When trying to think of some writer/director/stars working at the moment, the most recent who comes to mind is Linda Larson, writer/director/star of Whatever Happened to Alice, a truly jaw-dropping sci-fi horror mess in which a middle aged woman (Larson) spends 2 hours running around an old shed, clutching a doll and screaming “Daddy no” at a man at least 10 years younger than her. Larson is described on the DVD case as a ‘deranged idiot woman-child’ – as amusing as it is completely apt.
Lena Dunham’s feature length debut as writer/director/star is a slight yet affecting film called Tiny Furniture. It follows Aura (Dunham) as she finishes college and moves back in with her mother and sister (played by Dunham’s actual mother and sister). The film follows Aura as she struggles with the mundane, frustrating world of ‘making ends meet’. Tiny Furniture is a beautifully observed and skilfully written and directed debut from the then 23 year old Dunham; deranged idiot woman-child she is not.
Dunham develops and expands on the themes explored in Tiny Furniture in her 10 part series for HBO, Girls TV Series, which has already aired in the US but can be seen on Sky Atlantic in October.
Girls follows aspiring writer Hannah (Dunham) and her close friends living in New York, and has been annoyingly described as a ‘dramedy’. Sound familiar? Whilst a comparison to Sex and the City may seem obvious, it’s the show’s closest equivalent, at least in terms of the set up. The comparison is even made in a very funny scene in the first episode, when Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) explains to her cousin Jessa (Jemima Kirke, reprising a similar role she played in Tiny Furniture) that she is, “Definitely like a Carrie, but with some Samantha aspects, and Charlotte hair. It’s a really good combination”. But, whilst Sex and the City was all about buying gaudy stuff and finding a man (and these values were sold as a victory for women), Girls taps into the prevalent attitude of Dunham’s generation: we’re screwed.
In the first episode we learn that Hannah’s parents are not going to support her anymore, despite the fact she feels she may be, “The voice of her generation; or a voice, of a generation”. Basically Hannah has to find a job, and the chances of her getting to do what she actually wants to with her life are looking bleak. Girls is not merely Dunham’s Ode to Generation Apathy though, as the series is consistently funny throughout: from an encounter with opium at a dinner party, to Hannah’s touchy-feely Fred Flinstone-esque boss, to Hannah’s Sex and the City loving friend accidentally smoking crack and running amok in the city. It almost feels like you’re watching Ghost World at times, if the bus Enid disappears on was heading for New York, where she found well off but unhelpful parents and an awesome group of friends.
As the series unfolds we get to know Hannah’s parents and friends in a very rounded way, and we soon realise that characters we could have initially pinned as “comic relief”, and in a lesser show would have remained this way, have a lot more to them than meets the eye. This is one of the things that’s so great about the Girls TV Series; it never just takes the easy route. Furthermore, Dunham has a knack for normalising whatever tends to be glamorised or turned into some kind of preposterous pantomime in other TV shows and films: sex is often awkward and unsatisfying, plans are scuppered by a lack of funds, and older characters actually have stuff going on.
Hannah remains at the centre of the show as it progresses and each character gets their time in the spotlight. Whatever is happening with the other characters, it always comes back to Hannah making sense of it all, and this works because Dunham holds it all together so well; from the emotional scenes to the light comedic touches she manages to add with a mere flicker in the eyes. There is only one scene where the show almost veers into mawkishness: when Hannah, at the end of a bad day, takes to Twitter to vent her frustration but winds up dancing around her room to Robyn’s Dancing on my Own. But even this evolves into a touching moment between Hannah and her flatmate, Marnie (Allison Williams).
Of the cast, it feels like Dunham is the one whose character is less of a stretch, but given her position as creator/writer/director/star, this is unsurprising, and part of the show’s brilliance comes from the fact that Dunham’s personality bleeds through every scene; as she lays bare her lack of self-assurance and endearing awkwardness. The rest of the cast are uniformly superb (though Dunham is the only member who has been nominated for an Emmy); it would be unfair to choose a standout.
Girls is one of those rare shows that manages to strike a near-perfect balance between humour, drama, and developing interesting characters. Here’s hoping Dunham doesn’t get complacent for season 2 following the show’s (and her) Emmy nominations; something tells me she won’t.
The Girls TV Series will be one screens from October on Sky Atlantic.skyatlantic.sky.com/shows/girls
words Anthony Brandon