Trapped somewhere between Gossip Girl and Sex and the City, there's a new brand of NYC girl who must figure out how to grow up. Her process, while sometimes funny, is never easy and isn't a bit pretty.
So runs the basic premise of Girls, creator-star Lena Dunham's much ballyhooed HBO show. Dunham plays Hannah Horvath, a twentysomething wannabe writer knocking around the Big Apple. Her parents have cut her loose financially, and now she's on a quest to find both money and meaning … and sex—joined by her equally adrift pals Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna.
Girls might be considered both an homage to and the antithesis of Sex and the City, HBO's other much-lauded comedy (which wrapped in 2004). Hannah, like Sex's Carrie Bradshaw, is a writer bursting with witty insights and clever rejoinders. Both groups of friends spend an inordinate amount of time either talking about or engaging in sex. The difference? While Sex and the City is soaked in limos and sequins and designer labels, Girls resides outside tony Manhattan. These women aren't awash in Jimmy Choos. Sometimes they're lucky to have a set of Converse high tops that don't have holes in the soles. And they themselves aren't shimmering beauties, but young women you might have met at a college party years ago.
If Sex and the City is a chocolate torte, Girls is a bowl of cheese puffs. And as such, the series feels as though it has a certain off-kilter resonance in our post-recession world—which might help explain why everyone's talking about the show but no one actually watches it.
According to The New York Times, just 866,000 people tuned in the January 2013 Season 2 premiere—down a bit from the Season 1 debut and a drop of about 17 million from The Big Bang Theory almost every week. HBO's reruns boost the tally a bit, but still: If you transported the ratings for one premium channel Girls episode into the rest of the cable landscape, the typical episode might fall somewhere below a middling Univision telenovela.
But Girls is all the rage nevertheless—winning awards by the gross and snagging magazine covers by the score. Rolling Stone calls it "the Best Show on TV." Entertainment Weekly has dubbed Dunham "the voice of a generation."
Critics seem taken by the comedy's raw, funny honesty. Many of the show's scenarios are taken from Dunham's own life, and she's not afraid to make the character she plays look foolish or selfish or even borderline loathsome for a laugh. The show is about growing up—one mistake at a time.
And, oh, the mistakes that are made … and filmed in unflinching, embarrassing detail. Writes Melissa Maerz for Entertainment Weekly:
"Dunham's not so worried about offending people anymore. A gay man sleeping with a straight girl? That happened this season. Asking a junkie for drugs? That too. Nudity? There's a lot of it. 'I close my eyes at certain scenes,' admits [Dunham's mother Laurie] Simmons about watching her daughter on Girls. 'But nobody who's making interesting work is making it for their parents.'"
Or for me either, apparently. I'm a parent of a soon-to-be-20-year-old girl, and this show makes me sad—sad to think that this is what normal adulthood looks like for some. And, yes, I wanted to close my eyes at certain scenes too.
Not all twentysomethings are as irresponsible as what we see in Girls, of course. Sure, they may make mistakes—but they don't necessarily feel that they need 10 years to make as many as possible. And with all due respect to Rolling Stone, there are certainly better things to watch on TV.
Hannah and Jessa visit Jessa's irresponsible father and ask him why it seems he's never been there for her.
"You think I can rely on you?" her father snaps.
"You shouldn't have to!" Jessa cries. "I'm the child!"
Then Hannah—while urinating along the side of a railroad track—reaches out to her own parents: "I was calling to thank you for making me feel so supported as a child and even sometimes as an adult," she tells them.
Her mother thinks it's a joke and hangs up.
It's not the only time we see Hannah relieve herself by that railroad track. The first time, she hikes up her skirt, pulls down her panties (revealing her backside) and squats for the camera. We see her have sex with Jessa's 19-year-old brother, complete with explicit movements and orgasm. The guy later accuses Hannah of using him for sex—in so doing confessing that people think he's in love with a guy friend.
Hannah and Jessa analyze a Penthouse, discussing pubic hair and privates at length. Jessa says Penthouse models are "noble," helping introduce boys to sexuality. References are made to oral sex and Jessa's possible molestation when she was young. We hear graphic descriptions of vaginal diseases.
Jessa's stepmother tells Hannah that she's the answer to an apparently New Age-y prayer. Characters huff whippets and drink alcohol while driving. Jessa's father smokes incessantly. We hear the c-word once, the f-word a dozen times and the s-word four or five. A bevy of other profanities are used too, including a half-dozen misuses of God's name and one abuse of Jesus' name.