Girls: Sex and the City for the recession
Girls has become the latest US TV smash, writes Ed Power
It's the television phenomenon that has transfixed America. Dubbed a Sex and the City for Generation Recession, the new HBO comedy Girls debuted in the US last month amid unprecedented hype and hyperbole. Critics are hailing it the cultural event of the year. The series' creator and star Lena Dunham has become suddenly, wildly famous. On the internet, Girls is inescapable.
Superficially, the parallels with SATC are obvious. Both shows chronicle the romantic adventures of four single ladies making their way in the big city.
But that's where the resemblance ends. Rather than experiencing life as a whirlwind of lunch dates and shopping binges, the twenty-somethings populating this scrappy comedy are underemployed, broke and romantically anguished.
One episode -- entitled Vagina Panic -- starts with the 'Carrie' of the foursome (Dunham) having horrible intercourse with her boyfriend and ends with her at an abortion clinic, terrified she has contracted AIDS. In between, there are gags about date-rape and condoms.
Despite the yuck factor, in America the media response has been nothing less than rapturous.
"From the moment I saw the pilot . . . I was a goner, a convert," gushed New York Magazine." "Girls is worth all the fuss," agreed The New York Times.
"The writing is clever and honest and I like the show because it's realistic," adds TV commentator Lira Cruz. "The sex scenes do not come with romantic mood music and lights, as you would normally see. It shows sex as it's actually done -- awkward!
As well as playing the de facto main character, struggling essayist Hannah Horvath, Dunham is Girls' chief writer, director and producer. The daughter of a successful Manhattan artist, hers has been a very 21st-Century entry into the entertainment industry. She came to widespread attention with a viral YouTube video in which she bathes in a fountain. From there, she directed a $25,000 movie Tiny Furniture.
The success of Tiny Furniture on the festival circuit brought her to the notice of HBO, which was looking for an edgy new half-hour programme. Rather than trusting a 25-year-old with a TV series, however, the network encouraged her to work with Judd Apatow, king of fratboy comedy. His first bit of advice: call the show Girls.
"Every title that I was coming up with had 'Girls' in some way," Dunham said in an interview. "'Girls Like Us' to 'Those Crazy Girls!' Then Judd called up one day and he was like we need to have a temporary title, what about just Girls? He like sort of distilled everything we're doing down to its essence."
You might expect Dunham to be wary of the Sex and the City comparisons. Actually she explicitly courts them. In the first episode, her ditzy friend Shoshanna announces she moved to New York because she craves the SaTC lifestyle. Another character describes herself as 'Carrie, with a touch of Samantha'. The influence of Sex and the City permeates very frame.
'Not only is this a show that talks about Sex and the City, these are women who couldn't exist without Sex and the City," said Dunham. "And I wanted to reference that, honour it and get it out of the way. But I was sensitive about that Sex in the City reference.
"I was scared when I sent the pilot to HBO that they'd be offended or find it to be too meta, and they told us that it was a big reason that they picked up the pilot. They liked the fact that we were the first script about women that had commented on Sex in the City and took the issue head on."
Amid the hyperbole there have been a few dissenting voices. The recurring complaint isn't that Girls is especially awful, but that it doesn't live up to the pre-launch hype.
"For many, there's almost an inevitable 'Really? That's what all the fuss was about?' effect, especially with a show as understated as this one," wrote Variety critic Brian Lowry, who nonetheless confessed to being a fan.
Viewers in Ireland will have plenty of time to get their heads around the idea of a grubby, borderline nihilist Sex and the City. Girls will be on Sky Atlantic in September.