheer for Hannah because it’s so easy to see your own fuck-ups in hers.

Girls premieres at 10:30pm on April 15th on HBO.

Erica Lies wishes her middle name was “never.” She lives in Austin, TX and has a web series that ten whole people have watched.

The Awkward Honesty of Girls