“I don’t want to freak you out, but I think I might be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice of a generation.”
– Hannah Horvath
Of all the shows that premiered in 2012, Lena Dunham’s Girls—a series about four 20-something friends trying to make their ways in New York City—debuted with the most baggage. Detractors had all sorts of complaints: The cast is too white. (Fair or not, it’s a criticism that didn’t hit the show’s similarly composed and obvious predecessor, Sex and the City, quite so doggedly.) The actors are too privileged. (Sure, but one could argue that Laurie Simmons is more famous for being Dunham’s mother and not the other way around, since Simmons isn’t exactly a household name.) Dunham herself doesn’t have quite the right body for the amount of nudity typically found on HBO shows. (Or is that to Girls’ credit?)
The thing is, these debates could—and did—rage on without having to watch a single episode. You can get all of the fuel for these attacks from the posters used in the show’s ad campaign.
If you could quiet the arguments around Girls for long enough to actually watch it, you could see the show’s content is not nearly as polarizing as the cultural discussion surrounding it. The series touches on themes of young adulthood that, if not universal, are pretty darn relatable: figuring out your place in the world, discovering the boundaries of your friendships, feeling simultaneously mature and childish. Of course, this all unfolds in a very specific, liberal-arts-educated, Brooklyn sort of way, which is why audiences may have felt excluded.
Still, Girls provides an honest snapshot of this ambiguous time of life, and it should be able to reach beyond its core demographic. Nothing illustrates this better than the show’s two central relationships, between wannabe writer Hannah Horvath (Dunham) and her type-A best friend Marnie (Allison Williams—yes, the daughter of Brian Williams), and between Hannah and her sort-of-boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver). Most girls have had a friendship like Hannah and Marnie’s, a bond so close it can’t help but alternate between giddy alone-in-the-apartment dance parties one moment and screaming, kick-you-out-of-the-apartment fights the next. And most girls have advised a friend to get rid of a boyfriend like Adam, the kind of person who could disappear for weeks at a time but return and focus on you so intently that you feel like you’re the only person in the world that matters to him.
It’s entertaining enough that Girls captures these kinds of post-adolescent relationships so perfectly and presents them in a way that makes you alternately squirm and feel moved. But Girls is also really, really funny. When the naïve Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet—yes daughter of David Mamet) accidentally takes drugs at a party (the “crackcident”), you might feel for her and relive some of your own wilder days, but when those drugs kick off a mile-a-minute monologue about how they inspired her to do better in her kickboxing class, you can’t help but laugh. And, when she busts out those kickboxing moves later in the episode, you might just die laughing. (Anyone who asserts that Mamet only got the part based on her familial connections probably hasn’t seen the seventh episode—she’s damn near perfect in it.)
The way Girls expertly mixes humor and nostalgia and squeamish embarrassment has a lot in common with the previous work of another of the show’s executive producers: Judd Apatow. Just like you didn’t need to grow up in Chippewa, Michigan in the early ‘80s to understand the genius of Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks, you don’t have to go to a party in Bushwick to feel for the characters in Girls. The theme of putting yourself out there for either greater success or total rejection runs through both shows.
Apatow shows up here and there on the extras included with the Girls Blu-Ray, in a conversation with Lena Dunham and also an extended commentary on one of the episodes. But he doesn’t need to stump for the show—Dunham is a pretty good advocate for herself. You can hear her fast just-shy-of-a-ramble opinion in the wealth of special features, which includes a roundtable discussion with the cast, Dunham’s interview on Fresh Air, and quick “inside the episode” segments where Dunham gives a brief explanation behind the inspiration for each one. (There’s even a booklet of her tweets. Example: “Right after HBO announcement I got stuck in the bar bathroom & had to phone for help.”)
Unfortunately, by the time some of these extras were made, all of the heated opinions surrounding the show had already hit the internet, and the extra interviews spends time directly and indirectly addressing the flurry of criticism. It’s better to do what some of the early critics of Girls did not: Just watch the show.
Click through to see the review on PopMatters.