Tuesday, April 17, 2012

First Round With "Girls"

Last week I wrote up a review of Lena Dunham's debut feature film Tiny Furniture, which I found frustrating and unappealing. I could see a lot of promise, but it wasn't very well realized and had a lot of affectations that rubbed me the wrong way. So when I heard that Dunham had landed her own HBO series, with a production credit from Judd Apatow, I was worried we were going to get more of the same. At first glance, "Girls" and "Tiny Furniture" do have a lot in common. Both star Lena Dunham playing a post-collegiate twenty-something living in New York, trying to figure out what to do with herself. Both offer unusually frank depictions of young, single women, with a good dose of realistic nudity, sex, language, and recreational drug use. However, "Girls" is a vast improvement in every possible sense.

First, Dunham ditches the mumblecore production values and dingy visual sense for something much more polished and easy on the eyes. The mostly amateur actors have been replaced by mostly professional ones. The writing has also become much more focused and to-the-point. I particularly appreciate that the characters, though still wrapped up in their own problems, are altogether more lovable and self-aware. This is most noticeable with Dunham's lead character, Hannah Horvath, a twenty-four year-old unpaid intern and would-be writer. She has big, if rather hazy aspirations, evidenced by her opium fueled declaration that she may be "the voice of a generation." However, there's significantly less of the outsized self-pity and petulance of the more resentful, difficult Aura from "Tiny Furniture." It helps that Hannah has problems that are very concrete and immediate from the get-go. Her visiting parents (Peter Scolari and Becky Ann Baker) are cutting off their financial support, and no protestations that she needs more time "to be who I am" will move them to reconsider. And as New York City is not a cheap place to live, reality quickly sets in - Hannah needs a job.

Fortunately she has the emotional support of her best friend and roommate Marnie (Allison Williams) and the newly transplanted Jessa (Jemima Kirke, also from the "Tiny Furniture" cast), a world traveler and free spirit. It's immediately evident that Marnie is the meanest and most sensible of the bunch while Jessa is prone to sounding sophisticated and acting flighty. The fourth member of the show's regular quartet will be Jessa's cousin Shoshanna (Zoisa Mamet), who only appears briefly in the pilot to gush over Jessa's worldliness and offer comparisons to "Sex and the City." Oh yes, "Girls" is very aware of "Sex and the City," and the similarities between them. And then it goes and pushes the boundaries ever-so-much further than "Sex and the City" ever managed to. First there's Hannah's amusingly awful and explicit sexual episode with her scuzzy boyfriend, Adam (Adam Driver), and then there are the multiple scenes of the girls having conversations in the bathroom while fully or partially naked. It's not the casual nudity, but the snarky intimacy between the girls that stands out here, a rarity in media of any kind. I'm looking forward to seeing how these friendships are going to develop over successive weeks.

What surprised me the most about "Girls," however, was how funny I found it, after sitting through "Tiny Furniture" stone-faced. Both of Hannah's meetings with her parents are hilarious. The sex scene is embarrassing, but also agreeably ridiculous and humanizing. Dunham's observational, incidental humor is a better fit for episodic television than a full-length feature, and the lighter tone heightens all the self-mockery and absurdity that didn't quite come through in "Tiny Furniture." What was bitter and cynical in the film goes down a lot easier with a more mainstream sensibility behind it. And though Hannah may be an entitled brat, her immaturity pings as more universal this time around, and she's much easier to root for.

I am a little disappointed that Dunham is sticking to such familiar territory with "Girls," but this was clearly the right project for her. She's listed as creator, executive producer, writer, director, and lead actress of "Girls," and she's showing major improvements on all fronts. If she can keep up the level of quality in the pilot through the whole season, I think Lena Dunham stands a good chance of becoming a major creative force to be reckoned with. As far as I'm concerned, she's already a voice of her generation. Not the voice, but one I'll be happy to have around.

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