tue 15/10/2019

Girls, Sky Atlantic | reviews, news & interviews

Girls, Sky Atlantic

Girls, Sky Atlantic

Lena Dunham's much-hyped semi-autobiographical sitcom arrives in the UK

Jessa (Jemima Kirke), Hannah (Lena Dunham) and Marnie (Allison Williams) in Girls

While it’s not unusual for an imported television show to have been downloaded, discussed and dissected at length long in advance of of its UK transmission date, HBO’s Girls is even harder than most to approach with an open mind. Depending on which publications you read, you may already be aware that the show is many things: racist, classist, realistic, unrealistic, hilarious, overrated, written by one of the best and brightest young female writers, written by an overprivileged egomaniac. The show won an Emmy this year for outstanding casting for a comedy series (and was nominated for several more) and just this month Lena Dunham, the 26-year-old creator and star of the show, signed a book deal worth more than $3.5 million.

After sitting through the first episode, however, you might find yourself wondering just what the fuss was all about.

You of course already know that Hannah’s untidy hair, ill-fitting clothes and non-movie star body type are central to the characterOf course, the same could be said for most televisual pilots - it’s easy to forget that here in the UK, where what gets put together to sell the show isn’t usually disseminated to a wider audience. A pilot must introduce characters and condense themes while leaving plenty of space to develop the detail. It’s a tough balancing act and one which - in trying to establish itself as Sex and the City’s younger, hipper, poorer sister - Girls stumbles over a little more than most.

Hannah (Lena Dunham) in GirlsThe SATC references are intentional, both in the New York setting - albeit substituting Greenpoint, Brooklyn for its predecessor’s predominantly glossy Manhattan locales - and in characterisation. We are quickly introduced to our core four of female leads, drawn as seemingly intentionally unlikeable caricatures. There’s the beautiful but uptight Marnie (Allison Williams); naive, girlish Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet); Jessa, the sexually adventurous "free spirit" (Jemima Kirke) and of course Dunham’s own Hannah (pictured right) - a young Carrie Bradshaw for the 21st century comprised, as they so often are, of equal parts ego, foolishness and spite. Rather than shying away from the obvious comparison Dunham, as writer and director of this first episode, instead chooses to meet it head on: in one scene the over-enthusiastic Shoshanna compares herself and her newly arrived English cousin Jessa to the Sex and the City cast as a poster for the show hangs in the background.

Loosely based, or so the story goes, on the lives and experiences of Dunham and her friends, the basic setup is gotten out of the way quickly. Over dinner in a restaurant as Dunham’s character, the unlovely Hannah, ungraciously shovels away pasta (you of course already know that Hannah’s untidy hair, ill-fitting clothes and non-movie star body type are central to the character) her visiting parents inform her they will no longer fund her “groovy lifestyle”. Hannah, it seems, graduated two years previously and has been working at an unpaid internship with a publishing house while she works on her “memoir”. It is a sign of the implausible world that the titular “girls” inhabit that rather than hold up her hands and say fair enough, Hannah protests that she could have been a drug addict or “have had two abortions” rather than be the dutiful long-distance daughter she so clearly thinks she is.

The full implausibility of the girls’ world - in which, despite nominally being part of the one of the most racially diverse neighbourhoods in the world, every face is Caucasian apart from the homeless and the nannies - will not become fully apparent until later, because much of this first episode is set in rooms: that of Hannah’s sleazy, possibly emotionally abusive boyfriend for example, or the apartment that she shares with Marnie. A pivotal - and particularly painful to watch - scene takes place in a hotel bedroom where Hannah, high on opium tea, persuades her parents to read her book while writhing on the floor pretending that she has taken an overdose. It’s where she utters the line that spawned a thousand pull-quotes, that one about her possibly being the voice of her generation - or at least a voice of a generation. That her parents leave her lying in bed the next morning to begin her new self-sufficient life, having checked out of the hotel to prevent one sneaky last room-service breakfast, is unsurprising.

Part of me wonders whether, by giving her show as universal a calling-card as Girls, Dunham has played into the hands of her critics; another part of me wonders if a title along the lines of Girls Like Me would have generated quite so much interest and controversy. The title sets up a premise which, even in the hands of a more experienced writer, would be doomed to failure and opinions will surely differ on the extent to which Dunham ultimately manages to capture the blemishes-and-all experience of 20-something young womanhood. The payoff from what has been set up here could drive the growth of the girl into well-rounded womanhood - but going by the first episode alone Hannah’s self-centred, wounded reactions indicate that the story could go either way.

While the charmlessness of the characters at this stage grate, Girls is not without heart and several plot points emerge that demand fuller attention. Tune in next week? Almost certainly.

Follow Lis Ferla on Twitter

  • Girls continues on Sky Atlantic on Mondays

Watch a preview of the first season of Girls below


Dunham’s own Hannah is a young Carrie Bradshaw for the 21st century comprised, as they so often are, of equal parts ego, foolishness and spite

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