Girls, HBO – review

The new comedy everyone's talking about in the US is more than worth the hype, says Jack Seale

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“I think I may be the voice of my generation,” says Hannah, the aspiring writer played by Lena Dunham, creator of Girls. “Or at least a voice. Of generation.”

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Including a line like this in the first episode of your first TV show – Dunham’s previous screen work consists entirely of the low-key 2010 indie film Tiny Furniture – is bold, even if it is a joke delivered by a self-deprecating failure in the middle of a bad opium experiment. But Girls is easily good enough to get away with it.

US critics have declared that the 25-year-old Dunham is what Hannah briefly announces herself as: the voice of a generation, the anointed chronicler of detached, morose modern 20somethings. 

I’m 33 and live in the south of England. I have no idea whether Girls nails how American graduates currently feel and talk. I don’t know or care What Girls Says About Us. What I can tell you is that Dunham’s voice, in the sense of the way she builds scenes and characters and dialogue, is extraordinarily fresh. Watch Girls and think back to the last scripted comedy you saw. It suddenly feels cumbersome and retrograde.

We meet Hannah halfway through a fancy lunch with her college-professor parents. It sours when her waspish mother says her allowance is to be terminated. Hannah can no longer bum around interning for free at a publishing house, which she aimlessly has for the past year, as she tries to write a memoir that will make her an artistic phenomenon.

Hannah takes this crisis back to her group of friends. They’re in Brooklyn and, although Girls is the latest in a long line of shows that will make Brits want to move to New York tomorrow, these kids aren’t burning too brightly. Take Marnie, exquisitely pretty but stuck with a feeble, pawing boyfriend whose kisses have started to feel like “a weird uncle putting his hand on my knee at Thanksgiving”.

The Girls approach to sex and romance sums up the show: off-kilter, laden with ennui, casually funny. The best scene shows Hannah visiting Adam, her sort-of boyfriend. They have sex on his couch: he tries and fails to introduce some ludicrously unenticing role play, while she jabbers neurotically before and during. 

It’s neither one screen cliché nor another, not an idealised fantasy but not an inert, one-sided chore either. Girls is all about imperfect connections. At one point, Marnie lists a hierarchy of various means of communication, with Facebook at the bottom, texting near the top and face-to-face conversation almost unattainable at the summit. Hannah and Adam aren’t made for each other and don’t really know what they’re doing (they’re not face to face either), but that makes what intimacy they do have affecting.

Self-absorbed loafer that she is, Hannah herself becomes more and more attractive as Dunham sprinkles her with quirks and failings. Of all the comparisons thrown at the show, Woody Allen’s peak-period Manhattan dramedies are the most apt – and it seems Girls won’t shoehorn itself into sitcom-style resolutions each week, preferring to unfurl like a five-hour movie.

Like Allen’s characters, Hannah and friends manage to hate their lives despite not being, say, burger-flipping single moms in Detroit who have never had time to consider writing a book, let alone expect it to be published. Dunham addresses this in episode one when a supporting character acidly compares Hannah and her fretting girlfriends to the cast of Clueless, but some (re)viewers are bound to dismiss a show like Girls as self-indulgent whining, no matter how good it is.

Dunham should ignore them, not least because the opportunities Hannah and co have are a key part of their characters. Their dissatisfaction is rooted in the relative privilege they enjoy, and their inability to make the most of or be cheered by it. In any case, Dunham can only write what she knows and she does that with piercing honesty. 

She knows what she’s not, too. The slyest scene in the Girls pilot features the sunny, ditsy Shoshanna defining people’s personalities via Sex and the City characters. But Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha look phoney and dreadfully old next to the girls in Girls.

Girls airs in the UK on Sky Atlantic later this year.

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