For too long Sex and the City has been the icon of female sexual culture in the western world. The focus on air-headed consumerism and infantile femininity served only to trivialise any debate about successful working women trying to balance an active and liberated social life with the pressures of earning money. It was a remedy for bland storytelling, a master stroke in demographic and ethnographic programming aimed squarely at a specific area of the audience market.
In a lot of ways, Girls is what Sex and the City never was; quirky, well-written, thoughtful and genuinely funny (if not a little tame at times). There’s a great moment of genre parody in Episode 1 as two of the girls discuss which Sex and the City star they are more like. But it wouldn’t be surprising if Girls left a sour taste in the mouths of many young writers and filmmakers today, as they must look on at creator Lena Dunham, a successful twentysomething who won a Best Narrative Feature award only two years after graduating from private liberal arts college. Two years later, Girls was green lit by HBO, and after airing, Dunham received four Emmy nominations for the series.
Girls has assumed an interesting persona however; it centres around four young professional women (graduate types Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna) and is based on some of the real-life experiences of Dunham (who also plays lead character Hannah). They all represent corners of the stereotypical female market; Hannah the career woman, Marnie the uptight worrier, Jessa the free spirit and Shoshanna the dumb but loveable cutie. This realism is what apparently drew producer Judd Apatow to the story, but while it deals with familiar life situations, the programme is far from realistic. The characters’ sexual behaviour is extremely bizarre across the ten episodes; Hannah dates Adam, who is more of a ‘fuckbuddy’ than an actual boyfriend, while Marnie goes through freefalling emotions of love, hatred and repulsion with her boyfriend Charlie. Although some of the scenes between these two couples are almost surreal, they do produce some hilarious moments of sexual awkwardness and embarrassment (Hannah asks Adam where to touch herself during sex).
What Girls really has going for it is the script. Dunham has written an original and witty account of growing up as a liberal artist in the States. And her character undergoes much transformation; in Episode 1 she’s cut loose from her parents after interning for two years, and from there leaves for paid work, meets ex-boyfriends, gets tested for sexual infections and falls in and out of love with her best friends. This might sound all Sex and the City but the clumsiness of Hannah against her roommates is what gives the show its edge. At times it can be heartbreaking to see her dreams collapse around her, a focus of the show which Marnie identifies as Hannah’s own selfishness. True enough, this is quite a selfish programme. It is about Dunham, written by Dunham, directed by Dunham, co-produced by Dunham and starring Dunham. While it’s annoying when writers fail to separate themselves from their own work, it is performed with perfection and is crisp, refreshing and quite novel.
The reason I said it was a little tame it because at the moment, it can’t really compete with its HBO competitors. It doesn’t have the depth of cast, political relevancy or scale of satire that Veep demonstrates, nor does it have embedded themes as deep as family dynamics and suburban melancholy found in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Having said that, the network is largely known for heavyweight drama and Girls has occupied a niche in the market, calling for television about young working women today. It is a programme which will ripen with age, along with the characters themselves, hopefully branching out to examine more social anxieties which are prompted by modern city life and will avoid getting bogged down purely in relationships. If Season 1 is anything to go by, we eagerly await Season 2, which airs on HBO starting January 13th, and Sky Atlantic the next day.