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Lena Dunham's 'Girls' Navigate New York City Life

Girls has been compared to Sex and the City. The characters, played by Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham and Zosia Mamet, navigate the ups and downs of life in New York City. (HBO)

This Sunday, HBO premieres a new comedy series that's written and directed by Lena Dunham, who grabbed the media spotlight in 2010 with her film Tiny Furniture. She's 25 years old now, and stars in this new TV series as well.

She plays Hannah, who's spent the past two years trying to pursue her dreams, and her idea of romance, in the big city. Some people already are calling it Sex and the City for a new generation — but some comparisons go even further back.

In the very first scene of Girls, we meet Hannah as she's out to dinner with her parents. They've come to New York to drop a bombshell on their daughter — a bomb that the father drops reluctantly, the mother almost aggressively. And it's during this opening scene, when Hannah realizes she's about to be launched into the next phase of her life, that I fell in love. Not with Hannah, but with this new HBO comedy itself.

All three characters — the verbal, defensive daughter; the conflict-avoiding father; and the had-it-up-to-here mother — are written so completely that no one is given the edge in this very public verbal duel. It's a sign of scriptwriting maturity that makes it all the more impressive that Dunham is so young. Hannah's parents, played by Peter Scolari and Becky Ann Baker, are both professors — which explains why all three of them, even when arguing, speak in complete thoughts. Complete — and very funny.

The first episode's opening scenes remind me as much of Sex and the City as they do other, earlier single-working-woman TV comedies. The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the '70s, with Mary Richards landing a job at a Minneapolis TV station; and That Girl in the '60s, where Marlo Thomas played a young woman trying to make it as an actress in New York City.

In Girls, Hannah lives in Brooklyn, not Manhattan. And she not only commutes, she has roommates and friends, who give this series its Carrie-and-company vibe. But these other girls, like Hannah, aren't glamorous professionals — they're quirky, still-forming individuals, still looking for their identities as well as their career paths. But as they speak, we hear — as Hannah describes herself, in one drug-induced moment of self-analysis — the voice of her generation.

But the voice Hannah the character, and Girls the series, comes closest to echoing, and emulating, is that of Louis C.K.'s character on the FX series Louie. He, like Hannah, seems to be fighting an uphill battle against life in New York, and questioning what it all means. And looking for love in a lot of the wrong places, and venting his frustrations in ways that sometimes are brilliantly clever, and other times are hilariously, helplessly nonverbal.

As characters, both Hannah and Louie reveal themselves, lots of times, in less than flattering ways — physically as well as emotionally. And as behind the scenes creative types, both Louis C.K. and Lena Dunham are risk-taking, responsibility-taking auteurs. They write. They direct. They act. And they do all three in ways that aren't showy, but that burrow to the heart of what seems real.

The oldest piece of advice given to young writers is a four-word commandment: "Write what you know." Some people hear that advice and run from it. Others take it and run with it — which is what Dunham has done with Girls. As a result, the conversations sound like you've been eavesdropping. The sex scenes feel like you're watching voyeuristically — and they're unsettling for even more reasons than that. And what happens to Hannah, at least in the first few episodes, makes you fear that the poor girl just isn't going to make it.

But don't believe it. Hannah, as written and played and directed by Lena Dunham, has a secret weapon: She's got spunk. And she's gonna make it after all.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This Sunday, HBO premieres a new comedy series that's written and directed by Lena Dunham, who first grabbed the media spotlight by writing and starring in her movie "Tiny Furniture" in 2010. She's 25 years old now, and stars in this new TV series as well.

She plays Hannah, who's spent the last two years trying to pursue her dreams and her idea of romance in the big city. Some people are already calling it "Sex and the City" for a new generation. But our TV critic, David Bianculli, thinks of some comparisons that go even farther back, and one that's very, very modern.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: In the very first scene of "Girls," we meet Hannah as she's out to dinner with her parents. They've come to New York to drop a bombshell on their daughter - a bomb that the father drops reluctantly, the mother, almost aggressively. And it's during this opening scene, when Hannah realizes she's about to be launched into the next phase of her life, that I fell in love. Not just with Hannah, but with this new HBO comedy itself.

All three characters - the verbal and defensive daughter, the conflict-avoiding father and the had-it-up-to-here mother - are written so completely that no one is given the edge in this very public verbal duel. It's a sign of scriptwriting maturity that makes it all the more impressive that Lena Dunham, the woman who wrote it and who plays Hannah, is so young.

