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Critic’s Notebook: Amy Taubin on the ‘Defiant Immodesty’ of Lena Dunham’s ‘Girls’

Critic's Notebook: Amy Taubin on the 'Defiant Immodesty' of Lena Dunham's 'Girls'

Modestly entertaining in its defiant immodesty, Lena Durham’s “Girls,” a ten-part comedy series for HBO, nails the way that women — make that “girls,” no, make that white, upper-middle class, well-educated, and, as far as they know, heterosexual persons with vaginas — talk about sex. The show does that one thing better than any commercial series television has, including its obvious model, “Sex and the City.”

Dunham is the writer, director, co-producer, and star of “Girls” as she was of “Tiny Furniture,” the feature that brought her distinct, highly marketable voice as a writer and performer to the attention of Judd Apatow, one of the show’s executive producers.  “Girls” is less irritating than the passive/aggressive “Tiny Furniture.” It’s easier on the eye and the actors are comfortable enough with one another to make their characters’ shared history believable.

If the series is groundbreaking television, it is not because it brings the expressive qualities of big-screen art movies to TV, as did “Twin Peaks” or, to lesser degree, “My So-Called Life” -– both coming-of-age sagas as is “Girls,” albeit the protagonist, Hannah (Dunham), and her sidekicks are all approaching their twenty-fifth birthdays. (I suspect that they still will be coming-of-age when the series concludes after who knows how many seasons; for them, remaining in transit from adolescence to adulthood is preferable to being identified as women.)

Rather, “Girls” seems daring and new (at least for TV) because the dialogue is smarter, wittier, and more directly libidinous than in “Two Broke Girls” and the rash of female-centered sitcoms that use body parts as punch lines. It also depicts sexual encounters in a way that leaves no doubt about who is doing exactly what to whom, even though bodies are well draped, the camera keeps a discreet distance, and very little satisfaction is achieved.

Like “Sex in the City,” the most progressive aspect of “Girls,” theoretically, is the ongoing drama and spectacle of female friendship. But just as Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw is to “SATC,” Dunham’s Hannah is to “Girls”: She is the essential element, first among unequals.

If you don’t thrill to her or at least develop a love/hate relationship to a young woman with the face of a stubborn, petulant, occasionally outraged cherub and a short-waisted, pear-shaped body that makes her desperately unhappy even as she dares us to notice that she isn’t as tall and slim as her best friends, and who is also disgustingly self-involved, lazy, limited in her world-view to the degree that she has one, and forever flinging herself at a guy who uses her like a blow-up sex doll with a bothersome voice mechanism that’s been programmed to say all the wrong things, you probably won’t find “Girls” compelling.

Hannah (who is not the Hannah of Woody Allen’s “Hannah and her Sisters,” although the name leads us to the obvious connection between Dunham and Allen, both New Yorkers who use self-deprecating humor as a defense against the judgment of others and their own impossible desire for perfection) worries constantly about money and sex. Welcome to 2012: job market non-existent; rents exorbitant even in Greenpoint; codes for sex, dating, commitment totally up for grabs.

The pilot episode (airing Sunday) begins with a close-up of Hannah scarfing down pasta. She’s in a restaurant with her parents who’ve flown in from the mid-west to tell her that they are cutting her off. “No more money,” snarls her mother, who is even more sadistic than the mother in “Tiny Furniture” (who was played by Dunham’s own mother. What kind of torturous power play was that?)

As an actor, Dunham does two things very well. The first is to toss off funny one-liners that are usually inappropriate and self-sabotaging, as when Hannah goes on a job interview and suggests to her potential boss that he’s a date rapist. The second involves her reaction to rejection, whether from her parents or the pompous publisher for whom she’s been an unpaid intern for two years, or the non-boyfriend (Adam Driver, fabulous because he makes the character so boorishly unappealing) who behaves as if he’s doing her a favor by allowing her to have sex with him.  At those moments, you can feel the sinking sensation in Hannah’s stomach and the mix of heartbreak and rage that locks her jaw and paralyses her body.

Not that Hannah is a wimp or a pushover. Doggie-style, okay; ass-fucking not! “Are you wearing a condom” is her mantra. She’s AIDS-phobic, which may partly account for her having had sex only with two men in her entire life. Having gone to a women’s health clinic to support Jessa (Jemima Kirk), a globe-trotting friend who has returned to New York to get an abortion, Hannah seizes the opportunity to be tested for STDs, telling the female gynecologist that the advantage of testing positive for HIV would be that no one would bother her anymore about getting a job. It’s the only moment in the three episodes I previewed where we see Hannah through the eyes of someone who deals with underprivileged, seriously ill women every day and who therefore finds Hannah’s sophistry beneath contempt.

As for the supposedly pregnant Jessa, she blows off her health clinic appointment by getting drunk and picking up a guy at a bar instead. “Put your hands down my pants,” she orders him. He obeys, and then, looking down at his fingers says, “You’re bleeding.” His confusion is so funny and touching that I almost forgave Dunham for engaging and then slickly side stepping the abortion issue.

I bet it never resurfaces this season. I also bet that before the end of the tenth episode, someone will offer to publish Hannah’s autobiographical essays and that her non-boyfriend will realize that he needs her as much as she thought she needed him, but only after she’s found someone more interesting. And I hope, but do not entirely expect, that some important non-Caucasian character will enter the narrative.

“Girls” is as innovative as it’s predictable. Most people will tune in for the sex that’s been over-hyped to the show’s detriment. What they will quickly discover is that the sex is not so hot. But unsatisfying sex can be as addicting as good sex — because you always hope that if you do things just a little bit differently, it will turn into great sex. You could say the same about “Girls.”

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