Producer Judd Apatow told journalists it’s OK not to like the characters in “Girls,” and thank God for that. Self-absorbed and self-indulgent, these slightly adrift twentysomethings have completely unglamorous sex, compare themselves to “Sex and the City” characters and feel few compunctions about sponging off Mom and Dad years removed from college. Still, if “Tiny Furniture” filmmaker Lena Dunham’s series is in places too mannered, it’s also fresh, honest and raw. And if she’s not the voice of her generation, as her character tells the folks, she’s certainly a voice — one worth hearing, and right at home on HBO.
Indeed, the narrowness of “Girls,” and its indie-film credentials, dovetail nicely with a pay-TV sensibility — tailored, as it is, to a younger audience avidly pursued by programmers but seldom spoken to in this unvarnished fashion. Perhaps that’s because the portrait is less than flattering, and the characters flawed enough that spending extended time with them could easily begin feeling like a chore.
As writer, director, producer and star (with Apatow essentially riding shotgun), Dunham plays Hannah, a 24-year-old woman laboring at an unpaid internship and working on a memoir. She’s introduced getting a not-quite-talking-to from Mom (Becky Ann Baker) and Dad (Peter Scolari), who tell her it’s time to support herself.
“Do you know how crazy the economy is right now?” Hannah pleads, insisting she really is hard at work, busy “trying to become who I am.”
Work, though, is only a small part of Hannah’s life. There’s her sort-of boyfriend (Adam Driver), who clearly capitalizes on her insecurity by mistreating her and using her to play out sexual fantasies; and her beautiful roommate Marnie (Allison Williams), who has a doting boyfriend but isn’t sure she can stand the touch of him anymore.
Mostly, the gals and their friends are so inward-looking as to be tone deaf, whether that’s describing something as “fucking classy” or, in the second hour, scheduling an abortion as a sort of group outing. Even Hannah’s attempt to get paid for her internship backfires, since she’s seemingly unaware just how little she means to her boss.
Coming-of-age stories are a dime a dozen, naturally, but they evolve over time, and as she did in her feature debut, Dunham captures a kind of post-graduation paralysis — professional and emotional — plaguing her cohort, as well as a disconnectedness despite (or perhaps partially because of) their facility with new media. Then again, “Girls” also subtly explores young adults’ relationships with privacy and sexuality, which have surely changed, in ways often more depressing than titillating.
Dunham is young enough to be forgiven for writing what she knows, but she also exhibits glimpses of perspective from outside herself, such as a scene in the second episode where a nurse tells Hannah, “You could not pay me enough to be 24 again.”
“Girls” certainly won’t be for everybody, but thanks to its demo, setting and sensibility, it’s already captured the attention of the New York Times intelligentsia, which in HBO terms qualifies as a victory all its own. And in keeping with the pay service’s niche-oriented model, it will make a certain segment of the population desperate to scrape together $12 a month in order to keep pace with the adventures of Hannah and her spiritual sisters.
And with any luck, those subscribers won’t have to hit up mom and dad for the money.