Here come the TV girls (they make the SATC quartet look like a group of nuns)
Benji Wilson talks to Lena Dunham, who wrote and stars in the controversial show
I meet Lena Dunham upstairs in a Manhattan art gallery where she has just finished directing an episode of the second series of Girls, the hit American comedy which is soon to make its debut here on Sky Atlantic. She also stars in it, writes it, and executive produces it. In fact, she created the whole series. Small wonder, then, that the time is 3am.
"Please excuse any lack of articulation," she says. "That comes from the time of day it is. And the amount of M&Ms I've just eaten."
Lack of articulation will not prove to be a problem. Dunham is, at 26, both loquacious and precocious. She grew up in Brooklyn, went to arts college and a year later made an autobiographical indie film called Tiny Furniture. It caught the attention of the current kingpin of film comedy, Judd Apatow. Then she got a summons from the cable channel HBO.
What could a 24-year-old with no previous television experience, and with tattoos from children's books snaking up her arms, offer the creative powerhouse of modern television art?
"I remember saying to them: 'Here's the kind of show I would want to see. This is what my friends are like. They don't all have jobs but they're really smart. They take Ritalin for fun, but they're not that f****d up. They're having these kind of degrading sexual relationships. . . yet they're feminists.' I was just describing women I know and how I would love to see them on TV."
Within a year those women had become Girls -- a raw, brazen comedy about four feckless twentysomethings living in Brooklyn. The show is full of drugs, nudity (male and female), abortions, and decidedly unsexy, graphic sex. One critic called it "an exciting moment in television history", and "one of the most original, spot-on, no-missed-steps series in recent memory". Dunham's skill is clear: she has created something very truthful but also expertly crafted, delineating each of its lead characters incredibly quickly. No surprise, then, that Girls was nominated for four Emmys.
In fact, the show had to cope with being the darling of the critics even before the first episode was broadcast in the US in April. Being set in New York City and featuring four female friends, it was inevitably soon being described as the new Sex and the City. As it happened, Dunham had seen that one coming -- even now she greets the question with a roll of her eyes -- and so, rather than copy its glossy forerunner, Girls gives it a referential nod.
'Shoshanna (a wide-eyed ingénue played by Zosia Mamet, daughter of playwright and film director David) has a Sex and the City poster on her wall -- the thought was that she would have moved to New York because of Sex and the City. Even with Hannah (the self-centred aspiring writer played by Dunham), part of the reason she came to New York is clearly because she thought she was 'a Carrie' (the newspaper columnist played by Sarah Jessica Parker in the earlier comedy)."
Most of all, however, Girls has inspired talk of a generational shift. This, it is said, is the first real depiction of the so-called Generation Y-ers, post-recessionary casualties who have qualifications and aspirations, but who can't find a job and are not happy about it.
In the first episode, Hannah tells her parents that she can't understand why a) they're cutting off her allowance and b) no one wants her novel -- she, for one, has a suspicion that she "may be the voice of my generation". She then passes out having drunk too much opium tea.
Dunham, it seems, has been passed the same mantle -- the voice of her generation -- even though she laughs at the idea.
"I don't think I ever set out to make anything that has an overtly political statement about people of this age in general. I always feel like everybody's too specific -- and that on my own I'm too much of a weirdo to be able to speak for everybody."
And yet, as a phone buzzes and we both rummage around in our pockets to see who has a new message, she admits that the generation currently coming of age do find themselves lost in a particular techno-social fug.
"People my age are the first who grew up with instant messaging, and text messages and all these technologically mediated forms of communication. That differentiates my generation from others."
In Girls, tweets and picture messaging often start stories. One episode centres on the arrival of a photo of a penis on Hannah's phone from her boyfriend, closely followed by a text saying, "SRY. That wasn't meant for you."
This is part comedy of humiliation, part Dunham exploring what social media has done to people's lives. She talks about how technology can be a source of angst as much as conviviality: "We're leaving this technological footprint -- horrible poetry that I wrote when I was 18 is just as available on Google to a guy I might be dating as my current interests or what I was doing yesterday on Twitter. It's almost an impulsive sharing thing -- and then the anxiety that comes with that."
As in Tiny Furniture, Dunham's character in Girls also bears distinct similarities to its author, and is largely unsympathetic, frequently selfish and quite often semi-nude. Dunham's Twitter profile reads, "My life is my art and therapy is my palette," and though that's tongue-in-cheek she says she does worry about putting too much of herself, in every sense, on camera.
"All the time. But at the same time I don't really know another way to work. It's the same way I don't worry about my tattoos sagging."
One concern elicited by Girls' co-producer Ilene Landress is that being so feted so young will take Dunham away from Brooklyn and the Brooklynites that have furnished her with so many of her stories. If she's living it up at an LA pool party surrounded by sycophants, where will further tales of downtown degradation come from?
"My answer to that is even if you're having a successful moment in your career it never all congeals at the same time, it never all makes sense. You just have bigger opportunities in which to fail and humiliate yourself."
Her point could not have been more perfectly proven than by her appearance in the opening montage at the Emmys the other week when she chose to appear crying and eating cake in the lavatories.
'Girls' starts on October 22 on Sky Atlantic at 10pm