Review: 'Girls' Is Brilliant Gem For HBO

Girls Cast Four Split - H 2012
Jojo Whilden/HBO

Girls Cast Four Split - H 2012

Few series come out of the box as brilliant as Girls does. The new HBO series from Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture) is one of the most original, spot-on, no-missed-steps series in recent memory.

For her part, Dunham, who writes, directs, stars in, created and executive produces the series, is a talent as unique and refreshing to the medium as Louis C.K. – high praise indeed, as FX’s Louie is one of the most critically acclaimed series on television.

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Girls is about four women in their early twenties trying to find out who they are, what they want and how to get it while living in New York. But any comparison to the older HBO series Sex and the City is wide of the mark in numerous ways. Where that series had a high sheen to it and was all about finding men and shoes and happiness (about in that order), and the four variations on a feminine theme came together all-too-neatly for lunch and chat sessions, Girls is a much more lo-fi, rooted-in-realism affair, and it mines the honesty of its characters in such a way that it produces both robust comedy and genuine, emotionally dramatic moments.

That is in no way meant to dismiss Sex and the City, but the two are shows so vastly different they don’t really reside in the same creative solar system. And there are bound to be similarly inadequate comparisons to the CBS sitcom 2 Broke Girls, which tries to flaunt its female characters constant use of “vagina” as somehow cutting edge, but its portrayal of young women in the big city is a glossy, superficial affair that screams “Look how wild we are” while Girls is more authentically scrubby and monochromatic (evocative of their personalities and New York as its setting).

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Since so few people actually saw Tiny Furniture (which got its debut at SXSW, where Girls is poetically receiving its world premiere on Monday, before its April 15 debut on HBO), Dunham is going to be a very new discovery (and likely a sensation). Like Louis C.K., Dunham has created a series that is 100 percent her vision (even though it was championed and is executive produced by Judd Apatow and Jennifer Konner). Like Louie, Girls is shot through with the unmistakable DNA of its creator and it’s impossible to overstate the brilliance of the artistic vision at hand here.

In the first three half-hour episodes (of a 10 episode season), Dunham manages to convey real female friendships, the angst of emerging adulthood, nuanced relationships, sexuality, self-esteem, body image, intimacy in a tech-savvy world that promotes distance, the bloodlust of surviving New York on very little money and the modern parenting of entitled children, among many other things – all laced together with humor and poignancy.

You shouldn’t have to be told what a difficult party trick that is.

Dunham is fearless in this role. Not only does she drive much of the comedy – and Girls is primarily a comedy – but she’s stark naked both emotionally and physically. As we meet Dunham’s character Hannah in the pilot – having dinner with her parents who are about to cut off the cash flow of the last two post-college years – she seems spoiled and entitled. But she quickly becomes sympathetically overwhelmed with how to succeed in New York and in life. She’s got a loser “boyfriend” who essentially uses her for sex (hilariously perverted, degrading sex, which makes you feel simultaneously sad for Hannah as you laugh at Dunham’s exceptional performance). Hannah has weight issues, which she approaches with a complex duality – accepting them half the time, haunted by them the other (which is precisely how so many people feel). What separates Girls (Dunham has said the characters wouldn’t yet self-identify with the term “women”) from so many other comedies is that it’s aggressively rooted in naturalism, with all of its vulnerability and uncertainty and fleeting moments of being assuredly in control. The conversations are frank. The sex is awkward and sometimes embarrassing. Being adrift is part of being alive to these characters – the confusion of what to make of yourself or even how to go about it. The comedy comes from those situations (when it’s not coming directly from the tone-perfect dialogue).

Girls also benefits greatly from casting so dead right that it makes you want to applaud. In many ways each half-hour episode of Girls is like a small movie -- and that takes performances from actors who inherently understand the mood and the tone to a science (like a good Woody Allen ensemble film). You could make the argument that there are breakout performances galore in Girls.

Allison Williams is excellent as Marnie, Hannah’s closest friend. She’s beautiful and grounded, has a doting boyfriend and a secure job – but instead of being the broadcast-television version of a friend whose more of a nemesis or a shallow depiction of someone you’re actually close to, Marnie is a true friend who knows Hannah (and her parents) exceptionally well and is always there for her. In a nice twist, Marnie feels horrible for being sick of her overly-doting boyfriend Charlie (Christopher Abbott, who nails the sweet-to-a-fault thing, which in Marnie's eyes neuters his sexuality).

Marnie is also protective of how much Hannah likes their friend Jessa (Jemima Kirke, Tiny Furniture), the flighty, globe-trotting Brit who is one of the few people Hannah thinks is actually “fun.” Jessa has a knack for reading Hannah completely wrong, and her hands off approach is opposite the protective Marnie.

Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), who is Jessa’s American cousin, is the most naïve and ill-equipped of the friends (for both New York and the onrush of maturity). She’s a virgin, wears girly pink a lot and talks in hyper-fast slang more reminiscent of high school and texting than someone ready to come of age. (Her adoration of Sex and the City says a lot.) But here, too, Girls takes the right approach and doesn’t leave Shoshanna as a caricature, allowing her fears, embarrassments and insecurities to leak through her shallow exterior to show vulnerability, not stupidity.

Another bit of casting that really stands out is Adam Driver as Hannah’s boyfriend Adam. It’s a role that requires him to be a self-centered jerk without actually being malevolent about it. Driver needs to be as fearless as Dunham because he’s also in those sex scenes and is called upon to act out porn-fantasies without appearing super pervy about it. Driver takes what could be a cookie-cutter part and gives Adam nuance and even honesty – a difficult, impressive performance. And Alex Karpovsky (who was opposite Dunham in Tiny Furniture) is the perfect example of the excellent casting and note-perfect acting as Ray, a friend of Charlie’s who is only in one episode so far but nails every moment of it.

HBO has a real and rare gem in Girls. It’s a comedy that earns its numerous laughs by mining these characters lives for honesty instead of incessantly giving them witticisms to spout like a traditional network sitcom. Girls also deftly avoids the problem of a lot of Showtime's half-hour comedies by not being 80 percent dour drama. You could splice any number of scenes from Girls into a funny trailer, but once you see the whole package you realize how intuitively and even brazenly the series explores the full emotive palette of its characters.

Dunham has created a tour de force in Girls and in the process announced herself as one of the most unique talents on television.


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