After making the feature film Tiny Furniture in 2010, the multitalented Lena Dunham was contacted by director Judd Apatow. At first, she thought it was a prank, but he told her that he’d love to work with her on a project. That’s how Girls started out, an HBO series that aimed to portray women who were not Upper East Side teens (as in Gossip Girl) or women who had successful jobs and were trying to either have a family or just figure out the dating scene (as in Sex and the City) – in Dunham’s words ”there was a ’hole-in-between space’. Sounds reasonable enough, but Girls became unusually (and often inexplicably) controversial.
When we first meet Hannah Horvath (Dunham), she’s in her early twenties, living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. She’s graduated from college and is now a struggling writer, even more so when her parents tell Hannah that they will no longer support her financially. Her best friend and roommate is Marnie Michaels (Allison Williams), an art gallery assistant who dreams of a music career. There’s also Jessa Johansson (Jemima Kirke), a free-spirited bohemian who can always be counted on to make poor life decisions, and her cousin Shoshanna Shapiro (Zosia Mamet) who’s still a virgin.
Hannah has a casual relationship with Adam Sackler (Adam Driver), a carpenter and struggling actor. Over the years, the girls do some serious growing-up, but the process is never easy, always filled with confrontations.
Real people, with warts and all
There was a lot to love about Girls. Above all, it remained funny throughout its six seasons. It also stayed true to its initial ambition to show these young women as real people, with warts and all. Dunham decided early on that she would not shy away from showing herself naked, and boy did we see her in the nude a lot. Since she doesn’t live up to the traditional idea of female beauty, you might say it was a bold decision, but showing sex and nudity in a realistic light was a clear priority. Dunham’s writing gave Girls many profound and touching moments – these were not always people that were easy to love or even like at times, but we remained intrigued, sort of watching them from a distance. Even if we shared the same universe and perhaps age as these people, they were often borderline caricatures.
When the first season premiered, Gawker writer John Cook did not like what he saw, attacking the show for its empty, narcissistic characters. There’s truth to that (even if they did evolve over the years), but Dunham and her writers were also certainly aware of it and made fun of Hannah’s obsession with herself. Part of the show’s sense of humor was the hipster style of the Brooklyn setting, which seemed like the perfect place for Hannah in her search for that ultimate lifestyle, creative and free of conventions. The cast was top-notch, especially Dunham in the lead. A few male characters eventually became more influential as well; apart from Driver’s star-making, quirky performance, Andrew Rannells was a hoot as Hannah’s former boyfriend, now very gay and sardonic.
Most attacks against this show and Dunham are easily written off as irrelevant misogynism. The only surprise is how strong the hatred seemed at times. But Girls only deserved criticism when it turned conventional, as in the final episode, a weak comment on parenting that had little to do with what made Girls stand out for years.
Girls 2012-2017:U.S. Made for TV. 62 episodes. Color. Created by Lena Dunham. Cast: Lena Dunham (Hannah Horvath), Allison Williams (Marnie Michaels), Jemima Kirke (Jessa Johansson), Zosia Mamet (Shoshanna Shapiro), Adam Driver, Alex Karpovsky, Andrew Rannells, Ebon Moss-Bachrach (14-17).
Emmy: Outstanding Guest Actor (Peter Scolari) 15-16. Golden Globes: Best Comedy Series 13; Actress (Dunham) 13.
Quote: “I just don’t understand why you would want to leave New York, okay? That’s like something your family makes you do when you’re too deep into crack to stop them.” (Rannells)
Last word: “I had a meeting with HBO – had I even spent like one more week in Hollywood I would have been too scared to do this. We were talking about TV, and I said, ‘Here’s the kind of show I would want to see. Here’s what my friends are like. They don’t totally have jobs but they’re really smart. They take Ritalin for fun, but they’re not that fucked up. They’re having these kind of degrading sexual relationships yet they’re feminists.’ I was sort of just describing women I know and how I would love to see them on TV. And amazingly enough HBO seemed interested, and I went home and actually wrote almost like a little essay about these girls. It wasn’t specific. It didn’t say ‘Hannah’ or ‘Marnie’. It didn’t talk about any plot points. It just talked about a sense, a feeling about this world and they seemed to connect to it.” (Dunham, TIME)