Our first impression of Hannah Horvath, the heroine of HBO’s new comedy “Girls” (Sunday at 10:30 p.m.), isn’t an incredibly positive one. We first see her as she’s shoveling pasta into her mouth with the gusto of someone who eats more than she should, but also doesn’t eat this well except when her parents are picking up the check. And as her parents tell her that, two years after graduating college, they’re going to stop subsidizing her life as a would-be writer in Brooklyn, Hannah grows hilariously indignant, telling them “I could be a drug addict! Do you realize how lucky you are?” before announcing that she won’t have time to see them again on her trip because “I am busy – trying to become who I am!”
Your average television show cares very much about making a good first impression. It wants you to like its main characters, to show you why they’re awesome before it even allows for the tiniest possibility that they might have flaws you’ll learn to accept because you’ve already come to love them. But “Girls” is not your average television show – it may, in fact, be the best new HBO comedy since “Curb Your Enthusiasm” – and it takes the exact opposite approach. It introduces you to Hannah and her friends by focusing on how annoying, selfish, myopic and clumsy they can be, and then it makes you love them in spite of all that.
It’s a trick not many veteran TV show creators could pull off, but 25-year-old Lena Dunham does it on her first time out.
Dunham not only serves as the series’ chief writer and director, but plays Hannah. She achieved a similar hat trick with her indie film debut “Tiny Furniture,” which was also about a young New York woman struggling with bad jobs, bad sex and a general lack of direction post-college. The movie established Dunham as an appealing performer and a filmmaker with a distinctive voice, but it ultimately suffers from a kind of shapelessness. With “Girls,” Dunham has teamed up with comedy mogul Judd Apatow and writer Jenni Konner (who started out with Apatow on FOX’s brilliant-but-canceled “Undeclared”), and they polish up the rough comic gem that Dunham was in “Tiny Furniture.” The series has more form, more bite, more laughs and even more emotion than the film, but it all feels clearly the product of this young woman who knows herself and her world incredibly well, and has the eye, ear and voice to tell her story in such entertaining, surprising fashion.
One thing Dunham doesn’t suffer from is vanity, whether physical or emotional. Hannah is on the big side for a female lead, and the show never hides that extra weight, how it makes her feel, and how it makes others – notably her sex buddy Adam (Adam Driver), a muscular cretin who makes an art out of saying the most emotionally deflating things to Hannah – treat her.
More important than the weight, though, is how Dunham is unafraid to make Hannah – and, to a lesser extent, her friends Marnie (Allison Williams), Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) – into the bad guy of any particular scene. Marnie is slowly coming to hate her perfectly nice, sensitive boyfriend precisely because he’s so nice and sensitive. Jessa is the kind of insufferably worldly character who will deflect Marnie’s concern that Hannah is too stoned to go out by insisting, “I’d like you to see a real high person” or who’ll say that she doesn’t go on dates “because they’re for lesbians.” And Shoshanna has built an entire mental database out of how relationships should work from bad reality shows and self-help books with titles like “Listen Ladies: A Tough Love Approach to Love.”
But it’s Hannah who most frequently tends to be her own worst enemy, whether she’s torpedoing a job interview because she doesn’t know what’s appropriate to say in an office setting or offending her new gynecologist by admitting that she sees some advantages to getting AIDS.
“You could not pay me to be 24 again,” the doctor sighs.
“Well,” Hannah shrugs, “they’re not paying me at all.”
And it’s that wry sense of humor, and perseverance, that makes Hannah so likable even when you factor in all the stupid things she does and says. She has no useful skills in the worst economy of her lifetime – after her parents cut her off, she says, “I calculated, and I can last in New York for three and a half more days. Maybe seven if I don’t eat lunch.” – she has terrible sex with a guy who treats her like a prop (at best), but she keeps trying. She has a knack for saying the worst possible thing in a situation, but can just as easily say the smartest, funniest, most tension-breaking thing.
When the other friends all go to a clinic to be supportive of Jessa when she needs an abortion, only for the flighty Jessa to run late, high-strung Marnie is on the verge of blowing her stack when Hannah disarms her by quipping, “How could she ruin the beautiful abortion that you threw?”
The landmark cable series of the last decade-plus have tended to be built around male characters who are simultaneously horrible and charismatic – your Tony Sopranos, your Don Drapers, your Larry Davids – and are forgiven for the former because of the latter. Shows built around flawed women have been fewer and less successfully-executed, but Showtime had a triumph in the fall with Claire Danes’ bug-nuts CIA agent on “Homeland,” and now we thankfully have Dunham as Hannah.
There’s enough sex, and bluntness about sex, that “Girls” will inevitably be compared to “Sex and the City.” Dunham does her best to get out in front of that by having Shoshanna, the broadest and least worldly “Girls” character, be obsessed with the show, boasting to Jessa, “I’m definitely a Carrie at heart, but sometimes… Samantha comes out.”
But the differences are obvious from the start. Not only are these women much younger – and poorer – than Carrie and friends, but “Girls” is more matter-of-fact about its frankness. “Sex and the City” too often suffered from a need to pat itself on the back for dealing with such taboo subject matter. When Hannah and her friends are dealing with abortion, STDs and a lot of sex (nearly all of it awkward and unsatisfying), there’s never that sense of self-congratulation. (Nor, mercifully, are there puns.) It’s funny when Hannah and Shoshanna discuss the proper etiquette that comes with being diagnosed with HPV, but it never feels like Dunham and Mamet want to pause in the middle of the scene to take a bow for their daring. It’s just something these two would talk about, presented in an amusing fashion.
Later in the series premiere, Hannah gets high on opium tea and makes a last-ditch plea to her parents to keep the money tap on. She shows them pages from her uncompleted book, then boasts, “I don’t want to freak you out, but I think that I may be the voice of my generation” – before immediately realizing how this sounds and adding, “Or, at least, a voice of a generation.”
That’s a bold statement for a show to make in its first episode, even if the context in which it’s presented is meant to keep you from taking it all that seriously. As I’m neither a woman nor in my early 20s anymore, I can’t speak to how well “Girls” captures that generation of women. But I can tell you that it definitely has a voice, and it’s a great one: witty and wise and warm and not exactly like anything you’ve heard before.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com