Groundbreaking." "Fresh and wonderfully realized." "A brilliant gem." It's a lot for a new comedy from a young, unproven filmmaker to live up to. And yet in its first three episodes, HBO's "Girls" does just that, managing to capture the spirit of today's youth culture with unmatched clarity -- while also delivering more laughs in those three half-hours than most sitcoms have managed all season long. Here's one case where we don't mind jumping on the critical bandwagon: "Girls" is off to a very impressive start, and may be one of the best TV shows of the year, new or otherwise.
25-year-old Lena Dunham is the star, and it's okay if you've never heard of her: She's been busy writing and directing obscure indie films like 2010's proto-"Girls" comedy, "Tiny Furniture." She writes and directs here, too, and plays Hannah, a young aspiring writer who, after she's unceremoniously cut off by her parents, has to figure out how to scrape by with zero income in New York City. But she gets by with a little help from her friends: sweet, preppy Marnie (Allison Williams); foul-mouthed free spirit Jessa (Jemima Kirke); and annoyingly perky Shoshanna ("Mad Men's" Zosia Mamet). The girls also have a series of variously dissatisfying relationships with the opposite sex -- but who didn't at their age?
It makes perfect sense that a 25-year-old created this show, because the dialogue nails the rhythms young people speak in today, from their casual sarcasm to their stunning self-awareness. (Hannah puts herself down a lot, but she does it so eloquently, it's somehow charming.) There's also a sexual frankness to "Girls" that will probably cause some older viewers to clutch their pearls, with Dunham appearing in a few utterly unglamorous sex scenes that are not very sexy at all -- but are very funny. Her fearlessness as a writer and performer lends "Girls" an endearing authenticity that spreads throughout the entire series. (Another plus to having a 25-year-old running the show: The soundtrack is impeccable.)
Get a sneak peek at HBO's "Girls" with this extended trailer:
Dunham is undoubtedly the driving force behind "Girls," but there's another interesting name lurking in the credits: Judd Apatow. Yes, the man behind "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up" is an executive producer here, and it seems he's found a kindred spirit in Dunham, another profane chronicler of everyday problems. "Girls" actually works as a perfect companion piece to Apatow's great pre-"Virgin" TV efforts, "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared"; those shows struck a similar balance between comedy and drama while focusing on the turbulent lives of young people -- a formula that we don't see on TV often enough these days.
In fact, it's surprising that for all the effort TV networks put into courting younger viewers (hence, all those annoying hashtags you see floating in the corner of your TV screen these days), there really aren't too many shows about people in their early 20s on the air right now. Oh, we get plenty of shows about thirty-year-olds acting younger than they are (see: "Happy Endings," "How I Met Your Mother") and plenty of shows about teens acting older than they are (see: The CW's entire lineup). But nothing depicting that exciting, scary time when you're fresh out of school and trying to figure out where you fit in this world. We don't quite understand why that is (do TV executives think young people are too busy texting to watch a TV show about themselves?) -- but whatever the reason, "Girls" fills that void nicely.
Many reviews are comparing "Girls" to FX's similarly acclaimed "Louie," since Dunham writes, directs, and stars in every episode, like comedian Louis CK does on his show. But while the more avant-garde "Louie" seems determined to stretch the boundaries of what a sitcom is (to the point where entire scenes, and even episodes, aren't funny at all), "Girls" is content to just be a damn good sitcom. Yes, there's a certain scruffy DIY indie-film sensibility to "Girls," but the structure shouldn't shock anyone who's used to the deliberate pace of a good dramedy -- like Apatow's "Freaks and Geeks," for example.
The ads for "Girls" are a little misleading, though, with leggy shots of the four female leads cramped together on a couch. They seem to promise an updated "Sex and the City" for the Twitter generation, but that couldn't be further from the truth. While Carrie Bradshaw gleefully shelled out hundreds of dollars for a shiny new pair of Jimmy Choos, Hannah has to grovel to her parents to keep her meager post-grad allowance coming. If anything, "Girls" is the anti-"Sex and the City," the story of today's young women finding out the hard way that Carrie's lavish lifestyle was a mirage, yet another TV fantasy. (It was a sad day indeed when we discovered that no one under 30 has an apartment nearly as awesome as Monica and Rachel's on "Friends.")
We're using the word "today" a lot to talk about "Girls," and that fits, because the show is very much of the moment. It speaks directly to modern-day struggles and triumphs without, say, flashing back to the 1960s or making one character a vampire. (Though we're still not entirely sure about Jessa.) And honestly, it doesn't need those kinds of frills; "Girls" just aims to tell the story of 21st-century women, unvarnished and unfiltered -- and hits its target dead-on. When begging her parents to continue funding her fledgling writing career, a desperate Hannah tells them, "I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice... of a generation." Don't sell yourself short, Hannah; you may have been right the first time.
"Girls" premieres Sunday, 4/15 at 10:30 PM on HBO. And for non-HBO subscribers, the network will be streaming the "Girls" premiere in full the day after it airs at HBO.com.