Lena Dunham has been a divisive figure in the indie film community. She grew up in a loft in Manhattan with both of her artist parents and at age 24 became a breakout star at SXSW with her microbudget film “Tiny Furniture.” A semi-autobiographical tale about a college grad who returns home to figure out what to do with her life, she cast family and friends in lead roles and though it wasn’t breaking any new ground, it definitely showed promise. The reaction to the film has been fiercely divided with those in the love it or hate it camps staking out an identity on either side. (All pretty silly for a harmless film like this one.) And the bulk of this backlash has been seemingly more fixated on Dunham - her body, her upbringing, her quick ascent to fame - than her work itself. But the film impressed the right people people which included producer Judd Apatow and HBO who have helped her bring her latest creation, “Girls” to the small screen. HBO brought the first three episodes of the series (debuting April 15th) to screen for SXSW and it looks like the haters should prepare to eat crow because the show is fantastic.
The series stars Dunham as Hannah, a college grad living in New York who has been working for the last two years at an unpaid internship in the hopes that she can finish her book of essays and become a working writer. Early in the show her parents tell her that they will no longer be supporting her financially and so Hannah is thrust into finding her own way in the world. The show revolves around the relationships between 4 college friends - Hannah, her best friend Marnie (Allison Williams), hipster princess Jessa (Jemimi Kirke), virgin Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) - and their trials and tribulations working, dating and living in NYC. This may bring to mind certain other HBO series, “Sex and the City,” “How To Make It In America,” etc. but it’s amazing how much better of a show this is. (Yes ladies, much better than SATC.) Naturalistic and effortlessly funny, “Girls” is more like a cousin of “Freaks & Geeks,” a previous Apatow production that just happens to be one of the best shows of all time. Like that show, which cast virtual unknowns whose careers exploded a few years later, “Girls” cast features all new faces, many of whom are returning castmates from “Tiny Furniture.” I hadn’t seen that film until recently and while I didn’t love it, I thought that it was surprisingly watchable and for what basically amounts to a student film, that’s practically a miracle.
“Girls” is a huge leap forward for Dunham as both a filmmaker and a performer. But she hasn’t changed directions or gotten a glossy Hollywood makeover, instead just refined her crafts and pushed them further with the help of producers Judd Apatow and Jenni Conner (“Undeclared”). The show tackles some of the same issues as her film - relationships, awkward sex, figuring out what to do with your life - but things are funnier, sharper and (with the half hour format) move much more quickly. One could try to chalk this up to bringing in some TV vets to help shape the show except that Dunham sets the tone by writing and directing the first three episodes herself. (That pop you hear is the sound of her detractors heads exploding.) If the rest of season 1 can keep up the quality of the first 3, this will easily be one of my favorite shows on TV. I’m as curious to see where it goes from here as I am to find out if the show stays under the radar inspiring only a devoted cult following (like “Flight of the Conchords” or “Eastbound & Down”). Or can it break the Apatow curse of brilliant but prematurely cancelled series and become a genuine phenomenon like it deserves. We’ll know in a few weeks.