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Sex & the Gritty: Lena Dunham’s ‘Girls’ Pilot is Coarse, Sensitive, and Promising

Sex & the Gritty: Lena Dunham's 'Girls' Pilot is Coarse, Sensitive, and Promising

The most compelling aspect of Lena Dunham’s HBO series “Girls” is a tone and spirit that balances sincerity and satire.  When the goofy protagonist Hannah (Dunham) proclaims in the first scene that she is “busy trying to become who I am,” the series arrives with a strong, clear voice. As Hannah pleads later that evening: she may be “a voice of a generation.”

“Girls” is a half-hour comedy about four young women balancing defeats, debacles and disappointments alongside rare triumphs.  The pilot episode officially premiered April 15, although critics have thoroughly picked through the first three of the ten episodes after showings at SXSW. New York Magazine and The Hollywood Reporter gushed, The Playlist, GOOD, New York Times, The Atlantic, and Slate ambivalently cheered it onwards.  (TOH’s SXSW coverage is here and our “Tiny Furniture” video interview with Dunham is here and below, along with the “Girls” trailer.)

Lena Dunham’s opus is created, written, directed (five of ten episodes), starring, and produced by her.  She gave “Girls” the deliberately lo-fi aesthetic she used in her semi-autobiographical breakout film, 2010’s “Tiny Furniture.”  In the movie, the rough facade fit a mumblecore aesthetic, but in a television show it’s more effective and makes “Girls” the most natural looking show on television.  It directly contrasts the sheen of both “Sex and the City” (already oft-compared to Dunham’s show) as well as current female-centric comedies like “The New Girl” or “Two Broke Girls.” 

The clothes are rumpled but not artfully so, just wrinkled and pulled, the way clothes get after a long day.  It’s more than “Sex and the City” in a charcoal Salvation Army overcoat. This series speaks accurately to the aesthetics of the current generation–it’s an Instagram look, a sort of grungy overlay that gives “Girls” a hollow sense of having aged.  The gritty aesthetic is at odds with the comedy, which is too “real,” perhaps one reason why critics have taken issue with Hannah and Adam’s (Adam Driver) relationship. If their interactions had been more glossily filmed, they would appear more ridiculous than careless.

Dunham’s acting and directing have both evolved from “Tiny Furniture,” particularly in pacing and subtlety. “Girls” displays a spot-on attention to detail.  Sensitively selected specifics add complexity to the four central characters and their hangers-on.  Hannah’s roommate, the polished Marnie (Allison Williams), wears a retainer to sleep that her doting boyfriend (Christopher Abbott) holds while she sips coffee in the morning. Their friend Jessa (Jemima Kirke), a whirlwind just arrived from Paris, explains to her fawning “Sex and the City”-obsessed cousin Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) that she just spent a stint “shucking pearls” in Bali. Adam plans to abandon acting for woodworking because he believes “it just seems more honest.” 

“Girls” revels in recession-centric situations, but could go further in exploring the economic climate behind Hannah’s unemployment and the unavoidable parade of unpaid internships. “Girls” has received much flack for its elitist concentration on the privileged poor and might do well to more sensitively explore the “crazy” economy, as Hannah refers to it.

The series has potential, especially as the relationships develop.  In terms of its tone, it will be interesting to see if the show commits to matching comedy to its deliberately realistic visuals.  While there are moments of satire, perceptive one-liners, and flippant situations, there’s room for sensitive drama and character development.

“Girls” is on Sundays at 10:30 on HBO. No subscription? HBO offers “Girls” on HBO.com/girls.

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