It was inevitable that Girls would be compared to Sex and the City, a show that, on paper at least, Girls looks meant to replace. But a less obvious point of comparison is Absolutely Fabulous, the great British comedy that both preceded Sex and the City and exposed the HBO show’s fundamental problem. Absolutely Fabulous was about types similar to, if less reputable, than Carrie Bradshaw and company—women who continue to affect the glamour and partying habits of their youth. Except the show’s creator, Jennifer Saunders, never had any delusions that her characters led lives worth aspiring to. The women of Absolutely Fabulous, who’ve recently reprised their roles for a series of specials that make it seem as though the world has hardly changed in the last 20 years, are bawdy and outrageous, but almost never redeemable. The collateral pain they inflict on the world around them, and the selfishness with which they do so, is both part of the comedy and the crux of the show’s social critique: These are women who’ve been conditioned to seek only their own material fulfillment, who are the constant victims of their own desire.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to love about Edina and Patsy, played respectively by Saunders and former model Joanna Lumley. They’re offensive without apology, and Saunders makes their flaws strengths where other shows would’ve tried to “humanize” them, which means that you don’t have to pretend to sympathize with a character—like Carrie Bradshaw, who dispenses greeting-card wisdom while traipsing around Soho in Jimmy Choos. In one of my favorite Ab Fab moments, Edina and Patsy assemble friends for a “girls’ night out,” during which they complain about their dating woes, and someone chimes in, “This is so Sex and the City, isn’t it?” To which Pasty responds, “I hate that show.” It was a line that seemed to trumpet Ab Fab’s honesty-above-all-else ethos, all while explicitly mocking the competition.
Lena Dunham—the star, creator, writer, and director of Girls—is much like the Jennifer Saunders of a younger, poorer social milieu, transplanted from posh London to Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Though her characters are far more sympathetic, she takes pains to debase them, and makes them both funnier and more recognizably human in the process. After she’s been laid off from her unpaid publishing internship, Hannah (Dunham) finds refuge with her fuck-buddy/emotional outlet Adam (Adam Driver), a self-satisfied part-time carpenter, would-be actor, layabout, and all-around asshole. He walks around his apartment shirtless, subtly but noticeably poking holes in Hannah’s self-esteem by asking her questions about her weight and tattoos: “You’re not that fat anymore. You can just have them lasered off.” In a more outrageous bit of role-playing, he tells her, “I’m gonna send you home to your parents covered in cum.”
It’s not entirely clear what Hannah seeks from this loser aside from purely sexual gratification, but I suspect her motivations may be less self-empowering than self-hating, which makes the show’s aims both more interesting and more complicated than Sex and the City’s guiltless celebration of what Erica Jong once termed the “zipless fuck.” After watching the first few episodes, a friend concluded, “All the sex in this show is super sad.” In a way, Adam’s treatment of Hannah confirms her own cynical view of herself: incapable of the success she wants for herself (she’s forced to leave her unpaid publishing internship after being financially cut off by her parents) and a sloppy physical second to her model of a roommate, Marnie (Allison Williams), whom she refers to as the “Victoria’s Secret Angel” to her “fat baby angel.”
It would be impossible to talk about those sex scenes without talking about Dunham’s body, its naked, ample heft acting as both explicit subject and visual backdrop, even during moments you least expect it. It’s important to talk about Dunham’s body because it’s important to her comedy, which relies, as it has for any number of comedians from Chris Farley to Louis C.K., on an awkward physical presence. And in that way, Dunham’s use of her body is far less “revolutionary” than some have made it out to be, though it’s worth pointing out that the body in question here belongs to a gender far less inclined to use it in such a manner. In her film Tiny Furniture, I found Dunham’s unabashed use of her body fascinating: She seemed both uncomfortable in her own skin and yet absolutely confident of its powers, even willing to make it a central plot point, confronting the audience and herself with its possible meaning. She’s since lost weight and some of her uncertainty, though her outfits belie what seems to be an intentional choice to not flatter herself.
The other characters in Girls aren’t exactly flattering either. Marnie, the more with-it roommate, who would be the object of envy on just about any other show, frets constantly about her position as the ostensible anchor of her flighty social center, which also includes a virgin who busies herself with girlish rituals and an international bohemian hiding a fragile sense of identity. She’s equally fed up with her sweet-natured boyfriend, who no longer does it for her, and acts out by helplessly flirting with an artist whose work she admires, before coyly denying his advances. His response—“The first time I fuck you, I might scare you a little, because I’m a man, and I know how to do things,” he whispers—is as shocking as the follow-up seems perfectly natural: Marnie immediately finds a private place in which to finger herself to gratification.
In one of her more enlightening interviews around the time of Tiny Furniture, Dunham said that she was interested in the kind of heroine who doesn’t yet know “what [she’s] worth.” The girls of Girls are going through a similar process of self-quantifying. These are independent women in search of dependency, something (boys, usually) to distract from their messy lives even when they know it’s not always good for them. Dunham’s honesty about their flaws is less radical than refreshing. As Hannah, Dunham can be frustratingly locked inside her own neuroses, even to the point of insult, as when she jokes that living with AIDS might be okay, but it’s hard to doubt her sincerity, a point that was lost in much of Tiny Furniture’s the-next-Woody-Allen hype.
Girls’s in-your-face provocations are made more poignant by what it deals with surprisingly well: a precarious economic situation. The specter of career failure arguably drives the characters’ behavior at least as much as their social and sexual anxieties. It’s easy to brush off Hannah’s privilege when she calls herself “the voice of my generation,” but her panic is real, a situation Dunham cleverly complicates. The morning after she’s been cut off by her parents, she wakes up in their hotel room to $20 left for her and, beside it, $20 left for the maid. After a moment’s hesitation, she takes both bills, we guess, out of a mix of desperation and self-centeredness.
At this point, I should say I still have some reservations about Dunham’s honesty, or what it means for her “poorer” fictional setting. I couldn’t help but be bugged upon realizing all four leads, not just Dunham (whose parents are artists), are played by women whose fathers (David Mamet, Brian Williams, and the drummer of Bad Company) are famous to some swath of American life, in most cases the more intellectual kind. It’s either the show’s ballsiest move or its biggest letdown, though it’s not really important, since all the actresses are charming in their own way. It’s harder not to notice that Girls is meant to flatter the same audience that helps sustain the media hype on which HBO’s business model relies. (Is it a coincidence that this Brooklyn-based show comes off the heels of another, Bored to Death, that was just canceled?)
Then again, Dunham seems to have preempted every criticism of her you could imagine. Certainly, writing for characters outside of her own head has done wonders for her comedy, and Judd Apatow’s presence as executive producer may have helped push the limits of her gags, which are as ridiculous as they are finely observed. At its worst, Tiny Furniture felt insular and self-involved. Dunham has expressed a desire to reach a wider audience, trying to separate herself from what she called the “rarefied” work of Whit Stillman. I’m not sure she’s savvy enough to write dialogue like Stillman’s (nor should she be at her age), but she’s right that Girls has more universal potential. These are girls who debate the finer points of Sex and the City and the value of texting versus face-to-face contact, even if they know how trivial those topics can be. Sometimes they also begrudgingly attend their friend’s abortion. At the very least, they have more in common with most women than the ones made famous on Sex and the City. Dunham’s challenge will lie in making us believe them, even if we don’t always like them.