Hannah's parents, played by Peter Scolari and Becky Ann Baker, are both professors, which explains why all three of them, even when arguing, speak in complete thoughts - complete and very funny. I'm going to let this clip run for a while because the dialogue is so good and provides such a strong and such an accurate first impression of "Girls."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GIRLS")

PETER SCOLARI: (As Ted) Hannah, your mother and I have been, uh, talking and we feel that it may be time - how can I phrase this? Well, we see how well you're doing at work and you really seem to be figuring out what it is that you want. But it may be time for one final push.

LENA DUNHAM: (As Hannah) What is a final push?

BECKY ANN BAKER: (As Hannah's mother) We're not going to be supporting you any longer.

SCOLARI: (As Ted) See, I wasn't going to phrase it like that, Lorene, the way you phrased it.

DUNHAM: (As Hannah) But I have no job.

(As Lorene) No. You have an internship that you say is going to turn into a job.

(As Hannah) I don't know when.

BAKER: (As Lorene) You graduated from college two years ago. We've been supporting you for two years and that's enough.

DUNHAM: (As Hannah) Do you know how crazy the economy is right now? I mean, all my friends get help from their parents.

SCOLARI: (As Ted) We are sympathetic to that.

DUNHAM: (As Hannah) But I'm your only child. It's not like I'm draining all your resources. I mean, this feels very arbitrary.

BAKER: (As Lorene) You don't know anything about our finances. I mean, we're professors, Hannah. Professors. You know, we can't keep bankrolling your groovy lifestyle.

DUNHAM: (As Hannah) My groovy lifestyle?

BAKER: (As Lorene) The bills add up. We're covering your rent, your insurance, your cell phone.

DUNHAM: (As Hannah) You said it was cheaper for you if I was on the family plan.

SCOLARI: (As Ted) Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As waiter) May I get you more of anything?

DUNHAM: (As Hannah) Uh...

BAKER: (As Lorene) No. She's fine.

SCOLARI: (As Ted) Delicious.

BAKER: (As Lorene) Yeah.

DUNHAM: (As Hannah) This is nuts.

BAKER: (As Lorene) Ted, can you help me here?

DUNHAM: (As Hannah) I could be a drug addict. Do you realize how lucky you are? I mean, it doesn't have to be heroin. It could be something more insidious. Like pills which are legal and which a lot of kids do all the time. And then, slowly, they become totally useless. They seem really high functioning and it just ruins them. OK. My friend Sophie, her parents don't support her.

(As Hannah) Last summer she had two abortions. Right in a row. And no one came with her.

BAKER: (As Lorene) What does that have to do with anything?

DUNHAM: (As Hannah) I'm just saying that I am so close to the life that I want, to the life that you want for me, that for you to just end that right now...

BAKER: (As Lorene) No more money.

DUNHAM: (As Hannah) Starting when?

BAKER: (As Lorene) Starting now.

BIANCULLI: This jumping off point doesn't remind me so much of "Sex and the City" as they do other, earlier single-working-woman TV comedies. "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" in the '70s, with Mary Richards landing a job at a Minneapolis TV station; and even before that, "That Girl" in the '60s, where Marlo Thomas played a young woman trying to make it as an actress in New York City.

In "Girls," Hannah lives in Brooklyn, not Manhattan. And she not only commutes, she has roommates and friends who give this series its Carrie-and-company vibe. But these other girls, like Hannah, aren't glamorous professionals - they're quirky, still-forming individuals, looking for their identities as well as their career paths. But as they speak, we hear - as Hannah describes herself, in one uncomfortably drug-induced moment, the voice of her generation.

But the voice Hannah the character, and "Girls" the series, comes closest to echoing, and emulating, is that of Louis C.K.'s character on the FX series "Louie". He, like Hannah, seems to be fighting an uphill battle against life in New York and questioning what it all means. And looking for love in a lot of the wrong places, and venting frustrations in ways that sometimes are brilliantly clever, and other times are hilariously nonverbal.

As characters, both Hannah and Louie reveal themselves, lots of times, in less than flattering ways - physically as well as emotionally. And as behind the scenes creative types, both Louis C.K. and Lena Dunham are risk-taking, responsibility-taking auteurs. They write. They direct. They act. And they do all three in ways that aren't showy, but that burrow to the heart of what seems real.

The oldest piece of advice given to young writers is a four-word commandment: "Write what you know." Some people hear that advice and run from it. Others take it and run with it - which is what Dunham has done with "Girls." As a result, the conversations sound like you've been eavesdropping.

The sex scenes feel like you're watching voyeuristically - and they're unsettling for even more reasons than that. And what happens to Hannah, at least in the first few episodes, makes you fear that the poor girl just isn't going to make it.

But don't believe it. Hannah, as written and played and directed by Lena Dunham, has a secret weapon: She's got spunk. And she's gonna make it, after all.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the TV website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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