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Lena Dunham's 'Girls' Navigate New York City Life
This Sunday, HBO premieres a new comedy series that's written and directed by Lena Dunham, who grabbed the media spotlight in 2010 with her film Tiny Furniture. She's 25 years old now, and stars in this new TV series as well.
She plays Hannah, who's spent the past two years trying to pursue her dreams, and her idea of romance, in the big city. Some people already are calling it Sex and the City for a new generation — but some comparisons go even further back.
In the very first scene of Girls, we meet Hannah as she's out to dinner with her parents. They've come to New York to drop a bombshell on their daughter — a bomb that the father drops reluctantly, the mother almost aggressively. And it's during this opening scene, when Hannah realizes she's about to be launched into the next phase of her life, that I fell in love. Not with Hannah, but with this new HBO comedy itself.
All three characters — the verbal, defensive daughter; the conflict-avoiding father; and the had-it-up-to-here mother — are written so completely that no one is given the edge in this very public verbal duel. It's a sign of scriptwriting maturity that makes it all the more impressive that Dunham is so young. Hannah's parents, played by Peter Scolari and Becky Ann Baker, are both professors — which explains why all three of them, even when arguing, speak in complete thoughts. Complete — and very funny.
The first episode's opening scenes remind me as much of Sex and the City as they do other, earlier single-working-woman TV comedies. The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the '70s, with Mary Richards landing a job at a Minneapolis TV station; and That Girl in the '60s, where Marlo Thomas played a young woman trying to make it as an actress in New York City.
In Girls, Hannah lives in Brooklyn, not Manhattan. And she not only commutes, she has roommates and friends, who give this series its Carrie-and-company vibe. But these other girls, like Hannah, aren't glamorous professionals — they're quirky, still-forming individuals, still looking for their identities as well as their career paths. But as they speak, we hear — as Hannah describes herself, in one drug-induced moment of self-analysis — the voice of her generation.
But the voice Hannah the character, and Girls the series, comes closest to echoing, and emulating, is that of Louis C.K.'s character on the FX series Louie. He, like Hannah, seems to be fighting an uphill battle against life in New York, and questioning what it all means. And looking for love in a lot of the wrong places, and venting his frustrations in ways that sometimes are brilliantly clever, and other times are hilariously, helplessly nonverbal.
As characters, both Hannah and Louie reveal themselves, lots of times, in less than flattering ways — physically as well as emotionally. And as behind the scenes creative types, both Louis C.K. and Lena Dunham are risk-taking, responsibility-taking auteurs. They write. They direct. They act. And they do all three in ways that aren't showy, but that burrow to the heart of what seems real.
The oldest piece of advice given to young writers is a four-word commandment: "Write what you know." Some people hear that advice and run from it. Others take it and run with it — which is what Dunham has done with Girls. As a result, the conversations sound like you've been eavesdropping. The sex scenes feel like you're watching voyeuristically — and they're unsettling for even more reasons than that. And what happens to Hannah, at least in the first few episodes, makes you fear that the poor girl just isn't going to make it.
But don't believe it. Hannah, as written and played and directed by Lena Dunham, has a secret weapon: She's got spunk. And she's gonna make it after all.