As far as showbiz mentors go, independent-filmmaker-turned-HBO-darling Lena Dunham could do a lot worse than Judd Apatow.
Apatow, the writer-director-producer variously responsible in one capacity or another for The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Pineapple Express, is prolific, but with so many box-office smashes under his belt, he’s also one of the surest bets in comedy today.
Dunham, on the other hand, is a relative newcomer to the industry. Believe it or not, it wasn’t her role as “Nurse 1” in the critically lauded HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce that proved to be her breakout opportunity, but rather her much buzzed-about film Tiny Furniture. After premiering at South by Southwest in 2010, where Tiny Furniture won best narrative feature, the movie earned Dunham the best first screenplay award at that year’s Independent Spirit Awards.
Ever since Tiny Furniture, most insiders have known Dunham is one to watch. Her latest feat — starring in a show that she created, now airing on HBO — is nothing short of a Cinderella story for the 25-year-old.
Girls, which premiered Sunday night at 10:30, chronicles the exploits of four 20-somethings — three of them recent college graduates, one still attending — struggling to find place and purpose in New York City. The pilot episode finds Hannah Horvath (Dunham) reeling from her parents’ declaration that she will receive “one final push” before being cut off. Dispensing with euphemisms, Hannah’s mother delicately explains the situation over dinner another way: “No. More. Money.”
If that premise sounds less than compelling, those involved with the show would probably like for you to know that the show’s charm lies not in its less-than-groundbreaking concept, but in its execution of familiar ideas.
After all, if audiences want to laugh at the vengeance with which New York chews up and spits out unfit newcomers, they wouldn’t have to look any further than ABC’s recent debut Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23. If they want to see glamorous women who, for the most part, already have it together, there are six seasons worth of Sex and the City DVDs to catch up on.
So what exactly does Girls bring to the table? Nothing that audiences can remember ordering, that’s for sure, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Girls is doomed be sent back to the kitchen.
What Girls offers up is a keen sense of self-awareness that can be most accurately described as painful. The central hardship of Girls — the injustice of Hannah’s parents’ decision to no longer subsidize her lifestyle — is preposterously privileged, but that tiny detail isn’t lost on Dunham. Instead, she seems to relish in the absurdity of her character’s situation, satirizing her and her friends’ perceived problems with an admirable sense of self-mockery.
Far from compromising the characters’ relatability, or making the conflicts that propel Girls feel low-stakes or artificial, Dunham shines a light on these young women’s broadly unsympathetic issues in a way that makes the show all the more authentic. They might be stupid problems but they are Hannah’s problems, nonetheless, and she seems to have zero interest in putting them in perspective. After all, who wants to be told that their problems are small potatoes?
Hannah’s generation turned an image of a crying young woman into the “First-World Problems” meme‘ (example: “Need to refill the Brita, but the dirty dishes are piled too high”). Clearly, there’s an interest in seeing problems with less than life-or-death consequence depicted in various outlets. Dunham’s insight puts her very closely in touch with the fickle interests of her peers; as her character says, “I think I may be the voice of my generation,” or as she qualifies a second later, “at least a voice … of a generation.”
More so than anything else, what’s being showcased in Girls is Dunham’s ability to give voice to the class of society to which she belongs, a class that is anything but disenfranchised, but would never turn down media representation of themselves or their problems.
Like much of the great comedy out there, Girls’ humor is almost exclusively born of truth: The hardest laughs come from the most accurate observations of life. It was the same sort of insight that first put Judd Apatow on the map with Freaks and Geeks, a now-classic NBC casualty of 1999 that was canceled after just one masterful season.
Freaks and Geeks was the rare comedy that was both meaningful and genuinely funny; the show’s achingly on-point depiction of the nuanced high school hierarchy didn’t rely on tired clichés or reductive stereotypes (title notwithstanding). The meticulous insight that appears to have bred Dunham’s Girls is exactly what afforded Freaks and Geeks its — unfortunately posthumous — status as a cult-classic.
Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Muppets, How I Met Your Mother) is another former up-and-comer who has benefited enormously from Apatow’s tutelage. The super-producer took Segel under his wing as a mentor, and judging from the upcoming release of The Five-Year Engagement, which Segel both stars in and wrote, it seems as if Segel has been well-schooled in the art of making a blockbuster. Dunham, on the other hand, seems like the kind of talent that a Freaks and Geeks-era Apatow from the early 2000s would have been more inclined to nurture.
Apatow and Dunham’s shared passion for keen observation is patently evident in both their brands of comedy. Girls could represent the start of a beautiful friendship for the show’s upstart star and its veteran executive producer, but more importantly for audiences, the show could usher in a new wave of brash and unapologetically honest comedy.
Louis Lucero II is a senior majoring in environmental studies. His column “Small Screen, Big Picture” runs Tuesdays.